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Finally checking Pepe’s off my ‘must-try’ list felt like an accomplishment since this strip mall find isn’t a place I pass on my day-to-day commute. Pepe’s has a seat-yourself dining area and doubles as a fully stocked Mexican grocery store. I was instantly drawn to its festive flair: a stack of sombreros, oversized piñatas, colorful wall murals and blaring music, all helping to set the mood.

Our group of four grabbed a booth and ordered a bucket of Negra Modela beers (6 for $15). We eagerly worked our way through a complimentary basket of thick, crispy tortilla chips and standard-fare salsa which was seemingly void of cilantro but heavy on the garlic.

Pepe’s has a broad menu with exceptionally low prices. Tacos (corn or flour) are cheap, ranging from $1.50 to $2.25. We chose the more authentic preparation (corn) on our three-taco platter ($6.99), served with rice and refried beans. The lengua, or cow tongue, was the best of the tacos. My grandmother’s iteration was my first introduction to cow tongue, so I was pleased to find Pepe’s lengua cooked correctly (not overcooked, which causes it to be tough) and served with diced onions, generous cilantro sprigs and lime wedges. The chicken taco was good, yet the pork carnitas left something to be desired. It was dry and unremarkable. Surprisingly, the refried beans and rice included in the platter were well-seasoned and full of flavor.

Standouts were the chile relleno platter ($7.99) and chicken sopa ($2.99), a savory corn cake topped with shredded chicken, lettuce, sour cream and cheese. The chicken torta ($4.99), a Mexican sandwich, was another winner, with its soft bread, juicy breaded chicken, thick smear of mayo, shredded iceberg, sliced tomato, onion, pickled jalapeno slices and creamy avocado.

Service (read: one waitress for the entire restaurant) was slow, so skip Pepe’s if you’re on a schedule. If you have time, though, definitely take in the ambience and sit back with a cold …   More



Sub Cultured is the latest mobile vendor to open a permanent location. Situated in a quaint, unassuming building off Mayport Road in Atlantic Beach, Sub Cultured has been open for six months.

Starting as a mobile stand specializing in cheesesteaks and sausages, and parked in front of a home improvement store, the eatery serves an assortment of freshly made sandwiches, soups and salads. Nothing on the menu rings up at more than $9, and Cinotti's Bakery, just up Penman Road in Jax Beach, supplies the sub rolls.

The menu lays claim to the best Philly cheesesteak in town ($8.49). While that sandwich is quite good, I found several sandwiches and salads on the menu to be far more impressive — like the popular Miami Cuban ($8.99), with the traditional roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. Sub Cultured's version is enhanced by slight twist: the addition of capicola and mostaza aioli – a blend of yellow mustard and mayo with a hint of garlic, improving the standard Cuban with a tangy overtone.

The Grilled Montreal sandwich started as an experiment in grilled cheese that produced remarkable results. Thick slices of Boar's Head pastrami are paired with white cheddar cheese curds and yellow mustard and pressed between two slices of sourdough bread. If the Montreal is offered, the only acceptable answer is "Oui!"

Another item that caught my eye: Gypsy Fries ($4.99). Sub Cultured takes a Philly cheesesteak sandwich — minus the sub roll — and layers hefty portions of grilled steak, sautéed peppers, mushrooms and onions and melted provolone cheese on a bed of crispy fries. This creation would be the perfect sportsbar fare; unfortunately, big-screen TVs and cold beer were nowhere to be found.

Craving something specific? Concoct your own sandwich ($6.99-$8.99) by selecting a choice of meat, bread, cheese, sauce (mayo, mustard, spicy mustard, honey mustard, garlic aioli or creamy Italian) and toppings — ranging from sprouts and jalapenos to the …   More



It's been almost a year since Brew Five Points – a laid-back spot for grabbing a cup of coffee, beer, beer cocktail (an actual thing!), or bottle of craft soda – opened up shop in Jacksonville's hipster haven. The works of area artists adorn the walls on a rotating basis, giving Brew a local feel.

Coffee drinks at Brew can be simple – a precision-crafted pour over (featuring a carousel of coffee roasters such as Bold Bean, Intelligentsia and Ritual, $4.75) and sweet – a honey or chocolate latte ($3.25). My go-to is the macchiato ($2.75) since I like less milk than espresso.

There's even an option for a cold brew growler – a take-home glass bottle ($5, one time) that you can bring back and refill any time for $10.

