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BITE-SIZED

Vitamin-rich calcium. Strong bones. 
 Hunger-busting protein. That's why I 
 eat cheese — right? Of course not. I eat cheese because it's absolutely delicious, and because there are so many varieties. We're not talking Velveeta or slices of that fluorescent Kraft-processed-whatever-it-is or the shakers of grocery-store Parmesan you dumped on your spaghetti as a kid. There are so many kinds of cheese to choose from — luxurious creamy cheeses, hardy firm aged cheeses, stinky blues — all begging to join your plate.

Because of that versatility, constructing your own winning cheese plate may be daunting. It's not; in fact, it's surprisingly simple.

Start by limiting the varieties. Stick with a trio. Since contrast is important, include one of each: soft, firm and blue, which will provide a nice assortment of flavors (salty, nutty, buttery, sweet, earthy, smoky, fruity) and textures. If you want four kinds, consider making one of your soft selections a goat cheese (soft and spreadable,) and another brie.

Cheeses with different textures — take that soft, creamy brie, for example — can be used to offset a firmer Gouda or Gruyere. Try a triple cream (so smooth!) called St. Andre. If you're in the mood to go blue, opt for maximum flavor by grabbing a Stilton, Maytag Blue or Roquefort. Be open. Experiment.

You really can't screw this up. There are no rules. Just be sure that you have several flavors and textures, and keep in mind that each cheese should have a separate spreader so you don't mix discordant flavors.

Once your trio is picked, label your selections. (Think chalk on a blackboard cheese tray or insert small toothpick flags with your selections' names on them into the cheeses.) If your guests fall in love with one of your choices — and why wouldn't they? — they'll easily be able to learn its name, origin and type.

Remember that most cheeses are at their best when served at room temperature. Set them out about 45 minutes prior …   More

BITE-SIZED

You can get dinner and a movie in one stop at the eclectic Five Points theater Sun-Ray Cinema. Two years ago, Tim Massett and his wife, Shana, reopened the historic 1927 theater and ramped up the menu.

For movie theater food, Sun-Ray's snack bar earns top-notch ratings. There's an emphasis on local ingredients, such as the use of freshly baked bread and hot dog buns from Bakery Moderne, beers from Bold City Brewing on tap, Bold Bean Coffee Roasters coffee, Twinn Bridges kombucha on draft and popcorn toppings from Blue Buddha Exotic Foods in Riverside.

The popcorn bar is a moviegoer's dream: more than a dozen mix-and-match, shake-it-yourself toppings like thyme, dill, hot Chinese mustard, cinnamon, nutritional yeast, zhatar and a truffle oil mist. Shana Massett stresses that you won't find any artificial ingredients. All the popcorn is popped with Himalayan sea salt, black pepper, garlic powder and annatto (for color).

The 9-inch pizzas and specialty pies are a must. Craving something sweet and spicy? Go for the Pagan Love Song: housemade crust topped with mozzarella or rinotta (vegan dairy-free cheese: instead of "ricotta," ), ham, pineapple, jalapeños and spicy sriracha. The Zaat, with salty and crunchy Korean-style kimchi and a fried egg, is equally delicious. And Shana Massett swears that the Bold New Pizza of the South — rinotta, roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, mushrooms, hummus and olives — is so good that non-vegans order it regularly. For meat lovers, there's the aptly named Uncle Meat with salami, pepperoni, ham and sausage.

In addition, Sun-Ray offers hot dogs with your choice of toppings, nachos, hummus, breadsticks and a handful of sandwiches. The Wildly Inauthentic Cuban caught my eye: pulled pork, ham, sweet pickles and Swiss cheese on fresh-pressed bread. It's tasty, but I'm still a pizza girl at heart.

Come thirsty. In addition to pitchers of soda and beer, you can order wine by the glass or bottle, bottled natural …   More

ULTIMATE SUMMER GUIDE

SHRIMP BOIL

Sunday afternoon (live music on the deck 4-8 p.m.)

Whitey’s Fish Camp, 2032 C.R. 220, Orange Park

Price: $15.99

269-4198, whiteysfishcamp.com

Nothing quite says summer like a low-country boil on the water. With live music wafting through the air, a breeze blowing through your hair and a frosty beverage in your hand, Whitey’s is the perfect spot to unwind. Shrimp are served with pieces of potatoes, spicy sausage and corn on the cob — a finger-licking-good spread, bebe.

