Growing up in a non-adventurous food family in Orlando, I started to realize there is more out there than Perkins and Wendy’s, I just needed to find out what. So, when I moved to my Gainesville apartment I made it my civic duty to seek out the best places to awaken my coveting taste buds. My journey has led me to urban eats and beachside cabanas all around Florida, road tripping as often as I can. In Gainesville we are lucky to have so many cheap and quality food options for the frugal college student living in apartments near UF and for that, all residents — whether they are students or not — benefit from the diverse offerings these local joints have to offer. Here are my top 10 picks for the best grub in Gainesville, on a budget.
Mac’s Drive Thru is a Gainesville institution. My first experience there was a bit overwhelming in the best way possible and I blame my millennial ways. I had no idea Mac’s would grill up one the best cheeseburgers I had ever eaten. Between the flavor in the patty, the fresh toppings and abnormally soft bun I was shown the light. The ole’ style drive-thru has been in business since 1987. With the matching vintage drive-thru aesthetic and service systems, Mac’s has been a model of consistency, selling sandwiches dirt cheap — cash only please — with the most expensive burger costing just a wallet friendly four dollars and forty-nine cents.
Although Mac’s Drive Thru has been around for 20 years, it surprisingly isn’t the oldest in town. That title belongs to Sandwich Inn, a unicorn in the restaurant world, open 54 years and only changing owners three times. Sandwiches are their calling card but the owners, Bob and Sherry Rella, who have been at the helm since 1996, prepare everything from fried okra and milkshakes to cheesesteaks and even breakfast. I selected the country fried steak sandwich with a side of potato wedges and I was not disappointed. The potato wedges came out to be one of the best spud sides I have come across, they were seasoned magnificently, matched with their crispy goodness and the sandwich, which is one I haven’t had before, was a complete eye opener. Since 1963, Sandwich Inn has been a force in the downtown Gainesville community, aging like fine wine.
La Tienda is a Mexican restaurant on 13th street that is arguably one of Gainesville’s best. The restaurant is famous for Mexican street fair authenticity. Walking into the side entrance you immediately get the feeling you are in a Mexican corner market. La Tienda has an enormous menu with lots of options such as copious amounts of tacos, enchiladas, burritos, fajitas and they are all fairly priced and will leave you satisfied.
Attached to Roberts University Club building in midtown, lies a Greek New York deli hybrid called The Spot and it really hits just that. Their shtick is the gyro sandwich but they also have an amazingly juicy Angus burgers, numerous classic Greek dishes, and even a unique collection of quesadillas. I went with a buddy of mine who ordered the unique gyro quesadilla and I, the gyro platter. With the commonality being the awesome gyro meat, both were filling, satisfying and left us craving more. For the quality meals they put out combined with the sizeable portions they provide, The Spot brings new meaning to the term ‘bang for your buck.’
As far as diversity goes, Caribbean Spice is a rare island find. Located on University Road, within walking distance from the Heavener Business School. Caribbean Spice is simplicity at its finest with a small menu featuring different beef patty combinations starting at just five dollars. With deals like this, Caribbean Spice makes for the perfect after class option. These flaky meat-filled patties taste as if they were prepared in Kingston, so go and try a taste of Jamaica!
Is there anything better to wake up to then a freshly baked donut? I say no. Daylight donuts has one of the best donut selections in the area ranging from long johns, school spirited orange and blue sprinkles, or thick cake donuts. What really sets them apart however, is the other menu options they provide such as house made burritos, breakfast sandwiches and one of my favorites, the kolache...think love stuffed into a puff pastry with fruit from the Czech Republic. The only thing you can say that is wrong about this place is that they are not open 24-7.
Italian Gator is your quintessential college pizza place. Located in Midtown in the UF plaza that shadows Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, this hole in the wall pizza place dishes out delicious slices all day and night. I have had quite a few pepperoni slices after a night out at midtown and trust me nothing is more eye-catching to a partying college student than a huge slice of pizza. They are best known for being the fuel for resident bar hoppers, but this staple restaurant is one of the best bargains no matter what the occasion may be.
Going from old to new, Vale Food company is a new restaurant to the Gainesville food scene which opened early 2017. While their menu offers everything from acai bowls to southern comfort food, Vale specializes in a unique meal plan and delivery service which is a fitness freak or on-the-go-students dream come true. Vale Food Co.’s plates average between five to eight dollars, whilst the average meal plan averages just sixty dollars.
A complaint I have heard from many northerners is how hard it is to find a decent bagel. Well, here is your answer. Bagels Unlimited make New York style deli quality with so many choices in flavors and spreads. They do not stop at just bagels however, they have an extended breakfast menu with omelets, pancakes, and breakfast sandwiches. I Tried the Hearty, stuffed with various breakfast meats and cheese, with a generous side of hash browns and a bagel which was enough to put me into a food coma. I highly recommend this place to the bagel lovers out there, with pricing as good as nine fifty for a dozen bagels, this joint is a wallet friendly option for brunch in the Swamp.
Tamal is a fairly new establishment to the Gainesville food scene, started by the Iannellis in September 2016. The family establishment has quickly made a name for themselves. Subsequently, their name, Tamal — which is the singular version of tamales — specializes in the Mexican classic and they are some of the best I have ever tried. Tamal’s tamales selection rotates every day, suits all dietary needs, and costs an incredibly low three dollars per tamal. When you are there, do not short yourself by opting for water. Instead, treat yourself to the daily featured agua fresca at the counter. If you decide to go make sure to get there as early as possible, as Tamal is only open from 12 to four o’clock…or until they run out of tamales, and with their lines growing larger by the day, it would be a shame to miss out.