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BITE-SIZED

I’m about to let you in on some secrets. One: Until last week, I’d never experienced dim sum. (I know, right?) Two: Inside a restaurant, inside a strip mall, lies a special room that serves up Cantonese-style small plates — dim sum — that will rock your world.

Since dim sum isn’t readily available across the area, it was exciting to order a range of dishes and embark on an exploration of these new-to-me items. Dim sum is essentially Chinese tapas, served on individual small plates or in a small steamer basket. You won’t find most of these versions on a standard Chinese menu.

We started with the chicken feet ($3.75), shark’s fin dumplings ($4.25), scallop dumpling ($4.25), fried shrimp balls ($4.25), shumai ($3.75), fried taro dumpling ($3.75), steamed taro bun ($3.75) and crispy pork belly ($9.95).

So, the chicken feet? Not for the faint of heart, or me — lots of small bones, odd texture (think of the fat that surrounds your rib-eye) and generally weird because they arrive looking like little feet that are waving (or high-fiving?) at you. Since they’re mostly skin, I found them to have an extremely gelatinous mouthfeel. My tablemates loved them, so maybe it’s just not my thing.

The piping-hot oversized shrimp balls had a super-crisp, crunchy exterior akin to fried noodles, which gave way to a chewy, shrimpy interior. Along with the shark’s fin dumplings, fried taro dumplings, steamed taro buns and crispy pork, I’d definitely order them again.

Our plate of perfectly crispy pork belly, served with a side of hoisin sauce, was gigantic — more than enough for three to share. Our waitress also presented us with a diluted Hong Kong red vinegar, tangy and acidic, which we preferred to the sweet hoisin.

The steamed taro buns were tennis-ball-sized rolls of goodness of a light purple hue, and soft and fluffy in texture, imparting a subtly sweet taro flavor.

The Dim Sum Room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and if your …   More

BITE-SIZED

Less than a year ago, Blake Burnett revved up the engine of his new food truck — and he hasn’t looked back. The owner and chef of Chew Chew describes his truck’s menu as “fresh and eclectic.”

“I try to be playful with our food, but use quality ingredients and make everything from scratch,” he says.

Offerings change about once a week, but lucky for you (and me!) several mainstays remain due to their popularity. Top-sellers include lobster corn dogs ($10), Korean BBQ short rib melt ($8) and a newer item, goat cheese polenta fries ($6).

I’ve had the massive Korean melt on toasted sourdough several times — its tangy, salty homemade kimchi coleslaw adds another dimension to the savory shredded barbecue short ribs and melty smoked Gouda. (It’s perfect paired with the accompanying crispy homemade potato chips.) But lately my weakness has been the polenta fries, artfully arranged rectangles of polenta goodness topped with goat cheese crumbles, crisp bacon pieces and a scattering of diced scallions. The way the cheese slightly melts but doesn’t get liquid-y is what makes these so fabulous. And I could drink the creamy basil aioli dipping sauce.

As for the Maine lobster corn dogs — where else in Northeast Florida can you get skewers of tender lobster pieces, battered and fried to a golden brown and served with a lemon Dijon honey mustard dipping sauce? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

If burgers are your thing, go for the trio of BBQ slider burgers ($8), which are nicely seasoned and then piled with bacon, white cheddar, fried jalapeños and homemade barbecue sauce.

And vegetarians, don’t fret: Caprese grilled cheese ($7) on parmesan-crusted sourdough is for you. The mozzarella is marinated in a basil pesto and topped with juicy sliced tomatoes. Yum.

Most items are served with a generous portion of Chew Chew’s homemade chips, which are just the right balance of crunchy and crispy, and perfectly salted (and ridiculously …   More

BITE-SIZED

In a former McAlister's Deli in bustling Tinseltown sits a spacious pho-friendly 
Vietnamese restaurant. The menu may be a 
bit overwhelming, so ask for recommendations if you're feeling adventurous — or stick to a standard broth-based pho soup that's loaded with noodles.

We bypassed the standard starters — edamame, dumplings and spring rolls — and went big. The thin pancake special (also known as banh uot dat biet) with minced shrimp, charbroiled pork and Vietnamese ham ($9.25) called our names. Our waitress warned us it wouldn't be like an "American pancake," and it certainly wasn't. The 
dish arrived unassembled, reminiscent of lettuce 
wraps — an interesting assortment of squishy, 
translucent "pancakes," pickled julienned 
vegetables, bean sprouts, scallions, shredded 
lettuce and the aforementioned meats, all 
accompanied by a thin, tangy fish dipping sauce. It was a fun start to the meal, and good for sharing.

