Every city should have its own sandwich. In Philly, it’s the cheesesteak. In Miami: the Cuban. New Orleans has the po boy and the muffuletta while New York City has anything and everything that comes out of a Jewish deli. Even little old Jacksonville, a city not otherwise known for its exceptionally unique local cuisine, has a sandwich of its own. I’m speaking of course, of the Camel Rider.
This distinctly Duvalian mash-up of Middle East meets West is not only one of the most unique menu item our proud city can claim. It is the story of the cultural assimilation of an entire immigrant population, stuffed in a pita.
Jacksonville boasts the 10th largest Arab population and the 5th largest Syrian population of any city in America. Beginning in the late 19th century with subsequent spikes in the 1920’s and 1960’s, immigrants from what are now Syria and Lebanon began arriving in America. Some sought factory work in the Northeast while many others put down roots in Jacksonville, establishing themselves as fruit peddlers, grocers and eventually deli owners, among other entrepreneurial endeavors.
It was here in these ever-present sandwich shops during the ‘60s that the Camel Rider was born. A marriage of cultures, the sandwich is essentially a fully loaded cold cut sandwich with a healthy squirt of Italian dressing in a pita, the traditional bread of the Levant. Often served along with a side of tabbouleh and styrofoam cup full of ice cold cherry limeade, the handheld became quite the hit, despite its arguably culturally insensitive moniker. Although the sandwich’s ubiquity has diminished somewhat over the years, it can still be found in many of our city’s traditional sandwich shops, quite a few of which have been in operation for decades and are still owned by the very same Syrian and Lebanese families that first immigrated here. The Camel Rider’s legacy is undeniable as it has spawned an entire family of unique pita sandwiches you won’t find anywhere else such as the Steak in a Sac, the Veggie Rider and the Breakfast Pita.
While it may not be in keeping with the latest in sandwich fashions, the Camel Rider is a tradition worth preserving and a reminder of a story that deserves telling. To help keep it alive, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best places in town to sink your teeth into this one-of-a-kind sandwich. Bon appetit! Or should I say, sahtein!
The Sheik: The Camel Rider may not have been invented here but this local chain is probably largely responsible for much of its fame. The original location opened on Main Street in 1972 where you can still wash down a Camel Rider with a Cherry Lime to this day.
Desert Rider: Walking into the Desert Rider on Hogan Street is like taking a step into a time machine. From the faded sign and awning outdoors to the orange booths and diner bar to the menu and prices, not much has changed since it first opened in the 70’s. A true Downtown classic!
Famous Sandwiches: The Westside’s go-to spot for burgers, subs and of course pita sandwiches since 1986, some claim their version to be the best around. Just how much variation can be applied to such a simple affair is anyone’s guess—but never underestimate the power of local support.
Goal Post: On the outskirts of Avondale, at the border of Fairfax, is an assuming sandwich shop that still fills up at lunchtime with customers hungry for their Camel Rider fix; proving that the bourgeoisie and the working class alike can’t get enough of Jacksonville’s favorite sandwich.
This Bold Bites feature originally appeared in Void Magazine’s March 2019 issue under the headline “Put it in a Pita.”