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Plan for lunch or dinner at The Floridian (39 Cordova St., 829-0655) across from Flagler College. The cozy restaurant serves generous Southern-inspired portions featuring locally sourced ingredients. Popular menu items include homemade pimento cheese, fried green tomato hoagie and shrimp with triangular polenta cakes. Some of the salads use unexpected ingredients, like black-eyed pea relish, sweet potato, quinoa and apples — and all salad dressings are made in-house. Wash it down with sweet tea served in a Mason jar.

Near the hub of the historic district tourist scene, you’ll discover Columbia Restaurant (98 St. George St., 824-3341) for a glass of red or white sangria and plates of Spanish tapas. Among the outdoor fountains and colorful Spanish tiles are Cuban and Spanish favorites like paella, empanadas, bacalla, pollo riojana and flan. The signature 1905 Salad, named for the year when the original restaurant opened in Ybor City, is prepared tableside with iceberg lettuce, Swiss cheese, baked ham, tomato, red onion, manzanilla (green) olives, garlic, lemon, Worcestershire sauce and white wine vinaigrette, and topped with Romano cheese. Make a reservation — this family-owned restaurant gets crowded quickly due to its tourist appeal and central location.

Don’t miss The Hyppo (48 Charlotte St., 217-7853) for a gourmet frozen popstick or “paleta” in its vibrant, expanded location. These pops are handcrafted onsite using fresh ingredients to create the treats ranging from the sweet and spicy datil strawberry to the refreshing, summery pineapple cilantro. The texture is not icy, like you’d expect from traditional boxed pops. Try to pick just one of the countless concoctions like horchata, pumpkin cheesecake, lavender lemonade, sangria pear, Key lime pie and creamy pistachio coconut. If you’re a “chocophile,” have your paleta dipped in chocolate for an extra dollar. And look for the adorable little …   More

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Three years ago, when notorious Food Network host Guy Fieri of "Diners, 
Drive-ins and Dives" rode into historic Riverside to film an episode at already-popular 13 Gypsies, he catapulted the tiny restaurant onto the larger culinary map. Reservations are highly recommended (even for lunch), since there are only a handful of tables and just two chefs. And while the restaurant itself may be small, the tapas-style offerings are huge on variety and flavor.

Owner and chef Howard Kirk, who grew up in Spain, ensures that his Spanish dishes are created from scratch with quality ingredients. All of the bread is made in-house each morning. While items may be slightly pricey, it's worth the splurge for date night or a small dinner with friends. You've been warned: Popular menu items sell out. Share a carafe of fruity red wine sangria or unwind by ordering a glass of vino from the wine list.

If you order just one item (and you'll want to order several, trust me!), the risotto of the day is always a must. Made from short-grain Arborio rice, it's thick, creamy and perfectly cooked. On a recent visit, I all but licked our plate of pork shoulder risotto clean.

Another frontrunner is the Mushroom Seville. Pieces of toast topped with a light spread of goat cheese are served with a cup of creamy brandy, garlic and herb sauce chockfull of sautéed mushrooms, perfect for spooning onto the toast.

The shrimp, sautéed in olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper, proved to be a simple yet flavorful dish with a little kick. With five jumbo shrimp, there were enough to share.

One unique tapas on a list of more than two dozen is the Roman-style gnocchi: Rectangular planks of flat Semolina flour gnocchi are pan-seared, then topped with a garlicky cream sauce, sautéed mushrooms and a generous sprinkling of freshly grated cheeses.

Relatively new to the menu are the savory crêpes. With five to choose from, it's hard to go wrong. We enjoyed the ham and …   More

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If you're like me — and you are, right? — you spent your New Year's Day deep in thought, pondering the eternal mysteries of our existence. And if the cronut thing is here to stay. (Answer: Yes!) For my fellow foodies out there, here's a quick list of the things and trends I'm betting will go off this year. Get your taste buds ready:

Donuts. Cupcakes seem soooo 2012, right? The popularity of the donut has steadily risen (no pun intended), with even Jacksonville offering the highly sought-after cronut, a hybrid of a croissant and donut born in NYC. Cinotti's Bakery in Jax Beach does a limited run of pumpkin donuts that we all go crazy for each fall, and The Donut Shoppe on University is a Jacksonville institution. Its Apple Ugly, a misshapen donut-like fritter made from leftover dough, is worth every single delicious calorie. And at newcomer Sweet Theory Baking Co. in Riverside, the options are endless. Its unique vegan (no eggs or dairy) donut offerings include varieties like dreamsicle, root beer, banana French toast bacon and eggnog.

