You have to love that the 2-month-old Tucker Duke's Lunchbox in Deerfield Beach is sandwiched between two of the biggest chains in the country, Dunkin' Donuts and Subway.
That's because Tucker Dukes' amusingly original menu is a faraway leap from the Munchkins, Flatizzas and other corporate eats that its neighbors serve.
"Real Food: Local, Seasonal, Sustainable" a sign on the back wall reads. Those walls, by the way, are covered halfway up with sheets of shiny aluminum diamond plate more commonly seen lining the beds of pickup trucks. Air-conditioning ducts and rustic aluminum lighting fixtures hang from the ceiling of this stripped-down, 49-seat dining room. On one wall is a big line drawing of Tucker Duke, the Great Dane/Labrador mix who gives his name to the restaurant.
Tucker Duke is the animal companion of chef Brian Cartenuto, whose resume includes stints at higher-end restaurants in Seattle. If the name sounds familiar, you may have seen Cartenuto win Food Network's first season of "Cutthroat Kitchen" last year. He returned to his Panhandle roots in 2011 to open an eight-seat lunch counter to offer his riffs on Southern comfort foods and sandwiches. He soon added the extraordinary burgers for which he's become famous, and outgrew his original Valparaiso location within the year.
A food truck — his "street food division" — followed, and here, he's partnered with friends Jay Oakes and John Cortés to spread the Tucker Duke's Lunchbox word to South Florida.
It's a menu full of novel ideas, from Buffalo-chicken-filled food-truck egg rolls ($5 for two) to the Tucker Duke burger ($10), topped with onions rings, American cheese, mayo-based Tucker sauce, lettuce and tomato. So sure is the restaurant of this burger that the kitchen won't entertain substitutions. Nestled on a soft onion roll, the ground beef is expertly seasoned, and every condiment is made in-house.
Not every dish succeeds, but with a little tightening up in the kitchen, Tucker Duke's could become a South Florida comfort-food destination in a part of the region not known for such culinary charm. With this kind of food, it's no wonder Tucker Duke's attracts an under-30 crowd. Service is similarly youthful, but mostly efficient.
The other night, the beer menu included Funky Buddha Hop Gun IPA ($7) from Oakland Park, Bell's Brewery Two Heart Ale from Michigan and Pop's Porter ($7) from Wynwood Brewing Company in Miami.
We started with those Buffalo-chicken egg rolls, which the kitchen split down the center for easy sharing. You can also have them filled with what you'd find in a bacon cheeseburger or, my favorite, a Reuben sandwich. Like most of the menu, these deep-fried rolls aren't for calorie counters.
It would be very easy to graze on snacks and sliders. We had a plateful of mini corn dogs ($5), served with house-made tomato ketchup. There are also beef, chicken, pork belly and shrimp sliders (three for $7).
Burgers are oversized and messy and delicious. The Fido ($8) — most of the dishes are named after dogs — is topped with American, cheddar, crispy onions, pickles, house-made ketchup and Tucker sauce, a riff on remoulade. The Frank and Bobbert ($10) is topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, tater tots, scallions, horseradish sour cream, lettuce and tomato. The Sofia ($10) starts with an herb-roasted turkey burger that's topped with Munster, cranberry chutney, onions, lettuce and tomatoes.
Along with burgers and sandwiches, the handful of main plates includes something called Duce ($13), chickpea cakes with whipped feta, tomato chutney, radish, pickled vegetables, scallion, cilantro and Serrano. The cakes needed bigger seasoning. Another main dish, Maddie ($13), combines pork belly with hoisin barbecue sauce, scallions, radishes, carrots, cilantro and a crispy rice cake. It makes for a better starter than main course.
Shareable sides ($3) include warm, house-made potato chips, tater tots and sweet-potato fries. The fries, unfortunately, arrived cold.
The ingenuity doesn't end with the savory side of the menu. Apple fritters ($5) with bacon candy and apple butter make up a dessert called Buster. A Papi ($7) is a churro of sorts, with cinnamon sugar, banana pudding and whipped cream. Abner's s'mores ($6) combine maple bourbon marshmallow, a graham cracker brownie, vanilla ice cream and chocolate and caramel sauces.
Tucker Duke's won't be for everyone, but I give it high marks for the enthusiasm on the menu and among the staff.
1101 S. Powerline Road, Deerfield Beach
Cuisine: Eclectic American gastropub