With such a large menu, it can be difficult to narrow your choices. At nearby Bowl of Pho (my personal gold standard for local pho), I love the wonton egg noodle soup with pork, so I ordered the same ($8) at Pho Today. When my colorful oversized bowl arrived, there were noticeably more pork pieces in it than at Bowl of Pho, but after a few generous slurps, it was apparent the broth was lacking — more salt, perhaps? Otherwise, it had plenty of thin noodles, baby bok choy and plump pork-filled wontons.

From the house specialties, we selected Vietnamese shaking beef ($12.95), served with a mound of rice, slices of cucumber and tomatoes, and a cup of soup. The pieces of tender beef were cut into small pieces and cooked in a sauce rich in flavor, then shaken in a wok with cooked onions and garlic. Order this.

By the time our waitress informed us that they'd run out of their two Asian desserts — a three- and five-flavored bean dessert — we were already full. I'd usually go for an iced taro boba drink, but I was …   More

BITE-SIZED

Equal parts quirky and casual, Carmines Pie House fits perfectly into its hip Riverside
 location. Oh, and the weekday happy hour, from 2-6 p.m., is pretty sweet, too — $1.50 slices and half-priced local brews from Bold City and Intuition.

It's an inexpensive option for lunch or a laid-back dinner choice. And whoever came up with the menu descriptions and names is my hero. Reading items like "Devil Dog Frickles," "Jersey Shore Fried Calzone," "The Jerk," "The Bad Ass BLT" and "It's a Train Wreck Baby," you can't help but smile.

Speaking of train wrecks, order that one. There's more ham, beef, bacon, pepperoni, garlic (oh my!), spinach, tomato, onions, green peppers and pineapple than you could ever dream of atop this mozzarella-covered pie.

For apps, I like the shoestring zucchini fries ($7.27) with a creamy rémoulade for dipping, and the sour pot ($9.27), a tasty, though pricey, plate of sweet potato fries loaded with melted blue cheese crumbles, bacon pieces and a bourbon barbecue sauce. And don't forget those hand-breaded mozzarella planks ($7.27) — flat, rectangular slabs of cheesy goodness, served with marinara.

If you're craving an über-cheesy Chicago-style pizza ($11.57), Carmines nails it. Allow extra time, as this stuffed pie is thick and takes a while to cook, but it's so worth it.

Carmines touts 16 (!) varieties of wing sauces — take advantage and order the jumbo rooster wings ($9.37 for 11). For you herbivores, the Dy-no-myte tofu ($8.27) offers an interesting vegetarian alternative — seasoned cubes of fried tofu tossed in the sauce of your choice.

"Burning Down the House" hot lasagna ($15.57) is a towering stack of five thick, alternating layers of pasta, each topped with different deliciousness. If lasagna's your thing, this one's for you.

No matter what you choose, the portions are huge. But who am I to judge if you still have room for fried cheesecake bites ($6.77)?   More

BITE-SIZED

For the past six years, 20something William Jonathan Morgan has yearned to open a business. To get up and running quickly, he created a mobile coffee shop, and last month Vagabond Coffee's caravan hit the streets.

Vagabond got its start in San Marco at Aardwolf Brewery, but Morgan's heart was in Downtown Jacksonville. After securing the Laura Street Trio lot at the corner of Laura and Adams, as of Oct. 1 (coincidentally, also Morgan's birthday), Vagabond has had a place to call home on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The menu features lattes, pour-overs, Chemex (a precision brew method) and drip coffee, and Vagabond's staff does its best to concoct your coffee drink of choice — cappuccino, macchiato, cortado and beyond.

Top sellers? Chemex and the vanilla latte. I've enjoyed both, but my personal Vagabond favorite is affogato ($4), a shot of freshly 
pulled espresso with a creamy scoop of 
vanilla ice cream.

The customer base runs the gamut — you'll stand in line with Downtown locals, investment bankers, artists and performers just passing through town.

Lattes are $4 (add 50 cents for soy milk). Syrups include vanilla, agave and mocha and, occasionally, a special offering. Cold brew coffee is $4, and a cup from the Chemex is $3.50. Don't need a pick-me-up? Vagabond's got decaf, too.

For espresso drinks, the crew at Vagabond uses only single-origin espresso that can be paired with organic or soy milk. Most selections are made with locally produced beans from Bold Bean Coffee Roasters.

"We focus on quality, care and craftsmanship," Morgan says. "Bold Bean undoubtedly puts these in each roast, so there was no question about using them as our main supplier. We love supporting local businesses."