Calli Marie Webb is the young chef behind Brew's food menu and sweet and savory is her game. Chicken-IN-waffles ($8) – four fluffy, airy waffle segments with deliciously moist bite-sized pieces of chicken inside – are an example of Webb's creative spark. Served with a scoop of blueberry butter and a drizzle of Cholula hot sauce syrup, chicken-IN-waffles is a savory, sweet, crunchy and spicy mix.

Brew also presents a line-up of artisan toasts featuring local Community Loaves bread. The Basic B!#&H ($4) on wheat piles creamy smashed avocado, miso butter, shaved radish, chile oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. It's great for lunch, with a salad, or even for breakfast.

Sammies ($6), which change each week, are served on a handheld kolache bun and feature a perfectly runny-yolk egg. Mine had tomato, mozzarella, prosciutto, basil and aforementioned runny egg.

Brew's curated craft soda selection spans the spectrum of tastes, from sweet to savory, offering a wide variety from butterscotch to bacon-flavored sodas. I recommend the Swamp Pop praline cream.

For the beer-curious, Brew's got more than 75 local and non-local craft beers. In addition to a refrigerator stocked full of cans, there are several varieties on draft, along with a …   More



Emblazoned with an eye-catching lime-green façade that includes a saxophone-playing octopus, Funkadelic food truck is hard to miss (artwork by Brian Barnard). Funkadelic's menu has fewer than 10 items, which makes for some tough decisions. Need help?

The panko-crusted fried shrimp sliders (3 for $8.50) with "funk sauce," Sriracha slaw, applewood smoked bacon and avocado slices on pillowy, sweet Hawaiian rolls are served as a trio, which makes them perfect for sharing.

My go-to is an order of the colorful ahi tuna poke nachos ($11.50). The crispy-fried wonton chips, loaded with a mountain of sushi-grade yellowfin tuna, diced mango salsa, wasabi aioli and avocado-and-wakame-seaweed salad, then drizzled with a sweet soy caramel sauce, are equal parts savory, sweet, crunchy and creamy. This fun play on traditional nachos is popular and tends to sell out quickly.

Funkadelic's gourmet grilled cheese ($8) makes a strong case for best GC in town. Pressed between slices of asiago cheese bread, the duo of muenster and provolone meets a flavor punch when coupled with a slathering of basil walnut pesto, avocado and thick applewood smoked bacon. Recently, a new spread – datil pepper jelly – made its sweet and spicy debut.

Remember when your mom told you over and over to eat your vegetables? Here's your chance to do just that: roasted beet fries ($5) served with a slightly spicy, creamy signature funk sauce and dressed with a smattering of chopped green onions. These sweet, red-hued gems are served warm.

Other recent meat-centric sandwich options include beer-braised pork belly, blackened striped bass, coffee-and-cola braised pulled pork, and pulled pork sliders. Sometimes there's a brisket, short rib and chuck burger that gives you the option to add a fried egg, bacon or pork belly (glutton overload)! Vegetarians need not fret – Funkadelic's marinated portobello sandwich, with herbed goat cheese spread and roasted peppers, is hearty and filling.

The …   More



For the past eight years, every Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., historic St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral's Taliaferro Hall has been transformed into a busy lunch venue. The twist: The meal is orchestrated by students from the Clara White Mission's culinary training program.

Given the Mission's decades-old track record for helping serve the poor and homeless in Jacksonville, I was thrilled to learn that more than 700 aspiring students have graduated from the program – which teaches lessons from food preparation to commercial cooking to menu development and catering, over the course of 20 weeks.

These talented students prepare and serve a Southern-style buffet lunch. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the menu changes weekly and is posted on the mission's website each Wednesday. The previous week's offerings included baked vegetable spaghetti, brown-sugar-glazed baked ham, Southern fried chicken, creamed skillet corn, collard greens and sweet potato soufflé – yum!

The cost for the buffet lunch was $10, collected on our way in the door (parties of six or more can make a reservation, but fewer than that and you may be seated with others – which only adds to the experience). After being seated, we were greeted by a student with a warm smile offering us our choice of sweetened, unsweetened or tropical iced tea, or coffee. We then headed to the selections on the self-service buffet.

First was a salad bar with chopped fresh spring mix, diced hardboiled eggs, peppers, bacon bits, crumbled blue cheese, grated carrots, cucumber, tomatoes and beyond.

Our two soup choices were ham-and-split-pea or Italian minestrone. I went with a cup of the minestrone and enjoyed an abundance of kidney beans, pasta and chopped vegetables.

