Tucker Duke's Lunchbox Offers Unpretentious, Small-Town Food

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A burger fried in a pan and slapped together in timed competition helped get Brian Cartenuto his win on the first season of the Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen. Even though he stole his competitors' bread, hand-chopped beef into a course grind, and whipped up his signature onion rings, no one could tell it was a burger made under extreme circumstances.

No one can argue the hamburger is not classic American comfort fare, but with one overbuilt burger after another, it's easy to forget how simple it needs to be. For those looking for a taste of Cartenuto's winning burger, a spectacular made-to-order version can be found at his newly opened Tucker Duke's Lunchbox in Deerfield.

See also: Bao Las Olas Seeks to Expand South Florida's Taste for Asian Cuisine

At just 32, Cartenuto's 17-year career has brought him from Anthony Bourdain's Brasserie Les Halles in Miami to the French bistro Lavandou in Washington, D.C. Now a two-time winner of Cutthroat Kitchen, the Florida native is also known for his handmade pastas, which earned him a devoted crowd in Seattle, where he opened Tuscan restaurant Cantinetta. When business relations with his partner went sour, Cartenuto returned to his hometown of Niceville in the Panhandle, where he opened Tucker Duke's, named for his Great Dane/lab mix. Originally an eight-seat Southern-style lunch counter, the spot's opening menu was a short list of blue-plate specials, and he cooked with nothing but a Panini press, two toasters, and a home fryer.

In the beginning, it was just a few sandwiches, my favorite dishes between bread," says Cartenuto. "I never meant for Tucker Duke's to be a burger place. It just happened."

Disgusted with the perpetual line at a nearby McDonald's drive-through, one day Cartenuto decided to put a burger on the menu, everything he thought a Big Mac should be. He designed one ascribing to the same tenets his menu reflects, with a focus on only local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients. Within a week, it had earned a cultish following, people waiting five-deep for the Tucker Duke.

Cartenuto's master creation is a half-pound patty of Florida Seminole Pride beef arranged in a multilayered Jenga pile of fried onion rings, melted American cheese, mixed baby greens, and celery-salted tomato on a toasted, onion-encrusted bun. Pink Tucker sauce -- Cartenuto's insanely addictive version of a Louisiana remoulade, AKA Comeback dressing -- is the glue that attempts to hold it all together ($10).

The Tucker Duke burger was so popular, in fact, that it prompted an overhaul of the menu and a relocation from Niceville to a larger space in nearby Valparaiso.

The latest location in Deerfield Beach, which opened in February thanks to partners John Cortes and Jay Oakes, is a clean, open space in a quiet shopping plaza at the corner of South Powerline Road and SW Tenth Street. With brick and wood-planked walls, an exposed industrial ceiling, and an L-shaped bar that offers craft brews and wine, there's plenty of counter space to enjoy lunch or dinner.

Orders are delivered on metal trays, food presented on a thin sheet of paper with a large side of Southern hospitality. Just don't ask the server to break the restaurant's only rule, which comes as a warning on each menu: Do not change the Tucker Duke.

"You don't want cheese?" Cartenuto says. "Take it off yourself."

Unlike the original, the Deerfield menu offers more than a dozen burgers, each with custom dressing and named for a friend or customer's dog ($9 to $12). Offerings include the Sofia (an herb-roasted turkey burger for a girl he dated) and the Mondragon (topped with six slices of bacon, a fried egg, and two slices each of American and cheddar.)

Such a lineup can make it easy to overlook the menu's other highlights, a short list of whimsical "snacks" like fried pickles, mini corn dogs, and a heart-attack-inducing take on popcorn drenched in maple syrup, butter, and bacon ($4 to $9). Evoke childhood memories with his PB&J bonbons, a lunchtime treat fashioned into hush puppies with a molten peanut butter center. They're served on a dollop of fresh blackberry jam with a shot glass of milk.

The lunch counter comes into focus with a half-dozen entrée-styled blue plates, dishes like shrimp and grits, smoked beef brisket, and pork belly ($13 to $16). Try the Duce, a trio of chickpea cakes flecked with herbs and plated with an electric combination of whipped feta, smoky tomato chutney, and pickled vegetables. It proves Cartenuto is brave enough to go meatless without dropping the ball.

Nothing quite captures Cartenuto's SoCo charm better than his pappi churro ($7). A Mexican-style cruller, this simple alchemy of flour, sugar, egg, and oil is given an authentic presentation, arriving hot from the fryer and pillowy-soft, with a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. The instant banana pudding side, however, proves pleasure can be coaxed from familiar favorites.

"Tucker Duke's is all about having fun," says Cartenuto. "To me, that means good food, without any ego."

Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.

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