Restaurant Spotlight: THE CHOP SHOP, Rockabilly-Style Diner

How many times has your family driven around looking for something to satisfy everyone and yet again, you found yourself settling for a standard chain restaurant? If you are like me, too many times! But there is no reason for that with Abby and Ty Starkey in town. Their two restaurants, the rockabilly-themed The Chop Shop and the beach-motif Loco Gringos Cantina, both on Kentucky Avenue, bring a welcomed breadth of feel good cooking with unexpected twists.

Even before you hit the door, you can tell from the art drawing graffiti covered patio of The Chop Shop that this place has an eclectic flare. Fashioned like an updated 1950’s diner, its wall décor of vintage signs are a blast from a fun past. A mixture of upbeat songs plays as servers take orders wearing t-shirts designed by Ty with mottos that are like their creator – a pleasant blend of bohemianism and whimsy.

Meanwhile, two doors down, Loco Gringos is a shabby chic, Jimmy Buffet nod to the couple’s roots as beach kids. Everything from the raffia window treatments to the Floribbean mix of South Florida, Caribbean and Mexican dishes remind that Abby’s family were original settlers of Key West.

The couple’s dual restaurant adventure began in 2006 when the food guru behind the two restaurants, Abby, was looking for a change of pace. After years in the food industry including as a manager of Crispers, opening many of the popular restaurant’s stores, this petite over-achiever wanted to reduce her traveling time. So, the couple purchased an existing pizza shop, and then accomplished an unheard of feat: opening a new restaurant in just one week, and the Chop Shop was born.

Ty, an artist, wanted to design a place where he himself would enjoy spending time. Abby wanted to serve comfort food that surprised with unexpected twists. As Ty created the unique look of the restaurant, Abby designed a menu that would appeal to almost everyone filled with sandwiches, salads and wings focusing on the ever-popular hamburger.

Their burgers demonstrate why The Chop Shop is so popular. Even the most basic of the many burger varieties on the menu is not like other burgers you’ve had. For me, a good burger is a medley of ingredients that can stand on their own, but which combine into a finished product that’s different and even better than the individual flavors. I’m looking for an overall impact – a satisfying completeness because, after all, a burger is the ultimate meal on a bun.

The Chop Shop’s Von Dutch supplies that. Of course, a good burger has to start, first and foremost, with good meat. The base of all of The Chop Shop burgers is a high grade, hand-pattied chuck that is char-grilled, producing a taste that never lets you forget its freshness. The rich meat in this burger is wisely not overshadowed by its accoutrements, but rather is unique with flavors you probably aren’t expecting

.On the Von Dutch, along with the traditional burger toppings of tomatoes and purple onion, bites are filled with the surprise of the sweet-tartness of  granny apples. (Who would think to put apples in a burger?) Then there is also the unexpected crunch of The Chop Shop’s famous breaded onion rings which coat the meat with a layer of caramelized crunchiness. The Gouda cheese adds a smooth bite and pairs perfectly with the house-made smoky sauce for a rich hickory taste that is not overpowering, but rather works together to produce a burger that’s hard to top. My advice is not to ruin this burger with ketchup, mustard or any other condiment. It has been well thought out, and doesn’t need any additional seasoning or toppings, so enjoy the creation as it was ingeniously designed.

Ty explained that the reaction of people eating their burgers for the first time follows a predictable pattern. “They walk in and look around and murmur,” ““Oh, how fun.””  “Then when they are served their food, they say,” ““wow,”” “and as they leave, they comment,” ““that was the best hamburger I’ve ever had.”” “Yes, we get that a lot,” Ty says with a wink.

I can understand why. And if you have a particular favorite type of burger, The Chop Shop’s version will have something that sets it apart from others. For example, the Blue Suede is a blue cheese burger, and it is as unique and memorable as Elvis Presley, whose hit Blue Suede Shoes provided the inspiration for the burger’s name. For those who love blue cheese, it is your dream burger. Whereas some places merely place crumbled blue cheese on top of the meat, the Blue Suede’s char-grilled patty is generously covered with a rich blue cheese spread which intensifies every bite. The burger, therefore gives an even, reliable taste in every mouthful. And to top off this velvety burger creation, a layer of onion rings adds a subtle hint of sweetness. My husband, who loves blue cheese, often unceremoniously eats it straight out of a carton couldn’t stop singing its praises.

Frankly, one of the reasons everything at The Chop Shop is so good is their use of high quality ingredients. Everything is made on-site with the freshest ingredients, except the bread which is supplied daily and has no preservatives. That was one of the things that came as a bit of a surprise to me. In a diner, you might expect scrimping on quality by using a food distributor for expediency. But that is not how The Chop Shop rolls. A perfect example of this is their Classic Club sandwich.

You won’t be disappointed in ordering their Club because it certainly doesn’t taste like everyone else’s deli sandwich since the beginning of time. The height of the three sectioned beauty is the first thing that impresses. Then if you can get your mouth opened wide enough for it (You certainly can’t say this place is stingy on portions!), the first flavor you taste is the slight sweet tasting wheat berry bread that is as fresh as if it came straight out of the baker’s oven. You know right then that this is not going to be a run of the mill Club.

There isn’t a cheap grade of meat on this sandwich. The Black Forest ham is dense and seasoned. The roasted turkey is moist, and then there is the bacon…lovely, thick, meaty bacon with just enough fat to make it bacon and not ham, if you know what I mean. Sorry if you don’t know what I mean, because folks, for you are missing one of life’s great blessings.

Even here on this classic sandwich, The Chop Shop puts its own twist on the traditional. This time, it’s their sun-dried tomato mayo mix, which coats the other elements together. When you bite into a sun-dried tomato you feel the rush of intense flavor, and the subtle hint of basil brings a freshness to the overall mix. The result is you that you’ll never want just an ordinary club sandwich again, and you’ll leave saying, “Now that’s a Club!”

The Starkeys’ goal of creating a fun place has definitely been rewarded in The Chop Shop’s success. A year and a half ago, they expanded into what was the old Gym Sports Bar & Grill. Regulars love talking to the gregarious Ty, who is always game for spinning a yarn or telling a joke. On pleasant weather days, which are many here in Lakeland, patrons enjoy sitting outdoors on the patio watching life walk by.

The Chop Shop has live music on Saturday nights, a full-service bar, and caters to themed parties for special occasions and during holidays.Patrons appreciate the family-friendly environment, something important to the Starkeys whose own children, ages seven and nine, are often seen knocking around at the restaurant.

So what can we expect from this couple whose food is always more than what’s expected?…an ever-growing menu with distinctive twists on traditional dishes. Apparently there are notebooks full of Abby’s scribblings, brainstorms for yet more unique taste combinations. Expect them to appear one day for your eating pleasure. But whatever those offerings turn out to be, this much is sure…Fun, Fresh and Unique is always on the menu at The Chop Shop.

118 S. Kentucky Ave., Lakeland, FL 33801

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