And now we beheld the feast. Bypassing the rice pilaf and rolls, I went straight for the fried Cajun turkey (a winner!), meatloaf (moist and flavorful), grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, boiled red potatoes, …   More



Ever-curious, I've yearned to try the chef's tasting menu at five-diamond Salt for years. Recently, my wish became a reality when my handsome fiancée and I got all dressed up, made a reservation and eagerly awaited our culinary fine-dining future.

As we serenely waltzed through the entrance, we took in a colorful display of salts from around the world. The restaurant has large windows, but the sun had already set by dinner time. The interior was dimly lit, and buzzed with diners' chatter.

The four-course chef's "adventure" menu ($225 per person, or $325 paired with wine) as The Ritz-Carlton calls it, offered four brilliantly presented surprises. The server began by asking if there was anything we detested (I answered "maraschino cherries," because I couldn't think of any ingredient I truly hate). The accommodating server shared that useful information to the chef. And then we sat back and let the magic unfold.

After an amuse bouche (a one-bite hors d'oeuvre) medley of tomato gel, rocchetta cheese, pinenut and balsamic topped with micro-arugula, our first course arrived. It was a beautifully plated tuna tartar with pineapple espuma (an airy mousse-like foam), quail egg puffed rice, purple radish, baby romanesco, fennel and a sprinkle of micro-cilantro. I wouldn't have thought to pair tuna and pineapple but it worked – the chefs are geniuses!

We noshed on warm breads with soft butter, and a compartmentalized serving dish of various salts, each one carefully explained.

The second course was solid: cobia with a black garlic mushroom stuffed ravioli, shiitake mushrooms, clams, and rainbow Swiss chard atop sunchoke purée. Delightfully complex, the fish was flaky and paired perfectly with the savory ravioli.

Up next were the most flavorful, tender veal cheeks atop a tower of bean cassoulet, with a swirl of vibrantly colored carrot ginger purée, spiced walnuts and cranberry jam. I adored this dish; it featured several …   More



For more than 30 years now, The Loop Pizza Grill has been a regional mainstay for burgers, fries and milkshakes. The original location debuted in 1981, and now the franchise touts nine Northeast Florida locations. The St. Johns Town Center restaurant (near Total Wine & More), however, exhibits a newer concept. While still fast-casual, it's more modern, trendy and art-focused.

It maintains the same process as its predecessors: You order and pay, take a buzzer, fill your drink cup and grab a table or booth. On this trip, we were ravenous, so we ordered some bleu cheese chips ($3.99) to hold off the screamin' hungries. The chips were thick-cut and topped with ample melted cheesiness. The pile disappeared quickly.

We also ordered a Great American Cheeseburger with fries ($7.89). Burgers here have a thin, pink center, which makes for a juicy hunk of meat. The sesame-seed bun was a bit on the dry side, but the moisture from the lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo helped make up for what it lacked. The fries left something to be desired.

No Meat March! The Loop's got a veggie melt on ciabatta bread ($8.49) and a portabella mushroom melt ($8.99) complete with creamy garlic mayo, melted jack cheese and a smattering of grilled onions. Who needs a pink center?

Our eight-inch buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil pizza (8.49) was surprisingly good. It was easy to share, but I can picture getting it for a satisfying solo lunch option. Whether you build your own or choose from the dozen offerings (some pesto-based, others with a traditional red sauce), a 12-inch size is also available.

There's beer (some local – hooray!) and wine, and a whole line of Coca-Cola products.

Yes, there are hand-dipped shakes and malts, too, but who can resist an old-fashioned root beer float – dubbed the Brown Cow ($4.25)?

Now, about that new look: Founder Terry Schneider partnered with daughter Hillary Tuttle, who owns Stellers Gallery Ponte Vedra, to create a place reflecting …   More



No, it's not a food truck. Yes, Garden Truck is vegan (happy No Meat March!), on the Northside (only 15 minutes from Downtown), and worth the trek when you're looking for something healthful, local and fresh.

Order and pay at the counter, then seat (and treat) yourself. The space, in a small strip mall in the middle of seemingly nowhere somewhere off the East Beltway, is extra-inviting: strings of globe lights shine on the brightly painted walls, vibrant fresh-cut flowers adorn the wooden tables and an oversized chalkboard tells you what's available.

To quench your thirst, choose from a dozen smoothies ($6.95) and juices ($5.95) to try. I found My Daily Fruit juice, a coral-colored concoction with apple, pineapple, kiwi, orange and strawberry — delightfully refreshing. Coffee and tea are also available.