Morgan's fiancée, Samantha Friedman, bakes the scrumptious treats available onboard. I love the slabs of moist, hazelnutty Nutella banana bread ($3) and chewy molasses cookies. Currently, the duo is working on expanding the menu to …   More

BITE-SIZED

For a finger-lickin' good barbecue experience that's off the beaten track, drive west on Interstate 10 and take the exit for Marietta — then follow your nose.

Gators BBQ owners John and Sandy Shepherd's smoker cooks the signature meats low and slow.

Located in an old house converted into a restaurant, Gators may be small and no-frills, but portions are generous, and the prices are right. Start by ordering at the counter then take a seat. With fewer than 10 tables inside and on the small front porch area, you may find yourself sharing a table with strangers — but it's worth it.

There are the requisite starters — corn nuggets, fried okra, onion rings and Brunswick stew. The menu's broken into plates (your choice of meat plus two sides and garlic bread), sandwiches (served with one side), fresh seafood (with two sides and hushpuppies), family meals, an Angus beef hamburger, a hot dog and BBQ salad. With more than eight varieties of meat, channel your inner carnivore.

The tender, moist brisket and chopped pork had a nice smoky flavor and hardly any fat, with pieces of flavorful bark mixed in. An assortment of sauces is available, but a special sweet thicker sauce is spot-on (request it from the counter). Our tablemates had the smoked pork ribs which looked — and smelled — amazing.

As for sides, I'd order the collard greens and baked beans again, but the mac 'n' cheese was nothing special. Other options include potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni salad, corn on the cob, green beans and crinkle-cut French fries. The bite-sized corn nuggets with ranch dressing were perfectly golden pockets of creamy sweet corn, and can be a side item for an upcharge.

An incredibly friendly and warm staff greeted us; one woman with a slight Southern drawl brought out complementary small cups of freshly made banana pudding for everyone. The creamy, sweet dessert was studded with chunks of banana and crisp Nilla Wafers.

Closed on Sundays, …   More

BITE-SIZED

Mandaloun offers an authentic Lebanese culinary experience in the 
Baymeadows neighborhood.

For the past five years, Mandaloun has opened seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Chef Pierre Barakat usually visits each table at lunch and dinner, flashing his warm smile and speaking with a thick accent that adds to the authenticity of the experience.

If you're new to Mediterranean food, check out the expansive lunch buffet ($12.99 weekdays, $19.99 on Sunday), which offers an impressive assortment of authentic hot and chilled Lebanese delicacies.

From the cold mezze (appetizers) selections, my go-to choices are baba ganoush ($5.95), a smoky tahini, garlic and eggplant dip, and the thick, creamy hummus ($5.95) topped with a swirl of olive oil and a scattering of chickpeas. Both are served with warm pita bread.

Another favorite is the vegetarian-friendly, lemony tabouli ($6.45), a mix of finely chopped parsley, diced tomatoes, bulgur wheat, onion, lemon juice and olive oil.

If you're craving a warm starter, share an order of falafel ($5.95) — four crisp balls of gently fried ground chickpeas, herbs and spices.

For a light lunch or side item at dinner, try the fatoush salad ($6.45) — a mix of lettuce, tomato, chopped cucumber, radish, onion, mint, sumac and crispy pieces of Lebanese flatbread tossed in a dressing of olive oil, pomegranate molasses and lemon.

Entrées include kebab skewers of shish taouk (cubed spiced chicken, $12.95), kafta meshwi (minced lamb with parsley and onion, $11.95) and kafta khosh-khash (charcoal-grilled minced beef, $11.95). Each is served with sautéed mixed vegetables and a side of warm rice or salad. Seafood and vegetarian items are also available.

With indoor and outdoor seating, the restaurant is spacious and comfortable with large windows lining the perimeter. A small bar area is good for a pre-meal beer, glass of wine or cocktail.

For dessert, indulge in a traditional favorite — baklava. These petite, …   More

BITE-SIZED

The marriage of food and beer is synergistic. It opens the door to creativity on the chopping block. Multicourse dinners featuring a single brewery's curated selection of beers have been popular nationwide for years; locally, these half-liquid collaborations are taking place about once a month at Whole Foods Market in Mandarin. (Pre-sale tickets, ranging from $35-$40, include all of your food and beer.)

At the most recent dinner, Kristine Day from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and Whole Foods' Rachel Deremer hosted a five-course pairing that included diverse beer selections: Sierra's robust Bigfoot Barleywine, slightly tart Brux ale, wheat Kellerweis, hoppy Ruthless Rye IPA and a collaboration ale, Ovila Abbey Quad, as well as a welcoming simple pale ale served upon arrival. All were hearty pours, and you got a logo-emblazoned keepsake pint glass.