 

DIPPED SOFT-SERVE VANILLA ICE CREAM CONE

Dreamette, 3646 Post St., Murray Hill

Price: $2.40 for a small cone

379-4343, facebook.com/dreamette

Cones, shakes and banana splits, oh my! This neighborhood spot is perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day — good thing the cones have a little plastic drip-guard. The soft-serve vanilla is dipped in your choice of flavored coatings (butterscotch, cake batter, chocolate, etc.). For 65 years, Dreamette has doled out sweet delights to adults and children alike. Portions are generous, prices are reasonable, it’s all delicious — and because of that, you’ll usually find yourself waiting in line. Bring a wad of dollar bills: Dreamette only takes cash.

 

THE JACK DEL RIO GRANDE SUB AND LARGE SWEET TEA

Tuesdays-Saturdays

Angie’s Subs, 1436 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville Beach

Price: $6.45 for a 10-inch sub

246-2519, facebook.com/angiessubs

Warm turkey, roast beef, crispy bacon, melted provolone, sautéed mushrooms, crunchy barbecue Frito chips and spicy ranch dressing on a toasted white or wheat hoagie roll (your choice) make for a perfect pre- or post-beach lunch. Douse it with one of the squeeze bottles of tangy Peruvian sauce and pair it with a bag of chips. Fill up your cup from an oversized vat of award-winning sweet iced tea. The atmosphere’s laid-back with mismatched tables and chairs and an authentic, casual, easy-going …   More

BITE-SIZED

It can be a daunting task to pick a lunch spot 
in bustling historic St. Augustine when so many great options abound. I love a nice al fresco meal, so Casa Maya always comes to mind, with its sprawling open-air courtyard charm and eclectic menu.

In late 2012, the restaurant relocated from 17 Hypolita to 22 Hypolita — a much roomier space, complete with outside second-story patio seating and the aforementioned courtyard.

On one visit, we started with homemade-style salsa and organic blue corn chips ($3.50), which proved unremarkable; on another visit, we chose gooey queso fundido ($7.50) — baked Mexican cheese, salsa and chips aplenty. Black bean soup with rice ($3.95 for a cup) is also a satisfying choice, but obviously not as sharable.

Now, the dilemma: The marinated shrimp tacos (3 for $10.95) are satisfying, but the fish tacos are an absolute must. Savor these three tortilla-wrapped treasures (your choice of soft corn or flour) with flaky, flavorful grilled chunks of mahi, crisp slivers of romaine, refreshing diced pico de gallo and a heavy-handed drizzle of homemade chipotle mayo. Accompaniments aside, it's the freshness of the fish that makes this dish shine.

Another go-to is the huinic sandwich ($8.95) — ropa vieja with sweet plantains and creamy avocado slices on freshly baked bread, served with chips and salsa. The flavors and textures work fabulously with one another. If you've never had ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban-style dish, definitely experience this one: shredded slow-cooked brisket with onions, bell pepper, tomatoes and a touch of chipotle. Because it's slow-roasted, the meat is extraordinarily tender.

Casa Maya is open Wednesday through Monday, and it's a treat to dine outside and relax. Grab an adult beverage and unwind. The Sunday breakfast menu looks great, too — crunchy deconstructed enchilada-like chilaquiles, pillowy sweet potato pancakes, huevos rancheros and more. Did I mention homemade sangria? Oh, and save room …   More

BITE-SIZED

What's 31 days long, full of health benefits and colorful vegetables, and has local community and restaurant support? If you guessed No Meat March, you win. (I probably shouldn't proclaim "winner, winner, chicken dinner!")

Foregoing meat is gaining momentum for a number of reasons, and while many already honor Meatless Monday — dedicating one day a week to conscientious vegetarianism — No Meat March (nomeatmarch.com) encourages Northeast Floridians to take a 31-day pledge to give up meat and seafood. As a participant for the past two years, I found my energy increased and I began craving leafy greens and juicy fruits. Honestly, tempeh and tofu (which, when cooked properly, is quite versatile) are delicious and enabled me to experience one of the best Reuben sandwiches of my life, made with tempeh, sauerkraut and avocado on pressed ciabatta bread.

Local meteorologist Julie Watkins, a vegan all the time (not just Mondays, and not just March), helped found Girls Gone Green in 2007 to bring awareness to the environment, animal welfare and health. "Everything is connected," she says, "and how we look at one greatly impacts the others."

Meat-free for nearly 20 years, Watkins has several favorite places around the area with menu items she recommends. "Happy Cup in Atlantic Beach has the yummiest wraps — the strawberry with hazelnut, almonds and agave is the best," she raves. "And Tapa That [in 5 Points] has mushroom quesadillas that are amazing!"

Looking for easy meat-free options? Hit these spots: any Mellow Mushroom, any Tropical Smoothie (which carries Beyond Meat, chicken-free strips you can substitute in any menu item), Buddha Thai Bistro and any European Street Café.

