Jacksonville doesn’t exactly have the distinctive food scene of cities like the Creole cuisine of New Orleans or Memphis’ barbecue. But we do have one item that we’re known for: the camel rider sandwich.
The sandwich – also sometimes referred to as a desert rider – has been a Jacksonville delicacy since the ‘60s, when they were popularized by sandwich shops owned by Arab immigrants. Jacksonville has long had one of the nation’s largest Arab immigrant populations, and the pita bread they produced was seen as exotic to local residents.
The sandwich’s name likely originated in an outdated pejorative for Arab immigrants, but it was embraced and turned into a positive by those same immigrants, whose shops grew as a result of the sandwich’s popularity.
The sandwich is served by dozens of sandwich shops and delis around the city, including Whiteway Deli, Pinegrove Deli, and Gina’s Delicatessen. Desert Rider, owned by former mayor Tommy Hazouri’s cousin Larry, is named in honor of the sandwich.
But the eatery that has become most synonymous with the rider is The Sheik, an Arab-owned chain that started in Springfield in 1972 and now has five Jax locations – plus a few other franchise locations outside city limits.
The basic concept of the sandwich is pretty simple: deli meat – usually some combination of ham, salami, and bologna – and other dressings stuffed inside pita bread. But over time, local restaurants have built their own twists and varieties on the original formula.
Desert Rider, for example, has a “special sauce” that they use on theirs. Pinegrove Deli’s “camel ryder” adds banana peppers. And The Sheik, in addition to their standard rider, offers a variant called the “steak-in-a-sack” featuring slices of steak and onions inside pita bread. Whiteway Deli offers a similar variant along with several pita sandwiches including one named for former mayor Hans Tanzler.
The sandwich and its association with Jax were even the subject of a New York Times article several years ago.
Camel rider sandwiches are an essential part of the Jacksonville experience – and when you’re in Jax, you’ll never have to look too hard to find one.