After we were seated, Day gave an overview of Sierra Nevada and the company's history, and explained the brewing process and various components that comprise beer. For show-and-tell, a jar of Cascade finishing hops was passed from table to table.

With a warm welcome and pair of manchego cheese-stuffed prosciutto-wrapped medjool dates that were all things savory, salty and sweet, the evening took off with a pour of the deeply hued Bigfoot Barleywine. Strong, and boldly flavored, it clocked in at a hefty 9.6 percent alcohol content.

Selecting the right beer to complement a dish is like winning the food lottery. Generally speaking, beer's carbonation helps to rid the tongue of fat, readying it for the next forkful. Hop-forward beers work well with fattier foods, helping to counterbalance rich sauces and lessening the dense feeling in your mouth. Malt-forward beers are better for spicy foods, as the malt's subtle sweetness tames the heat.

Following a bouillabaisse swimming with shrimp and mussels — paired with a copper-colored American wild ale called Brux — came a simple palate cleanser, a light mix of …   More

BITE-SIZED

It's hard to top a great meal enjoyed in a modern space with a well-curated wine list in the center of bustling, historic San Marco Square. Taverna recently expanded after four years in the former Café Carmon spot. It's evident that Executive Chef Sam Efron and wine director/wife Kiley Wynne Efron are passionate about the new environment and wider-ranging menu.

So what's new? Taverna now boasts a quick-casual lunch service along with an option for lunch delivery, a classy private dining room and the addition of craft cocktails (they'd offered only beer and wine before) to the menu.

The menu remains European-inspired, drawing from both Spain and Italy. Start with the house-made caprese ($10) with prosciutto ($6), meatballs and peasant bread ($10), sautéed calamari ($12) or citrus-marinated beet salad ($9).

The caprese's house-made cheese is amazing in and of itself, but when paired with fresh basil, juicy tomato, balsamic and olive oil, it's a huge hit. (The upcharge to add prosciutto is worth every penny.) The meatballs were also good, and the calamari served with Israeli couscous, tomatoes, garlic, capers, niçoise olives and a touch of lemon zest was just the right amount of spicy.

Speaking of great cheese, Taverna's customizable cheese-and-charcuterie plates are another smart way to start your meal. And since the selections change frequently, be sure to partake in Sweet Grass Dairy's delightfully creamy Green Hill, from Thomasville, Ga. The meat selections include popular cured meats like jamon Serrano, prosciutto di parma, hot capocollo, soppressata, Genoa salami and chorizo.

Lately, it's been hard to pass up the Monday night special — any of Taverna's signature brick-oven pizzas paired with a pint of cold Intuition Ale Works beer for $12. The pizzas usually run up to $18, and another $5 for the beer. (That's 11 bucks you can put toward dessert.) I recommend the soppressata — topped with house-made mozzarella, juicy robust San Marzano …   More

BITE-SIZED

I love pizza. And you do, too. I mean, who 
 doesn't? There's something intrinsically 
 comforting and magical about the harmony of that scalding-hot gooey cheese, a proper smear of flavorful sauce, a mishmash of crazy toppings and the crisp, chewy crust.

We all have lists of our favorite pizza joints in town, but there's something to be said about a place around the corner that's good, cheap and easy. And sometimes I just like the laidback vibe, fun décor, wafting music and oversized comfortable booths at Moon River.

It's low frills: walk in, peruse the chalkboard menu, place your order, pay. You'll receive a framed postcard that's totally random (think Mr. Rogers or My Little Pony on roller skates), which will help your server know who ordered what. Grab a seat and they'll bring it to you.

Feeling healthy? Begin with a salad. I enjoy the Greek, because it's fresh and simple but not wimpy — leafy Romaine topped with sliced tomatoes, strips of green pepper, both green and black olives (olive lovers, rejoice!), fresh mushrooms, slices of onion and crumbles of feta cheese. And the accompanying creamy Caesar dressing is dreamy. (I dunk my pizza crust in it, too.)

If you're not counting calories (lucky you), start with the pesto stix ($4.75) or bread stix ($4.50), which are generously portioned and perfect for sharing.

Moon River's pizza is best when ordered as an entire pie rather than just a slice or two. My favorite is the white (large $16.50, slice $2), which is sauce-less and topped with a blend of mozzarella, feta and Parmesan, extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, oregano and a sprinkle of black pepper.

On other occasions, I'll grab a slice of the vegetarian just because it's so stacked with veggies. Like, there's literally a pile, and many of them are raw (tomatoes, onions, peppers). More cheese is then added on top and re-melted.

You can, of course, create your own pies from the list of two dozen toppings, and there's options for …   More

 
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