Welcome. Pull up a chair and pour a glass of sweet tea.

At my day job, the reactions I get from readers typically fall into three categories.

1. You wrote something nice about my favorite college team. The next time you’re in [insert college town], I’m going to buy you a beer.

2. You wrote something mean about my team. You should be rolled in honey and staked to an anthill.

3. Aren’t you the Sweet Tea Guy?

If they read long enough, members of the first group eventually become members of the second group. (Yet rarely do members of the second group become members of the first group.) The people in the third group, however, don’t care what I write about their favorite college team. And I love them for that.

They are the dedicated ones who attended the University of Florida sometime between September 1998 and December 1999, regularly picked up a copy of the Independent Florida Alligator on Thursdays and actually read the articles after finishing the crossword puzzle. Needless to say, this is a very select group. Those people know me as the author of one of the worst restaurant review columns in the history of food writing. The title – the same as the title of this blog – was an homage to the excellent Heaven is a Playground, a book written by former SI writer, current Chicago Sun-Times columnist and general all-around badass Rick Telander. (Rick, you probably don’t remember, but I apologized to you for this once in 2009. I’ll probably do it again the next time I see you.) The photo featured me gazing up at the sign outside a Chinese buffet. The sign advertised “All You Can Eat and Take Out.”

I could have been a stickler for grammar and tried to load up the trunk of my Toyota Corolla with every piece of sesame chicken in the place, but I was just happy for a few heaping plates of food and red Jell-o cubes for dessert. My tastes were simple then. Basically, I had only two criteria for my reviews. The portions had to be massive, and the restaurant had to serve sweet tea. Not that instant fountain swill. Not unsweet tea with sugar packets. Real, honest-to-God, brewed sweet tea. If you still can’t quite understand, educate yourself.

Even if the restaurant served huge portions, it automatically received a bad review if it didn’t serve at least satisfactory sweet tea. I grew up in a house in which a cup-and-a-half of sugar per gallon simply wasn’t enough. Two cups did the trick, though. If I had to break out a Sweet and Low packet – because any self-respecting sweet tea drinker knows real sugar doesn’t dissolve in cold tea – then the place got downgraded.

Much to my amazement, this schtick connected with more readers than I’d ever dreamed. I wrote about taking a co-worker from Staten Island to a soul food restaurant and explaining why gravy comes in multiple colors. I challenged my readers to an eating contest, and one brave soul stepped forward and destroyed me, 15 plates of pork to 13, at the Sonny’s Bar-B-Q nearest my apartment.

The column gave me a level of campus fame I never would have achieved in my previous life as a walk-on offensive lineman or in my role as the Alligator’s sports editor. Dudes in bars recognized me. Once, a pretty girl in a bar recognized me. “Are you the Sweet Tea Guy?” she asked. I stood up straight and tall, and just like the guy in the Mike Krzyzewski commercial, proclaimed, “Yes I am.” She smiled. I prepared to ask her if she’d like to tag along for my upcoming review of the local pizza buffets. “My boyfriend,” she squealed, “absolutely loves you.”

Fortunately, another girl in Gainesville wasn’t so immune to my charms. She and I got married, and I grew into a semi-responsible adult-type-person. I got a job writing for SI.com, and I spend most days wrangling kids or writing about college football. But I still love to eat. I love barbecue. I love steak. I love pizza. Food is my second-favorite thing in the world. My favorite thing? Same as everyone else. But I probably love food more than you love that other thing. What can I say? I’m a passionate man.

I’m lucky enough to have a job that allows me to travel the country and spend someone else’s money on food. I’ve dined on whole-hog barbecue in a map-dot town in South Carolina hours before watching the No. 1 team in the nation get dethroned. I’ve eaten a half ground beef, half ground BACON burger hours before watching a team punch its ticket to the Final Four in Anaheim. Thus far, I’ve been content to photograph the food and post the image on Twitter for the salivating masses. Not anymore. For the past 12 years, I’ve wanted to bring back Heaven Is A Buffet. With football season approaching and a heavy travel schedule beckoning, I figured now would be the perfect time.

I love to eat. I love to write. So why not a side project in which I write about eating?

Don’t expect any foie gras criticism here. The great Alan Richman does that better than anyone over at GQ. While I enjoy a white tablecoth meal every once in a while, my tastes are simple. Give me ribs. Give me burgers. Give me a Hot Doughnuts Now sign shining like a beacon. I don’t care about ambience or presentation. I care about taste. The photo in this blog’s header is a slab of ribs from Archibald’s in Northport, Ala. They have six stools. If those are full, don’t even bother with the picnic tables, because the flies will swarm. They take only cash. They don’t serve sweet tea. Their ribs are so good that I don’t care.

I’m looking for more places like that. If you know of any, tell me about it in the comments, or drop me a line on Twitter at @Andy_Staples.

Posting could be sporadic, because my paying job comes first. But I’ll do my best. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you come back. The reviews will begin soon. I’m getting hungry just thinking about them.