"No Meat March is a short-term commitment and challenge that will take you out of your box," says Jessica Campbell, co-founder of Jax Vegan Love. "It will inspire you to explore new recipes at home and try new menu items you may have previously overlooked when dining …   More

BITE-SIZED

Looking for some tasty, inexpensive, low-frills, diner-style fare served in a chill atmosphere? Check out 5 Points' Derby on Park, near the landmark flashing light roundabout.

Start with the supremely simple yet savory Derby Fries ($5.95): A pile of crisp house-cut potatoes topped with a rich, flavorful beef gravy. If you're dining with a group, the diced chicken and spinach nachos ($9.50) with tomatoes and a runny white cheese sauce are ridiculously large and should more than hold you over until your meal arrives.

As far as burgers go, you can't go wrong with the popular 3B — a perfect trifecta of smoked bacon, crumbled bleu cheese and balsamic spring mix ($10.95). Or try the Jack & Tom, complete with fried green tomato, onion, jack cheese and ranch dressing.

Perhaps the most interesting menu item is a 12-inch, hand-dipped, cornmeal battered corn dog that brilliantly recalls carnival food. The batter is delicious and slightly sweet. Order it with a hearty helping of fries; you won't be hungry again for days (or weeks).

The Van Fletcher Reuben ($9.95) is a traditional offering done right. Think two grilled slabs of marble rye bread smothered with sambal aioli then loaded with a half-pound of corned beef and pastrami, as well as the requisite tangy sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese.

Derby uses local Intuition Ale Works' Jon Boat Coastal Ale to batter the flaky redfish on the Intuition Fish 'n' Chips ($12.50) platter, which includes fries, cole slaw and a cup of smoky chipotle aioli for dipping — comfort food at its finest.

For vegetarians, the meatless, crêpe-like Tuck & Roll ($10.50) touts creamed spinach, sautéed portabella, mixed peppers and onions rolled up in an oversized lasagna noodle and topped with mozzarella and marinara. The corners of the noodles were overcooked, resulting in oddly (though not undesirable) crunchy edges.

One complaint: The service was prompt, but it took way too long for our lunch to get to our table. …   More

BITE-SIZED

Is it considered an obsession if you've eaten at a place five times the first two weeks it's open for business? If so, consider me obsessed with Hawkers.

First, the menu. Part infographic (so that's how I hold my chopsticks!), part design masterpiece, there's an abundance of mouthwatering options, and that's because Hawkers serves up street food from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Malaysia. (The food is so good, I temporarily forget I'm in 5 Points.)

I can't say enough about the atmosphere: Huge windows open to unveil an entirely open façade. Large upside-down wok-like pans serve as light fixtures and hang from an exposed wood beam ceiling. An old upcycled wooden palette with chalkboard paint serves as the craft beer list.

Hawkers is thoroughly modern, comfortable and hip.

The food speaks for itself. I can't think of any comparable places in town that have such a culturally diverse menu with such reasonable prices.

Start with the roti canai, a Malaysian flat bread ($3) that I can best describe as fluffy Indian naan meets the airiness of a French crêpe. It's served with a cup of delightfully spicy curry dipping sauce. Another standout is the crispy roasted pork "siu yoke" ($6), or pork belly, served with a thick hoisin dipping sauce and garnished with scallions.

Items are intended to be shared, even the soups. You'll receive a large bowl, two smaller cups and a giant ladle. The tom yum soup ($8.50) touts a spicy lemongrass broth that's loaded with flat rice noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, basil, straw mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers. It's great on a chilly day and leaves you feeling warm inside.

I preferred the stir-fry noodle dishes to the rice bowls. Hawkers' stir-fry udon noodles ($8), with eggs, scallions, onions, bean sprouts and carrots, and chicken pad Thai ($8) earn my top honors. Runner-up? The Zha Jiang Mian ($7.50), a traditional Chinese dish with blanched noodles, ground chicken, yow chow (a leafy green similar to bok …   More

BITE-SIZED

What started as a taco stand in St. Augustine more than 10 years ago has transformed into a small, laid-back eatery in St. Augustine Shores. Since nothing on the menu is priced over $10, Nalu's is a great spot for dining in or grabbing a bite 
on the run.

A chalkboard outside the door displays specials, and I was immediately enticed by the Mermaid Wrap ($9): seared Cajun ahi tuna, sticky rice with cilantro pesto and soy sauce and diced cucumber, all happily tucked away in a toasted spinach wrap. It was a magical blend of ingredients and flavors, and I'd certainly order it again.

The Ahi Burger ($9) is a burger-shaped mound of fresh yellowfin tuna steak that's seasoned and served on a soft whole-wheat bun. Topped with a cilantro pesto, crisp pieces of red cabbage, shreds of cheddar and jack cheeses and homemade baja sauce, it was nicely portioned.

