Mule Camp Tavern is the best surprise in Gainesville.
For five years, owner Ronnie DiOrio has plugged away at his tavern at 322 Spring St. N.E. — previously AJ’s Food Fun and Friends and, before that, Henry O’s and, before that, we can’t really remember — and he’s come up with a bar that has a little something for everyone.
Or a lot of something for everyone.
Between happy hour specials for both food and booze, Mule Camp’s menu is piled high with bar staples (and then some) at reasonable prices. The menu went through an update in July, and it puts Mule Camp on the forefront of Gainesville’s comfort food offerings.
Beers, beverages, burgers, fries, melts, sandwiches, a few salads, wings, onion rings, cheese sticks — the base is all there, right where you’d expect, for a joint open after midnight.
But it’s the little stuff that makes Mule Camp a true delight downtown. In the kitchen, cook Dana Jenkins and the crew are using butter, olive oil and whole milk in all of their recipes outside of the fryer, which uses soybean oil.
Burgers are shaped in the kitchen using a ground beef blend, not pre-made and frozen patties. Pork and beef are smoked in the back, and corned beef is cooked in the kitchen. The ranch is made in-house (and is very good on the wings, which are large and cheap). Onion rings, fried pickles and the like are cut, battered and fried fresh from whole vegetables (though cucumbers are actually a fruit, but who cares?). Those cheese sticks? They’re cut from actual cheese that came from an actual cow, battered and fried.
We know, it’s weird.
And Ronnie’s proud of the effort his team puts into the kitchen. It shows with some of the regulars — his place is where the wait staff and the cooks at the restaurants in town come when they’re off work. They were there on Wednesday.
And there are a few other surprises to be found on the menu at Mule Camp Tavern.
You won’t find mayonnaise in much on the menu at Mule Camp (Ronnie hates it), and that means fans of coleslaw and pasta salad have something new, tangy, fruity and vinegary to look forward to if they stop off on Spring Street.
Try the Polynesian salad. They call it a salad, but it’s actually a filet of glazed, tender salmon laid over a bed of rich greens, tomatoes and tropical fruit. It was a good joke, we thought.
And then there is the heat, the heat, the heat. It is brought, and brought by Ronnie.
He likes spicy food and thinks chili powder is a good replacement for salt. So if you like heat and like to test your limits, or just think some flavor might be missing around town, Mule Camp Tavern is the place for you.
The plates on Wednesday each came decorated with two crisp, cornmeal-dredged slices of fresh jalapeno pepper. It’s a good tactic, as the plate cleaners among us will eventually be wishing for a beer as the silver-dollar discs set their mouth to sizzling.
If you chortle at the lesser men who balk at jalapenos, you can try some of the metal-themed burgers. The Slayer — Ghosts of War burger is dusted with ground ghost pepper and topped with ghost pepper jack cheese, fresh sauteed habaneros and jalapenos then sauced with the “special Slayer sauce,” which we assume counts as attempted murder.
If you chuckle still, you can move on to the Angel of Death burger, which is the Slayer burger plus fresh sauteed ghost peppers, Angel of Death sauce (again, attempted murder) and Carolina Reaper dust.
Carolina Reaper, the internet tells us, is another fearsome pepper and not a nickname for Hurricane Florence.
There are no refunds for this burger. Let us know where to send flowers.
Anyway, the whole point here is that you might not have been by Mule Camp Tavern lately — or maybe at all. Take the short walk from the square and give it a shot.
You’ll be surprised.