-30-

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About Andy Staples

Eating anything that doesn't eat me first.
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27 Responses to Welcome. Pull up a chair and pour a glass of sweet tea.

  1. G.A. says:

    I remember even before the sweet tea. Wasn’t the first Alligator column about cereal? I remember a cereal column. Alligator archives are failing me.

  2. errxn says:

    Awesome. I’m looking forward to these posts maybe even more than the football columns. I’ll start you off with a Texas BBQ joint that I’ve mentioned to you a few times on Twitter: the new and absolutely fantastic Franklin BBQ, which is within walking distance of DKR stadium in Austin. Be sure to check it out on your next swing through Longhorn country!

  3. You know this already, of course, but here’s a reminder: Daddy D’z, Memorial Drive, Atlanta, Chick-fil-A Kickoff Weekend. You will be writing poetry about this place, I promise.

    • Walt says:

      I have to agree with the Captain on this one. Ate there as my first reintroduction to BBQ when I got home from my last deployment. Fantastic food.

  4. Sam says:

    Next time you are in or around Atlanta, head up to Stilesboro Biscuits in Kennesaw. Shack on the side of the road, only open Wednesday-Saturday for breakfast, amazing biscuits. It is close to Kennesaw Mountain, and they have a sign hanging up that says “At this location, on June 27, 1864, absolutely nothing happened.” When I lived in Atlanta, I would go as often as I could.

  5. Derek says:

    If you haven’t already, you should check out Martin’s BBQ just outside of Nashville (Nolensville, TN), especially if it is a weekend when they have a whole hog on the pit. http://martinsbbqjoint.com/

  6. @uscarlos says:

    This should be fun. I look forward to your first review. I still need to try Slater. I live ten miles from there, no excuses.

  7. Karl says:

    Carver’s Country Cooking in Atlanta. Could be tough for you though only open M-F 11-3:00.

    • DawgVegas says:

      Carver’s is worth driving 100 miles for – fantastic food. Giant portions – if they have Pot Roast available as a meat, then for one of your sides get the pot roast vegesteables. It doesn’t matter if you got meatloaf or the Dolly Parton chicken breast or some other wonderful entree – get the pot roast vegetables.

      It’s close to downtown – lots of GTU students and ATL lawyers and such.

  8. Mack Stratford says:

    The next time you are in Atlanta, you MUST try Heirloom BBQ. Good lord almighty, their Q and sides will make a tadpole slap a whale!

    http://heirloommarketbbq.com/

  9. Dave Gladow says:

    There seems to be an explosion in sports-types trying their hand at food blogs. I like to think I started a trend.

    Of note: You won’t make many friends in New Orleans by calling Alan Richman “great.” Other than that, psyched to see what you come up with! We have plenty of options here for your inevitable arrival in early ’12.

  10. relevantedge says:

    Andy, my favorite BBQ place is Dink’s in Bartlesville, OK. North of Tulsa, so likely only an option if you’re flying in to Tulsa to cover Okie State. However, I live in Omaha and work in Lincoln so I should recommend something local. We Huskers have a pretty good handle on burgers (not so much on BBQ) and there are options.

    If you are covering a game in Lincoln, Barry’s Bar & Grill on 9th Street, just south of the stadium, is known for having good burgers, though so is a bowling alley, Parkway Lanes & Pub, on S. 48th, considered best in the city by some food writers.

    In the Omaha metro, Zesto’s is definitely known for their burgers thanks to the CWS, but a couple of other spots garner acclaim as well. Some like Stella’s, just barely into Bellevue on the south edge of Omaha but others I’ve spoken with really love Louie M’s Burger Lust in south Omaha. Far and away gets the most comments of any I’ve heard about. Worth a try, to be sure.

  11. This is great! I’ve been reading your stuff since your days at the Tampa Tribune. I missed your columns at the Alligator by a few years, it seems. I just wrapped up a 2 year project at a client in Austin and tried all the famous area BBQ joints – Salt Lick, Smitty’s, Kreuz’s, Black’s. Nothing holds a candle to a newer place – Franklin BBQ, just across I-35 from the Sheraton downtown. It’s the absolute best BBQ/meal I have ever had. Totally traditional. Sweet Tea and Dublin Dr. Pepper.

  12. Alex says:

    Best Sweet tea in Gainesville hand’s down, Mac’s drive thru, and the burgers are awesome!

  13. Jamie Smith says:

    If you want to have the hushpuppies, go to the Catfish Hole in Fayetteville, Arkansas. God dropped the recipe and they picked it up. Never had a bad meal, and they have all you can eat frog legs.

  14. William Buyck says:

    I really enjoy your work. Next time you are in South Carolina, make a trip down to Hollywood, SC (about 20 or so minutes south of Charleston). They have the ABSOLUTE BEST flounder at The Old Firehouse. It is a crispy, fried whole flounder (that takes up an entire plate) served over stone ground creamy grits, with their special steamed cabbage. It is awesome. They have lots of other great menu items, too. Check them out.

