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BITE-SIZED

Hold the steak, please — and the pulled pork sliders. And those spare ribs. Put down your forks and knives.

While not eating meat may sound borderline traumatic to many, some local carnivores have taken a pledge to say goodbye to meat for 31 days. Sponsored by The Girls Gone Green, No Meat March is celebrating its third year in Northeast Florida.

Start your day with a freshly roasted coffee from Sipper’s Coffeehouse (7643 Gate Parkway, Southside), which serves dairy-free alternatives to add to your java. The homemade chai and sugar-free chai are heavenly blended with creamy soy.

A drool-worthy brunch can be found at any of the area FirstWatch The Daytime Café locations (13470 Beach Blvd., at Hodges Boulevard; 11111 San Jose Blvd., Ste. 14, Mandarin; 5444 Marsh Landing Parkway, Ste. 4, Jacksonville Beach). Try the fresh fruit crêpes topped with low-fat organic strawberry yogurt and a dash of cinnamon and sugar. They’re served with homemade granola and the baked muffin of the day. FirstWatch’s omelets are made with cage-free eggs. The C’est la vie with roasted zucchini, onions, tomatoes and herbed goat cheese is a favorite.

For a lunch less than $10 and several veg options daily, head to Chomp Chomp (106 E. Adams St., Downtown). The tofu and pickled veggie bahn mi with a side of salad or thin-cut crispy curry potato chips are just what the doctor ordered. Or try the TMB — no bacon here — TMB stands for tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil. You can swap tofu for chicken or pork when you choose the curry of the day. One caveat – Chomp Chomp is closed Saturday through Monday for lunch.

Chamblin’s Uptown (215 N. Laura St., Downtown) offers delicious veg hot soups and wrapped specialties. They have two veggie wraps, a curry tempeh wrap and other specials that grace the chalkboard menu from time to time like vegan chili, Tofurkey and Swiss on a tomato basil wrap and VGBLT (lettuce and tomato …   More

BITE-SIZED

For 17 years, Chef Andrew Ferenc has found comfort in the kitchen. For the past two-and-a-half years, that kitchen has been one he happily calls his own — and it's on wheels.

Ferenc's popular food truck, On The Fly Sandwiches & Stuff, recently claimed three awards at the June 15 Jax Truckies Food Truck Championships in Downtown Jacksonville. Competing against 13 other trucks, Ferenc offered smaller portions of his bestselling items. (Full disclosure: I am one of the founders of Jax Truckies.)

After a blind tasting of nearly three dozen items from the competing trucks, a panel of six judges named On The Fly, or "OTF" as regulars call it, the 2013 Overall Champion.

OTF also snagged two more awards — the Sweet Tooth, for its addictive sweet-and-salty chocolate caramel peanut butter pretzel bars, and the People's Choice, as determined by fans at the event via ballot. OTF won the Overall and People's Choice awards in the 2012 inaugural competition.

OTF's bestsellers include the overloaded sweet potato planks (with melted blue cheese, braised pulled pork, sliced scallions and the signature On the Fly sauce, a sweet chili and cilantro aioli) and firecracker sesame-seared ahi tuna (over crunchy wasabi napa cabbage that's drizzled with sweet-chile-and-soy glaze and pickled ginger).

Weekdays, you can enjoy these items near the new Duval County Courthouse in a lot at the corner of Adams and Jefferson streets, where OTF parks. The area is outfitted with covered tables and chairs. When the weather's right, a line can form quickly. But be aware: It moves fast.

"Don't be intimidated by the long lunch line," Ferenc said. "We pump out orders in less than 10 minutes!" "On the fly" is restaurant lingo for creating an order fast.

Aside from a recent batch of Butterfinger crème brûlée cups, his latest hit is a sweet-and-spicy avocado tostada with shredded lettuce, sweet corn, scallions, black beans, OTF sauce and a dash of …   More

BITE-SIZED

Crisp. Crunchy. Chewy. Creamy. The possibilities are endless. You’ll never think of salad the same way again. Tossgreen takes healthy to a new level by offering fresh and sustainable made-to-order salads and burritos.

Simple instruction signage guides the ordering process. The toughest part is deciding if you’re hungry for a burrito (or tortilla-less burrito bowl) or salad.

Salads begin with a leafy green base: iceberg, romaine, mixed greens or spinach. I opted for half-spinach and half-mixed greens. For $5.99, you select five toppings. There are more than 50 vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, “crunch” items and various cheeses. Want more than five? Pony up 49 cents each. I enjoy a mingling of flavors and textures, so my creation included hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, crisp pita chips, julienned carrots, sun-dried tomatoes, chickpeas and herb-roasted chicken, which was moist and flavorful.

