Where does the time go?
J.R’s Old Packinghouse Cafe, affectionately known as the O.P.C to Sarasota locals, has long been considered Sarasota’s coolest “off the beaten track” spot to enjoy live music, a cold beer and an eclectic menu of Cuban and American comfort food. So where was I the night J.R.’s Old Packing House recently started celebrating their 20 year anniversary?
Locals will recall a near-catastrophic fire that almost took out Old Packinghouse Cafe a number of years ago. Starting in a storage area outside the back of the property, the fire raged into the kitchen and almost took the whole place down. Fortunately, there isn’t a fireman on the Suncoast who hasn’t enjoyed an evening at O.P.C. and they were quick to come to the rescue and minimized the damage. For weeks locals from all walks of life drove by the remnants of O.P.C., wondering if J.R. could ever bring it back. It was sad. Sad, indeed.
But the love story behind O.P.C. is how the staff, many of whom no longer had a job, showed up to save what mementos they could salvage from the original building, which allowed J.R. to retain the perfect funky atmosphere of O.P.C. when they reopened more than a year later. All of the old photos that lined the back walls and hallways are gone, but there’s room for new memories, while some of the original signage still decorates the dining room, along with some new decor sure to put a grin on your face. And, J.R. will never give up the tradition of passing a hat around for tips in appreciation of the live musicians that play there nightly. I absolutely love that!
I’ve been coming to J.R.’s Old Packinghouse Cafe since my now-grown children were little and littler. Jill and I had one of our first dates here. The number of great times here are too many to count, as are the number of talented musicians who have dropped in to enrich our local music scene.
I was thrilled when my (not so) young son Tyler, and his girlfriend Lyssandra, made a detour to Sarasota during a recent move from Los Angeles to the northeastern states. Florida was “a bit out” of the way for their coast-to-coast move, but Tyler grew up here and had a number of places he wanted Lyssandra to see before heading north. J.R.’s Old Packinghouse Cafe was a “must-do” for him, and proved once again what a wonderful tonic an evening at the O.P.C. can be.
While we tend to be food focused on this blog, the eclectic look and vibe at O.P.C. dovetail seamlessly with the nightly live music, making the food the cherry on the top of the experience. In short, the sum of these parts creates a much greater “whole” lot of fun.
While the band set up and began to play, we waited for the rest of our party to arrive. Sharing a pitcher of cold beer is natural in this relaxed, almost communal atmosphere and we weren’t in a hurry for the night to be over.
On any given day you can see J.R.’s Auntie in the tiny kitchen preparing her family’s Cuban recipes like empanadas, flan, mojo pork and yellow rice and black beans. They’re also known for their chicken empanadas, Cuban bowls, bbq pork nachos, boom boom shrimp, and since the reopening, O.P.C. also offers a full bar with such Cuban staples as your classic or fresh berry mojito.
I stopped tapping my toes long enough to order .O.P.C.’s much-acclaimed Cuban sandwich.
The classic pressed sandwich is almost always my go-to choice at J.R.’s Old Packinghouse, and it honestly never disappoints, starting with the initial crunch of the pressed Cuban bread down to the yummy ham, roast pork, pickles, and melted Swiss cheese. Whether enjoying a cool draft, ice tea or one of many another beverages from the bar, I’m pretty content just listening to live music, sharing time with my son and friends and taking in all that’s right with the world right now. . .
Other dishes to hit the table were J.R.’s tried and true crispy chicken wings, which were perfectly light, crispy, and not the least bit greasy. These wings, served naked (aka – no breading) provided all the flavor without the extra calories, so I’m guessing you can order an extra serving or two! We ordered up a side of barbeque sauce instead of the standard bleu cheese or ranch dressing. No mistake there!
Like his dad, Tyler’s choice at J.R.’s Ol’ Packinghouse Cafe is always the same. Ever since he was much shorter than me (which was some time ago) Tyler orders the Basa Fish Rueben with fries and a side of house coleslaw. While he is taller than me now, it’s still rare for him to finish that behemoth of a sandwich. Like a classic Reuben, the basa is covered in Russain dressing and sauerkraut, all piled high on a toasted roll and smothered in melted Swiss cheese. He said he started craving it soon after leaving Los Angeles!
I should know better than to underestimate what a devotee Tyle is to this mainstay on the menu – I was lucky to sneak a couple of fries from him as we exchanged tastes of each other’s sammies. But I admit he kept the yummy coleslaw to himself! I raised him to share, but not be a pushover!
Lyssandra opted for the O.P.C’s Cuban riff on classic nachos. These nachos are hands down beyond ordinary, providing all the ingredients you expect with nachos – lettuce, jalapenos, red onions, corn chips and melted cheddar, but adorned with a generous portion of Ropa Viejo – beef seasoned marinated with garlic, lime, cumin, and other seductive spices. This was a nice twist for someone who hasn’t had much exposure to Cuban food. She really enjoyed the nachos and is excited to try even more Cuban flavors.
More toe-tapping, another bite, more conversation, and some more cold lager. . . ahhh! You can feel the stress lift off you as you release yourself to the power of music and nosh on true comfort food.
You don’t have to be in any particular mood to drop into this classic Florida roadhouse – just drop by, especially if you haven’t before, or haven’t in a while. And while you’re at it, here’s another suggestion – turn off the cell phone and “feed your chill” without the distraction. You’ll be happy you did.
Here’s to another 20 years J.R.! Hats off to the Old Packinghouse Cafe – and while you’re at it, pass it around for those wonderful musicians!