The majority of items on the menu are sandwiches, paninis and salads, and there are daily soups and specials. Recent favorites include rigatoni with "sausage," red peppers and mushrooms in a light white wine sauce, roasted squash curry bisque, coconut milk crème brûlée and a "crab" cake panini.

I started with the Caesar ($5.95) — hearts of romaine, chopped artichoke hearts, roasted sweet red peppers and avocado in a light Dijon mustard dressing. Pro tip: Ask for the housemade croutons on top. They're magically crunchy and seasoned.

My two to-go sandwiches (all sandwiches are $6.95 and include one side) are smoked tempeh (a high-protein meat substitute made from fermented soy beans), lettuce, tomato and veganaise (an eggless mayo spread) and smoky sea salt, and the roasted vegetable and artichoke panini with spicy aioli and roasted garlic spread. The bread is freshly baked, and I picked multigrain for both sandwiches.

And don't knock the "sausage and peppers" sandwich until you try it. It's created with caramelized onions, green and red peppers, and a spicy mustard sauce on warm ciabatta bread — you'll hardly notice that the fennel-spiced …   More



If you're hungry and cruising Downtown in search of something different, head straight down Main Street into historic Springfield and look for the brightly colored Wafaa & Mike's Café. (I hear the adjacent auto shop, which shares an owner, is excellent, too.)

Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, the Mediterranean (their sign says "Mid-Eastern") restaurant has been in town for five years. It's a decidedly casual spot, so don't come expecting pressed linens and silver. But it's solid for what it is.

We started with baba ghanoush ($4.99). It was delightfully smoky and creamy, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and paprika, and served with a basket of pita triangles for dipping. The pita was stiff and room temperature, so we asked for fresh, warm pita. Moments later, we were given a new batch.

Platters seemed to be the way to go. Each of the dozen or so platters includes a choice of two side items. I went with the falafel ($10.99), and it was fantastic – freshly crafted chickpea orbs of delight you can dip in the accompanying nutty tahini sauce. My side items were traditional favorites, hummus and tabouli. Both were fresh and excellent. Also on the platter were slices of colorful crunchy pickled turnip, cucumbers and a small bed of iceberg lettuce and tomato. The falafel is also available in wrap form.

Another success was the kibbe – croquette-like football-shaped nuggets of ground meat mixed with minced onions and bulgur wheat.

I didn't care for the grape leaves, which were served cold and had an off-putting spice that I couldn't pinpoint. Skip these.

I wanted to try the Turkish (read: strong) coffee ($1.99), but it was late in the afternoon and our waitress politely steered me away, explaining I probably wouldn't get a good night's rest.

A dollar scores you a crisp, sweet square of happiness – also known as baklava – so keep dessert on your agenda. Wafaa & Mike's does this pastry treat just …   More



Though it's not on the main drag — Centre Street — in Fernandina Beach, Arte Pizza is a hip, well-decorated, comfortable spot for lunch on the weekend or dinner anytime (except Tuesdays, because it's closed). As I was walking by, the space itself sold me: open kitchen with a view of the pizza oven, high ceilings, modern lighting, windows that let in a fresh breeze, and an arty, decorative wall adorned with random mirrors and frames.

On the lunch menu, we eyed crispy French fries tossed in rosemary sea salt ($3.50) to start, and I ordered a half-portion of the Special salad ($9.95 full size), with roasted red beets, corn, diced tomato, roasted red peppers, cucumbers, crumbled feta and a white balsamic dressing.

The portion was nice-sized, and the fries were accompanied by a cup of ketchup, though I would have preferred an aioli to complement the rosemary.

My half salad was gigantic. I loved the uniqueness of having beets, roasted peppers, corn and feta. But if this were a creation of mine, I'd add avocado. And the menu says "mixed greens," but it was actually hearts of Romaine, which is fine but slightly misleading.

Eager to try the wood-fired, brick-oven pizza (it cooks at temperatures higher than 700 degrees!), we pondered the selections of Arte's self-proclaimed artisanal pizzas.

We narrowed it down to the Paesana ($10.95), with tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage and pepperoni, and the Caprina ($10.95), with tomato sauce, roasted tomato, mushrooms, fresh basil, goat cheese and extra virgin olive oil. The Caprina should really be renamed the Goat, for the overabundance of goat cheese. It overshadowed everything else. The crust on both pizzas was crisp — and slightly thicker than a typical wood-fired crust — and held up to the load of toppings and sauce, but the sauce's flavor was lacking. Maybe more salt or spices? It was a Sunday, and we arrived at noon, when Arte opened, so maybe it was a fresh batch and needed to simmer …   More