Biscuits. Even carb-conscious Southerners enjoy a great biscuit every now and then. (It's in your genes, people. Deal with it.) With the addition of a second Maple Street Biscuit Co. in Jacksonville Beach, the biscuit frenzy is here to stay. The Blind Fig in Riverside recently offered a spin on chicken pot pie, placing a flaky biscuit on top. Look for biscuits used in unique ways — incorporated into dishes and topped with both savory and sweet concoctions.

Unusual ingredient pairings. There's been national uproar over the arrival of the ramen burger — a burger sandwiched between a "bun" of fried noodles — and here in Jacksonville, local chefs are combining unusual ingredients, too. Five Points' Sun-Ray Cinema offers a pizza topped with a fried egg and spicy Korean kimchi, a blend of fermented cabbage and vegetables. Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails at St. Johns Town Center features popped kettle corn …   More

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Arriving at this tucked away spot along Roscoe Road gives the feeling you have discovered a hidden gem in North Florida’s dining scene. A lengthy line of patrons eagerly awaiting a table will quickly remind you that this secret has spread quickly. Call in a reservation, and you’ll be golden.

The interior features soothing pastels, large windows that draw abundant natural lighting and a simple open layout that allows for gazing at the intracoastal waterway. This comfortable, laid-back atmosphere blends seamlessly with a menu that focuses on using simple ingredients to concoct complex flavor combinations at reasonable prices. The result is quintessential Ponte Vedra: a refined personification of traditional Coastal Florida cuisine infused with influences of the traditional farming roots of Palm Valley and a reliance on ingredients like the datil pepper.

The specials are carefully written across a blackboard in colored chalk, and several vie for attention. The fried artichoke hearts with a creamy lemony aioli and lemon wedge are a must; bite-sized with a light cornmeal crust and sprinkled generously with shaved parmesan, they're light enough not to ruin your appetite for dinner.

The grilled octopus and white bean salad with a slightly spicy but not overwhelming datil pepper vinaigrette is a flavor and texture explosion: Chewy, warm pieces of seasoned octopus contrast the creamy oversized white beans served atop mixed greens, colorful julienned carrots and chunks of tomato. If you’ve never had octopus, I urge you to give it a try. The Asian-inspired chopped tuna salad combines almond slivers, tomato, black sesame seeds and chopped seared ahi tuna drizzled with spicy Siracha and wasabi.

The pan-fried cod sandwich is a big piece of fresh flaky white fish resting between thick tomato slices, crisp lettuce and a toasted hoagie roll accompanied by a light turnip slaw and pile of seasoned wedge fries, which I enjoy dousing with tangy malt …   More

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A Beaches-must, Cinotti’s Bakery (1523 Penman Road, Jax Beach, 246-1728) is a fifth-generation bakery, dating back more than 65 years, arriving in Northeast Florida in 1964. Old-timers can recall its First Avenue North location, steps from the ocean. With über-popular seasonal pumpkin, maple bacon, coffee and key lime donuts, the "new" Penman Road spot serves other bakery confections and deli sandwiches on freshly baked bread. Cinotti’s cases are overflowing with trays of cookies, pastries, cupcakes and chocolate truffles. Grab a decadent donut or two and a cup of coffee — and a box of assorted goodies to keep your home team happy.

Minutes from the beach is the wildly popular TacoLu (1712 Beach Blvd., Jax Beach, 249-8226), which locals quickly dubbed “NuLu” after a recent relocation. The larger ’Lu, with additional parking and valet service, has an expanded bar area and an outdoor patio with seating for 40, complete with a colorful mural on the building's side, painted by local artist Jessica Becker. You can feel full after just looking at the menu of quesadillas, enchiladas, salads and tacos. The bangin’ shrimp taco is most popular, but the carne royale — carne asada with melted brie and grape salsa — is uniquely delicious. A relatively new weekend brunch service helps fans forgive that the ’Lu is closed on Mondays. Well, that and the impressive 120-plus choices of tequila. Even the sour mix is made in-house, with fresh-squeezed citrus and homemade simple syrup. Margarita, anyone?

For a healthful breakfast or lunch, look for the bee. At Delicomb (1131 Third St. N., Jax Beach, 372-4192), within walking distance from the beach, you’ll find menu standouts like strong iced coffee, antioxidant-packed acai bowls, vegan tempeh Reubens and spicy kim chi.

Often crowded with seafood lovers, Sliders Seafood Grille (218 First St., Neptune Beach, 246-0881) provides a relaxed atmosphere that's …   More

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It sat vacant for quite some time, so I was thrilled to hear that a San Marco storefront would soon be a source for buttery biscuits. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a hot, flaky, not-too-doughy-but-still-delightful biscuit?