  15. Dennis says:

    Where do I go for the half ground beef and half ground bacon burger???

  16. John says:

    Recommendation(s) for if you ever come to Baltimore: Bruce Lee’s Wings. It is a stall in Cross Street Market in the neighborhood of Federal Hill, and, like Archibald’s, it’s cash only (note the sweet bumper sticker on the glass in this picture – http://www.flickr.com/photos/dracisk/2112176202/). They have the best chicken strips in the world. My dad, best friend, and his dad have been going there for over 10 years to get strips to take to Ravens tailgates. He won’t tell us his secret sauce recipe, but we do know it involves King Syrup. Also, Bruce is a Redskins fan, but we let it slide so we can eat his food. Bonus: order a burger or breakfast sandwich with bacon and you get a whole handful of bacon on top.

    Bonus #2: Abbey Burger Bistro right nest to Cross Street Market (http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_QEZbyOFJMO8/S0vq6yGI9VI/AAAAAAAADzQ/sjgTlpC-SsI/s1600-h/Abbey+Burger+Bistro+010910+004.jpg).

  17. dave says:

    Hiya Andy!
    I like the way you write, been followin’ you for years. Your Remembrance brought the water, She was special.
    I’m a old Florida cracker, Gator when you were a gleam, been eatin’ Sonny Tillmans’ BBQ for just ’bout ever. His pit hasn’t changed much since he moved on; still sets the baseline to me, -but I believe Bonos’ has him beat. Maybe you could do a comparison next time you’re in G’ville…

  18. Pingback: Heaven Is A Buffet

  19. Laura J says:

    If you’re ever headed to Chicago, there are a million places to try. I will limit myself. One: Smoque BBQ. Two: The Purple Pig (the menu might look fancier, but trust me, it’s just pork done a million different delicious ways). Three: Calumet Fisheries. Here, there aren’t even stools; you eat in your car in the parking lot.

  20. Jim S says:

    Love Archibald’s, but you gotta try the Oldtimer plate at Chuck’s BBQ in Opelika, AL. Get the pok chopped, which is bite sized chunks with their BBQ slaw and white bread. Don’t get no better!!!
    WAR EAGLE!!!

  21. FYI, Oklahoma Joe’s is opening a restaurant in the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow. Should be open some time next year in the spring, news towards the bottom of this link: http://www.tulsaworld.com/scene/article.aspx?subjectid=39&articleid=20100707_39_D1_JoeDav524234

  22. Jason says:

    Regarding the “15 plates of pork to 13″ comment – I was there along with a couple other “AYCE buddies” to meet our cult hero Andy, support our friend that we had nominated for the battle, and witness the not-so-kosher spectacle that mid-afternoon on Archer Road. I wouldn’t want a regular Sonny’s diner from back in the day to misjudge these totals and trivialize the efforts of Andy and my buddy who shall for now remain nameless (it’s in the original HIAB article in the Aligator), so let me clarify that these were NOT standard re-orders. I know he’s not the bragging type, but Andy is simply not doing himself justice here. This is, after all, the guy who regularly ate with the big uglies of the UF football team and set the bar for AYCE excellence.

    After 5 or 6 quick turnarounds (probably when the combatants asked the waitress, upon delivering a re-order to “wait right there just a sec…[chomp chomp = gone]…OK, could we both now have yet another re-order? Thanks…”), once it became clear that the standard 3 ounce re-order plates weren’t going to cut it, the pork-slicer – laughing and shaking his head as he watched in disbelief from the window to the kitchen where the waiters/waitresses hung their requests – obliged by sending out MASSIVE re-order plates piled with God-only-knows how much sliced pork on each plate. I would estimate that they were at least 3 or 4 times the amount issued with a regular sliced pork re-order. Just the sight of that first pair of steaming mini-mountains made me a bit nauseous, and I had stopped at only 3 or 4 plates.

    To summarize…I can’t even venture a guess as to the weight of sliced pork that was consumed in that Battle Royale, but you guys both ate a ridiculous amount that day. As I recall, you even had to go cover a late football practice afterwards for an article the following day. That had to be pretty hellish coming right on the heels of “the contest.”

    Those were good times. Gainesville had some good eats back in the day, many of which are sadly no longer around (like Tony and Pat’s Pizza, Pasta, and Salad Buffet) or no longer the same quality whatsoever (like the aforementioned Sonny’s chain, which has since basically sold its slow smoking soul to steam-smoked “fast food barbecue”…if that term even makes any sense, considering I think it’s an oxymoron, but at least their sweet tea is still pretty good).

    Andy, it’s great to see that you’re doing well and that you’ve revived Heaven is a Buffet alongside your regular national contributions to college football. By the way, major kudos for being such an abnormally level-headed/rational college football analyst. But anyway, HIAB was my favorite column in the Alligator back in the day, even if it was short-lived, and I’ve now got the new and improved online version flagged in my favorites :)

  23. Pingback: Golden Nugz – 07.27.12 – Ski-U-Mah Nation – Minnesota Gophers

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