Tossgreen also offers items you may not typically find on the average bed of lettuce, like jicama (a crunchy, slightly sweet root), red grapes, wasabi peas, toasted coconut, goat cheese and white cheddar.

Adding proteins is only 99 cents to $1.99. Options include herb-roasted chicken, steak, roasted shrimp, roasted tofu, bacon, boiled eggs and avocado — we know, it's a fruit — but it has about 7 grams of protein.

Ingredients are placed in a large bowl with your choice of salad dressing, then tossed and chopped, ensuring an even distribution of dressing. With 18 choices, there’s something for the pickiest diner, including ones with food allergies (dairy, gluten, oil). There’s even a simple lime or lemon squeeze, which adds a surprising amount of flavor and minimal calories.

I sampled the carrot ginger, but found it too sweet and opted for the lemon shallot vinaigrette. A bit bland; I wouldn’t order it again. I made a mental note to try the chipotle ancho vinaigrette.

Feeling uninspired? Order a chef-designed salad. Prices vary, but these …   More

BITE-SIZED

When I need to quiet my growling stomach, I head to a restaurant that has “Mex” as a prefix or suffix. Hightide Burrito Co. touts its “Beach Mex,” a vibe and flavors that lend themselves to Jacksonville’s ethnic and geographic diversity. The menu is inspired by owner Alejandro Juarez’s family recipes from Central Mexico.

This family-friendly, seat-yourself, two-room spot is clean and modern with an abundance of seating. The staff is friendly and helpful, and the menu's straightforward and easy to read. Your toughest choice? Whether you’re up for a burrito (flour or wheat tortilla), burrito bowl, nachos, tacos (corn or flour), tortas or salad. Then determine if you’re in the mood for steak, ground beef, barbacoa, chicken, carnitas, fish, shrimp, roasted vegetables or beans and cheese.

Salsas are made in-house, and everything tastes fresh. Queso seemed like a must to kick off our lunch. We found it to be full of flavor, thick and creamy, which nicely coated our bags of homemade tortilla chips. There are few things worse than runny queso. Beware: These triangular gems are beyond addicting — super-crunchy, warm and lightly salted. Perfection.

I eyed the best-seller claim next to Lupe’s famous Baja fish tacos, and I knew what I’d be ordering. Best-seller? They must be delicious. And they were! Panko-breaded, lightly fried tilapia is generously topped with shreds of crunchy cabbage, then drizzled with a tangy white sauce and accompanied by a wedge of lime. I concurred with the claim. The fish was moist and cooked to perfection — each bite gave way to the perfect amount of crunch from the breading. I added a few generous dashes of the Peruvian sauce there on the table and some of the pico de gallo that came with my chips. I caught my boyfriend sneaking a bite on more than one occasion.

Also intriguing were the made-to-order acai bowls. I opted for the beet bowl with a blend of frozen acai …   More

Bite-Sized

I’m a pizza snob. I’ve inhaled piping-hot slices of Grimaldi’s pizza from its coal-fired brick oven beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’ve worked my way through the better part of deep-dish pies from both Giordano's and Lou Malnati’s in Chicago. I’ve polished off wedges from Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Denver.

Tommy’s Brick Oven Pizza earns a top-five spot in my Northeast Florida list, which includes Brewer’s Pizza, Mellow Mushroom, Pele’s Wood Fire and Perard’s.

In 2006, Tommy d’Esterhazy opened the unassuming spot in a small strip mall on Southside Boulevard. The small, casual restaurant seats about 20, including a few barstools where you can gaze at your pizza being made in the central brick oven. You can catch a glimpse of d’Esterhazy (complete with an authentic New York attitude) hand-tossing the dough.

Tommy’s New York-style pizzas are available in 12, 14 or 16 inches. Quattro Stagione is my choice: The slightly crisp prosciutto’s saltiness complements the tender artichokes and creamy goat cheese along with roasted red peppers and tomato sauce. They’re meant to be together. Hand-tossed dough cooked in the brick oven results in a crust that’s not overly thick, keeping its shape and staying crisp at the edges.

Treat your taste buds with delicious toppings like pepperoni, sausage, bacon, pineapple, salami, rock shrimp, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

Salads are made-to-order. The caprese is traditional: Soft, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, shreds of basil and a tangy balsamic reduction top a spring lettuce mix. The summery strawberry spinach salad with chevre or goat cheese is tossed with Tommy’s secret strawberry vinaigrette dressing. Tommy’s Caesar, with romaine and crunchy croutons, is also good. You can’t go wrong with any of these leafy concoctions.