The new space feels much more warm, cozy and inviting than it did with the two previous inhabitants (The Black Bean, Moe’s), with the addition of wood panels to the open layout, calming colors and a self-service coffee area. Faux chalkboard menus sport a list of all things biscuit-like. And how do you know your order is ready? They yell out the name of your favorite band or favorite childhood TV show — nuggets of your life revealed when you ordered.

On my first visit, I quickly loosened my waistband and ordered The Loaded Goat (with fried chicken breast and a fried goat cheese medallion) and The Sticky Maple (with fried chicken breast, pecan bacon topped with real maple syrup) and two sides that piqued my interest: grits and Smoky Mountain Mac-N-Cheese.
 The signature biscuit sandwiches range from $4 to $7 and are filling. Sauces and other sides (sweet potato fries, collards, black-eyed peas, salad, pepper jelly, butter, cheese, honey, apple butter, maple syrup, etc.) are additional. And for you true Southerners, I hear the sausage gravy is to die for.

The biscuits were good, but not overly fluffy. They were sturdy enough to support the generous piece of moist fried chicken, which wasn’t the slightest bit greasy. The creamy melted goat cheese edged out the Sticky Maple. The Mac-N-Cheese was decent and I enjoyed my creamy grits, which I doused with Louisiana hot sauce.

On my second visit, I went simple: a biscuit with seasonal pumpkin butter and a coffee. Of the several varieties offered, I preferred the slightly sweet Maple Tap coffee, roasted specially for the restaurant. My biscuit was flaky and delicious, and the pumpkin butter had tons of flavor.

Maple Street’s hours of operation …   More

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How can you not love a restaurant that shares its name with a delicious dessert made from three different milks?

Owners Eddie and Irene Sweda opened Tres Leches at the corner of Stockton and Myra streets in historic Riverside eight months ago, after relocating from Springfield.

Selling more than just sweets, Tres Leches is open for breakfast, lunch and a light dinner. The Swedas' passion for creating good food is contagious, and Irene Sweda's tried-and-true Venezuelan recipes are made from scratch.

One standout that I haven't had anywhere else in Northeast Florida is the arepa: a round hand-held corn cake that encases your choice of fixings. I've found that butter, black beans and queso blanco make for a nice light breakfast or lunch. It's a bit messy, but the outer corn cake proves sturdy enough to support the fillings. (Insider tip: You can order breakfast items like egg and cheese as fillings.) Wash it down with Tres Leches' freshly made House Lime-n-ade that's refreshing and not too sweet.

The menu features pastries, quiches, artisan breads, sandwiches, cakes and homemade soups. I stumbled upon something on my last visit that's worth sharing: On the third Saturday of each month, Tres Leches offers a $15 three-course brunch, with a choice of coffee, tea or fresh-squeezed orange juice (with complimentary refills).

I tried the brunch recently and was impressed. First up was a spreadable Mediterranean mousse with a stack of crisp crostini. The mousse reminded me of a Greek-inspired, five-layer dip that had been blended together. The feta, olives, onion, cucumber, yellow squash, sun-dried tomatoes, peppers and spices fused perfectly.

From the three entrée options, I chose the asparagus, leek and gruyere quiche, but I also snagged a few bites of the tuna and orzo salad. The tuna, flown in from the West Coast, was fresh and flavorful. Full from the first two courses, I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of the dessert: A trio of lemon …   More

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Stop at 5th Element (9485 Baymeadows Road, 448-8265) or India’s Restaurant (9802 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 8, 620-0777) for a bountiful Indian buffet lunch. With items ranging from vegetarian dishes to lamb and goat, and mild to extremely spicy, experiment with a small helping of everything. Scoop up your sag paneer or channa masala with a few wedges of warm Indian flatbread called naan. It’s cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). India’s, voted best Indian food in Jacksonville by Folio Weekly readers, has a more open, light, modern atmosphere than 5th Element (a former Village Inn), but the 5th's buffet is easily three, if not four, times larger and more diverse than India’s. Load up on India’s crispy vegetable pakora fritters if they have them. Delicious!