After observing the "Best Tacos in St. Augustine" embellishment on the menu, we also ordered two tacos — one shrimp, one blackened mahi. Both arrived on flour tortillas piled haphazardly with cabbage, shredded cheese, cilantro pesto and a drizzle of thick, creamy baja sauce. Of the two, the mahi was better; the fish was juicy, nicely seasoned and, perhaps most important, full of flavor.

Most tacos and burgers are served with your choice of side — beans and rice, corn tortilla chips and salsa (red or verde), or a simple salad tossed with light mango dressing, garnished with cucumber slices and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds.

Nalu's serves only wild-caught fish (no farm-raised nonsense here!), making for really flavorful tacos, burritos and sashimi. And fresh is the name of the game: The eatery's sauces, salsas, soups and pestos are crafted using fresh ingredients from a local farmers' market and various area produce stands.

Kids will go crazy for the assortment of cleverly named shaved Hawaiian ices ($2-$3), such as luau lime, big kahuna cherry and da cotton candy kine.

The original location …   More

BITE-SIZED

A plane trip to France may be too far away for lunch or dinner, but JJ’s Bistro, with two area locations, is a good way to get your French fix.

Upon entering the Gate Parkway location, JJ’s Bistro de Paris, my eyes grew wide as I noticed the huge dessert case. These tempting goodies, which include pastries, tarts, tortes, éclairs, cheesecakes and other sweets, are all created fresh. Breads are also baked in-house.

We were quickly greeted and seated, passing by a tall metal replica of Paris’ famous landmark Eiffel Tower. I’ve been in the real tower twice, so this was nostalgic for me. Despite being located in a strip mall, JJ’s puts great detail in its mood-setting décor: A large painted mural of a Paris city street scene spans the main wall, and high ceilings and striped awnings over the doorways further enhance the Parisian feel.

I started my lunch with a cup of JJ’s French onion soup, which didn't disappoint. Peeling back the melted cheese layer unveiled piping hot soup with thin caramelized onions and pieces of cheese-covered soaked baguette.

The menu boasts several French favorites like salad niçoise, croque-monsieur, bouillabaisse, escargot and moules provencales et frites (mussels and fries), so there’s truly something for your inner-Parisian.

Several daily specials are listed on a small chalkboard at the table. We went with two from the list: a warm turkey, brie and green apple sandwich on brioche with raspberry aioli and chicken Florentine crêpes tarragon, topped with sun-dried tomato cream sauce and almonds. Each comes with a side, so when our waiter explained that the French fries are hand-cut and made fresh, we ordered those and a side salad. The fries were thin and crispy, and we gobbled them up quickly.

The sandwich won us over: creamy brie melting over tart green apple slices on bread topped with sesame seeds and aromatic garlic. The two thinly rolled crêpes were good, but the almonds were inside (not outside as …   More

BITE-SIZED

At The Blind Rabbit, you'll find a bustling 
 dining room filled with the chatter of 
 bronzed beachgoers and families alike, an impressive two-page whiskey list and a menu to surely please the pickiest of eaters. The spot — in business now for six months — is the brainchild of local restaurateurs John and Jeff Stanford, who also own and operate The Blind Fig in Riverside. (The Rabbit's dining room is much larger than the Fig's, and the back wall touts a colorful mural by local artist Shaun Thurston, who also created the detailed mural on the Fig's exterior.)

We began with bacon and corn croquettes ($8), served atop a nicely presented bed of creamy diced avocado, corn, microgreens and jalapeño-tomato hot sauce. They were crisp on the outside and delightfully soft on the inside. With a portion serving of five, these larger-than-a-hushpuppy fried balls are an easily shared appetizer.

After perusing the multiple burger options, I landed on The Southern Burger ($12) — fried green tomato, Creole pimento cheese, peach habañero hot sauce, arugula, Georgia cane syrup and pickled okra spears — accompanied by sweet potato fries and several dipping sauces (curry mayo, bourbon-spiked Creole mustard and spicy ketchup), all of which were winners. So was the burger.

The shrimp rémoulade salad ($15) was another standout. Butter lettuce, grape tomatoes, long pieces of hearts of palm, fried green tomato, red bell pepper, celery and red onions tango with jumbo shrimp tossed in a creamy rémoulade dressing. The artful presentation and size of the shrimp were impressive.

The s'mores brownie ($6) was much too rich — layers of graham cracker crumbs, warm Belgian chocolate brownie and peanut butter mousse, topped with gooey brûléed marshmallow. Go for one of the milkshakes as a lighter treat. While the vanilla ($4) was perfectly creamy, for a few bucks more, aim high and get the maple bacon ($7), which, as the name suggests, is mixed with bacon-infused …   More

 
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