I’ve yet to try one of the cold subs or hot sandwiches, but the warm roasted rosemary chicken with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes is right up my …   More

BITE-SIZED

Much lighter on your wallet than a trip to Latin America and much closer, Puerto Plata Restaurant serves up tasty Latin American comfort food at its location near San Juan Avenue and Blanding Boulevard.

The freestanding yellow building with ample parking and a covered front patio might not look like much, but once inside, you'll find all the staples.

Start with the chicharones de pollo, Dominican-style chunks of bite-sized fried chicken. Crisp, and slightly crunchy on the outside and extremely juicy inside, these don't need a dipping sauce — they're that good. Proceed with caution: There are still a few bones.

To complement the chicharones, try an order of plátanos maduros, or sweet fried plantains, a staple of Latin American cuisine similar to bananas. These are made with very ripe plantains cut into two-inch pieces then pan-fried, forming a slightly sticky and sweet caramelized crust.

We ordered an empanada de pollo — a crescent-shaped stuffed pastry filled with seasoned chicken and then fried. Ours wasn't very full, but the handheld golden brown snack was still good and served alongside a ramekin of a spicy green jalapeño salsa.

A traditional entrée, the pernil, or roasted pork shoulder, is topped with onions and served with a heaping mound of yellow rice and a cup of black beans. The pork was tender and moist, and I could really taste the garlic and adobo seasoning.

The star of the evening was the ceviche con tostones — shrimp ceviche with mashed fried green plantains and a creamy garlicky dipping sauce. The shrimp were marinated in citrus juices with minced onion, diced tomatoes, lots of cilantro, ground black pepper and salt, resulting in a tangy dish that was served chilled. The shrimp "cook" without any heat thanks to the acid in the fresh citrus juice.

For dessert we opted for the flan, a square of creamy baked custard draped in a sweet caramel glaze.

The restaurant has a noticeably clean, …   More

BITE-SIZED

When a restaurant deems the first day of the week "Moonshine Monday," it makes a favorable impression.

Riverside's Southern-style gastropub, The Salty Fig, is celebrating six months in business as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It began amassing a following about a year ago as an upscale food truck serving Southern favorites like creole shrimp and cheese grits, ratatouille sliders and cochon de lait.

It's obvious that owners (and brothers) Jeff and John Stanford have put a lot of thought into the interior. The softly lit bar area features a long community table crafted from the restaurant's rafter wood. Exposed brick walls and high ceilings are found throughout, and there are some spots near the kitchen to watch the chefs in action.

While simple, the edamame tossed with hickory-smoked sea salt is oddly addictive, as are the crunchy homemade chips topped with a rich gorgonzola fondue, balsamic glaze and chives.

My go-to lunch is The Melt: basil pesto, artichoke hearts, grape tomatoes, peppery arugula and melted provolone pressed between two slices of buttered toast, accompanied by your choice of salad or fries.

Another favorite is blue pear salad: mixed greens, sweet d'anjou pear slices, juicy blueberries, Maytag blue cheese crumbles and slivered red onions, tossed in a tangy lemon thyme vinaigrette.

For dinner, start with a cup of the signature gumbo — it's thick, slightly spicy and full of okra, shrimp and Andouille sausage, then topped with rice and scallions.

Mayport shrimp, creamy stoneground goat cheese grits, Creole trinity (onions, peppers and celery) and New Orleans barbecue sauce make for a flavorful dish — and one of the best versions of this Southern specialty in town.

Consider ordering one of the daily specials Chef Jeff whips up. The recent lamb wontons were unforgettable: braised lamb shank with parsnip puree, butternut squash, shiitake mushrooms, arugula and a slightly sweet pear-port gastrique.

The …   More

BITE-SIZED

Just over the Intracoastal Waterway bridge lies a hidden gem specializing in Eastern Shore seafood. The popular former TacoLu spot (complete with valet parking) has been redone and the coastal vibe is casual yet slightly upscale, perfect for a date night or appetizers and cocktails with co-workers.

Owner and executive chef Gary Beach brought Marlin Moon Grille of Ocean City, Md., to Northeast Florida less than a year ago. The recipes are his. He credits his Cajun grandmother for his informal culinary training, in addition to practical experience he picked up along the way in restaurants from Maryland to Florida.

Beach describes his restaurant as a "happy-go-lucky, sport-fishing themed bar with no pretense that serves simple, fresh eclectic fare at a fair price." I couldn't agree more.

Start with tuna nachos. Crunchy fried wontons are nicely plated and piled with tangy seaweed salad, a spicy cucumber wasabi mayo, vibrant sesame-crusted ahi tuna, finished with a sprinkling of scallions and a drizzle of sweet teriyaki.

