The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Madhouse Sandwich Shop Serves Great Food, Barbs [Gino Sierra, The Sandwich Insult King Of Riverview]
Posted Oct 2, 2012 by Jeff Houck
Updated Oct 2, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Pretty much all you need to know about the Madhouse Sandwich Shop is this:
It has an R rating on the door.
The sign is there for a reason.
Walk through the door of this strip mall restaurant just off Bloomingdale Avenue and you do so at your own peril.
Gino Sierra is on the other side.
There is no way to predict what Sierra will say as you walk to the counter. You might get a grownup frat house welcome. You might get a joke about how the craft beer list is the breakfast menu. You might be insulted with obscenities that would make Charlie Sheen blush.
It’s hard to say when you’re dealing with a guy who proudly displays a sculpture of a human hand with a solitary, extended middle finger defiantly reaching for the sky. Ask for a knife to cut your sandwich and you’ll get one. In the form of a 2-foot-long switchblade.
“I collect them,” he says. “I have a hundred of them at home.”
Sierra is an energy drink in human form; full-tilt, in-your-face, loud, brash. An active verb in a lapsed bodybuilder’s frame. And fun. Don’t forget fun. Lots and lots of fun. As long as your delicate sensibilities come with an air bag.
That he dresses in a black Polo shirt, black athletic shorts, black socks and black cross-trainers is fitting. There is a bit of Johnny Cash in his swagger. His menu is printed on black paper with the motto, “WE’RE ONLY SERIOUS ABOUT OUR FOOD.” His restaurant is decorated in black and white, just like his house. A crazy-eyed character named Dr. Revolto is the shop’s black-and-white mascot. If there is a gray area to be found in Sierra’s life, it’s probably because he hasn’t painted it black yet.
The menu is like having lunch with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
There’s The Constipator, a $6 mosh pit of Swiss, American, mozzarella and Fontinella cheeses pressed between two slices smeared with garlic butter. The Fat Elvis (creamy peanut butter and a whole banana served on buttered-and-pressed Cuban bread) is surpassed only by the distastefully named but incredibly decadent Dead Elvis (a deep-fried, Nutella version of the Fat Elvis). He sells steak fries three ways: Italian, Cajun and Boring.
Then there is the Fair Food Dessert Menu, which claims to be “perfect for stoners.” On it is a raft of food that only Lipitor could love: deep-fried cheesecake, Key lime pie, Twinkies, Oreos, Twix, Kit Kat, Snickers and Milky Way bars. On Fried Fridays, every sandwich has the option of taking a dip in the fryer.
Yes, he carries Diet Coke.
For all his bluster, the food is where you see glimpses of the shop’s underlying tenderness.
A third-generation Tampa native, Sierra, 38, sells The Continental Special as a tribute to the former Ybor City deli of the same name, with its ham, Swiss cheese, salami, roast beef and mozzarella with pickles, mayo and mustard on pressed pumpernickel. His spicy devil crab, bursting with crab meat and spices, is another nod to the authentic flavors of his roots, as is the guava bread pudding he makes with Cuban bread.
Then there are the Tampa-brewed Cigar City beers he serves.
He and brewery owner Joey Redner went to high school together. Redner dedicated Cigar City’s Big Sound Scotch Ale to Tampa Bay Pipes and Drums and “our good buddy Gino, the most punk rock bagpiper you’ll ever meet.”
Yes, Sierra used to play bagpipes. Shocking.
His wife, Aimee, (above)builds sandwiches at the shop and keeps him from doing things like mounting toilet paper dispensers at every table instead of paper towels.
You would think the store would be an HR minefield, but employee Kimmy Schlatweiler, a hard-working, tattooed and pierced 27-year-old with blue streaks in her hair, fits in with the store’s attitude. It helps that she sometimes wears a trucker cap with a blinged-out obscenity above the brim.
“These two are some of the finest people I’ve ever known,” Schlatweiler says.
To recap: Bawdy language is welcome. Good-natured insults are, too. Bird fingers fly in flocks. Sandwiches work perfectly as constipation punch lines.
Talk about politics? Don’t go there, bro.
As in-your-face as Sierra can be, he keeps his political views to himself. Yes, he sees what has happened to the economy. The vacant storefront between him and the UPS shop in the strip mall speaks loudly about the nation’s economic status. So does the half-empty parking lot of the Super Target across the street on Bloomingdale Avenue. And the $3.80 unleaded gas at the RaceTrac.
He keeps an ear open for political chat in the dining room. The flat-screen TV stays on either ESPN or a local news channel. He doesn’t mess with CNN, MSNBC or Fox News. He saw what happened when a pizza parlor owner in Fort Pierce bear-hugged President Barack Obama. He paid attention when Chick-fil-A became a social issue Gettysburg.
“I personally think that politics and business are horrible bedfellows,” he says. “We’re in the age of the boycott. I’ve got to worry enough about calling someone a name when they walk through the door.”
If the food is great, customers can handle a dirty nickname, he says. Hear a political view they don’t agree with, though, and there can be picket signs in an eye blink’s time.
Sierra lays the blame on the 24-hour news cycle, where every word is inspected microscopically for intent and all news is shot through right and left political prisms.
“There is no common ground any more,” he says. “That’s on both sides of the aisle. The Democrats of today sure aren’t the Democrats that my grandparents were. Same could be said of the Republicans.
“I have to worry enough about offending someone just with my general demeanor when they walk through the door,” he says,
A customer named Gilbert listens, throwing down a fried Twinkie and a bottle of beer while waiting for his to-go order.
“Tell me you sell a thousand of these a day,” Gilbert says between gulps and a few of his own swear words. “Every day. Every day I would eat this.”
The Sandwich King of Insults smiles. “You’re my kind of guy,” Sierra tells him.
Behind them, the TV shows football highlights. At the bottom of the screen, a hand-written note on white paper politely asks in blue ink, “Please do not change the channel.”
Gino makes the Twinkies. You decide.