Authentic Vietnamese noodle house Bowl of Pho (9902 Old Baymeadows Road, 646-4455) is immaculate and cozy, and there’s always a good crowd, especially during the lunch hour. The portions are as large as the menu is long. Try the mi hoanh than, or BBQ pork and wonton egg noodle soup; add in a fistful of items served alongside it, like raw jalapeno slices, saw-leaf herb (flavor similar to cilantro but stronger), fragrant Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, chopped green onion and cilantro. Pronounced “fuh,” not “foe,” pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup that traditionally contains beef broth and rice noodles along with varieties of meat including rare beef, beef flank, brisket, tendon (connective tissue that’s cooked for a long time at a slow temperature, which becomes pliable and gelatinous like beef fat), tripe (stomach of a domesticated animal) and meatballs. If you’ve never had Vietnamese cuisine, try a boba milk smoothie, which has chewy black tapioca pearls in the bottom, to be slurped up in a thick, colorful straw. Taro, avocado and honeydew are popular flavors.

Less than a mile apart, Thai spots Pattaya Thai (9551 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 1, …   More

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There’s good pizza, and there’s bad pizza. Brewer’s Pizza is a gem, tucked away just off I-10 in Orange Park. Home of the Florida Smacker, a “Lip-smack’n Southern style pizza,” it's Brewer’s signature 8-inch square, deep-dish pizza with melted cheese that extends to the crispy edges of the beer-dough crust. Dipped in ranch or a side of marinara, it's a pizza-lover’s dream and some of Northeast Florida’s best. The corners are crunchy, but the center of the crust is light and chewy.

If you’re not in the mood for a deep-dish pizza, opt for the hand-tossed pizza. Both are excellent. Regular topping choices include green peppers, banana peppers, pepperoncini, jalapeños, mushrooms, black or green olives, tomatoes, white or red onions, pepperoni, ham, bacon, Italian sausage, ground sirloin, mozzarella, garlic and pineapple. Specialty toppings are gyro meat, meatball, chicken, ricotta, Romano, feta and cheddar.

Can’t decide? Remove the guesswork and order one of Brewer’s specialty pies. Available in Florida Smacker style or round, there’s Buffalo Chicken (mozzarella, chicken, bacon, green pepper and buffalo sauce), Swamp Chicken (mozzarella, homemade swamp sauce — not pizza sauce — plus gator tail, chicken, tomato and Cajun crust), and the clever Seafaring Pig (mozzarella, homemade seafood sauce, shrimp, crab, bacon, mushroom, tomato and chives).

In addition to salads, soup and a calzone, there are several Boar’s Head sandwiches available on Mamaw’s 8-inch toasted sub roll or a wrap — with Brewer’s world-famous Pinglehead sandwich spread.

We also ordered Guido Spoonpipe’s wings — available in plain, BBQ, sweet BBQ, mild and hot — which are lightly breaded and brushed with buffalo sauce then baked in a pizza convection oven, instead of being fried. We ordered them mild, and a pile of 10 plump wings arrived accompanied by a …   More

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Olio Chef Greg DeSanto has carved out a culinary niche nestled in a hip space within the historic J.H. Churchwell building in Jacksonville’s urban core.

DeSanto’s kitchen creativity places emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, offering seasonal items in addition to Olio’s popular static menu.

For spring, several new, hunger-inducing items have appeared: cold gazpacho soup, duck wonton soup, tuna steak sandwich with carrot and fennel salad on ciabatta, housemade chicken and foie gras boudin blanc, a skirt steak bahn mi with spicy Sriracha aioli; a Monte Cristo with blackberry jam, pork belly and fried egg on ciabatta and a ground lamb burger. May I just have one of everything?

New items aside, I have some tried-and-true favorites. I’ll let you in on a secret: Olio’s fish tacos are some of the best in town. Two soft flour tortillas are piled with thick slabs of moist, blackened fish topped with a mandarin orange fruit salsa, crunchy cabbage and a cilantro-lime crème drizzle. If fish doesn’t strike your fancy, you can swap it with chicken, shrimp or carnitas instead.

Don’t eat meat? The popular falafel wrap features housemade pickles, crisp Romaine lettuce, creamy red pepper coulis and chickpea patties snuggled in a warm naan blanket.

All of Olio’s side items are a la carte. Regulars enjoy the homemade French fries and thick-cut potato chips, both served with a creamy basil aioli. Rotating sides include crispy dill potatoes, mushroom risotto, orzo salad, zucchini fries, Mediterranean couscous, mac ‘n’ cheese, three-grain salad and hummus with pita chips.

Olio also offers a wide range of deep-dish quiches: steak and bleu cheese, quiche Lorraine, chicken and bacon, mushroom, three-cheese, ham and Swiss, and smoked chicken with asparagus.

DeSanto’s popularity index shot up last year when The Travel Channel’s Adam Richman from “Man vs. Food” stopped in. …   More

 
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