The Greek kadaif-wrapped jumbo Mayport shrimp appetizer (served with a sweet red chile dipping sauce) was a delightful blend of crunchy, spicy and sweet. Kadaif is shredded phyllo dough that's light and crunchy, with a unique texture.

Everything is noticeably fresh. Even the basket of bread was perfection. Marlin Moon's daily fish specials are created from the fresh catch from nearby Safe Harbor Seafood in Mayport. And if you're a crabcake snob, do yourself a favor and order them. Definitely some of the best in town I've found. Plump, juicy and hardly any fillers in these jumbo lump crab cakes, paired with a homemade island aioli.

My entrée, the Eggplant Boat, earned an A+ for creativity. Oversized slabs of breaded and lightly fried eggplant cradle perfectly cooked scallops, shrimp and crawfish tails. A savory shiitake crab butter sauce tops the dish.

The baked mixed-berry bumbleberry pie was a tad too sweet for my liking, …   More

BITE-SIZED

For the past 74 years, locals have flocked (no pun intended) to this no-frills St. Nicholas hot spot. Comfortably nesting in the same location since 1939, when Atlantic Boulevard was the only road to the beach, Beach Road Chicken Dinners is truly a Southerner’s dream. (On the flip side, it is not a vegetarian’s dream.)

We kicked off our feast by devouring bite-sized fried okra and sweet corn nuggets, served with a creamy homemade ranch sauce that had a slight jalapeño kick. The breading was light, and the okra was both fresh and crisp, as if it were picked yesterday. The sweet corn nuggets were piping hot.

How could I resist ordering fried chicken? Three of my tablemates also opted for it, so I'm not exaggerating when I say a platter of strategically piled pieces of crispy, golden-brown chicken arrived at our table. The need for multiple napkins aside, the chicken was the perfect trifecta: crisp, juicy and flavorful. I also managed a bite of country-fried steak and topped it with some of the gravy from the mashed potatoes; it too was delicious. If you’re from the South like I am, you’ll certainly appreciate the authenticity. And to make Grandma proud, yes, there are gizzards and chicken livers. But that’s where I draw the line.

Served family-style, the fixins are all-you-can-eat. If you're scooping out the last heap of mashed potatoes, don't fret, y'all — just order another bowl. The table quickly became crowded with creamed peas, mini-biscuits (with butter and honey), mashed potatoes, gravy, crinkle-cut crisp French fries, white rice and creamy cole slaw. The biscuits, slaw and mashed potatoes with gravy had the most flavor; the four of us left the creamed peas practically untouched. I longed for mac ‘n’ cheese and collard greens, but they were nowhere to be found on the menu.

Eyeing the table next to us, I spotted fruit cobbler. Stuffed to the brim, I knew I couldn't hold another bite. Judging from our neighbors’ quickly …   More

BITE-SIZED

In an unassuming spot on South Third Street in Jax Beach sits Eva’s Grill & Bar. Home to several restaurants over the years, the building's interior feels dated and plain, but small windows lend a few rays of natural sunlight. It’s spacious and kid-friendly, and would work well for larger parties.

Owner Chris Wright, along with his father William, opened Eva’s in early 2012. Many of the recipes are passed down from Chris’ mother, Eva. (He also has a daughter named Eva.) The menu includes Greek, Italian and Cajun dishes, but Eva’s is traditional in its approach, not a fusion of cuisines or flavors. Everything is homemade-style, except the hamburger buns and soda rolls.

My items were plated nicely, and I noticed the portions are quite generous and prices are fair. I see many take-out boxes in my future.

I started with an Italian panzanella salad: a bountiful plate of arugula, mixed greens, tomatoes, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, red onion and herbed croutons, tossed with a flavorful housemade white balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was fresh and the flavors blended nicely.

Several small plates are available, including a Greek meze platter with spinach and feta pastries (spanakopita), fresh mint and feta pastries (tiropita), Greek salad and stuffed grape leaves (dolmades). The table next to ours had one, and my stomach growled with envy.

Feeling adventurous, I tried the beef short rib lasagna. Warm gooey mozzarella generously covered a tower of alternating lasagna noodles, ricotta, spinach, fontina and braised beef, surrounded by a mote of homemade marina sauce. I expected the dish to be heavy, but it wasn't. The sauce had a lot of flavor. I’m eager to try the calzones and pizzas next time.

Wanting to sample each culture represented on the menu, I ordered the cochon de lait, a French-sounding term with Cajun roots. The slow-roasted, seasoned pork was accompanied by buttery housemade …   More

 
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