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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

En route to Chicago for Memorial Day 
 weekend, I grabbed a copy of June's Food & Wine from the airport bookshop, because this is what I do. And while thumbing though Food & Wine, I landed on a small feature called "Where to Find America's Best Biscuits," and noticed happily that our very own Maple Street Biscuit Company (410 N. Third St., Jax Beach and 2004 San Marco Blvd.) was featured alongside noteworthy spots in the Big Apple, Asheville, Portland and — hey, what do you know? — Chicago. Touted as sour cream-based biscuits that are baked hourly, Chicago's Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits was quickly added to my must-eat trip list — along with tacos at Big Star, anything and everything at Girl & the Goat, dessert at Mindy's Hot Chocolate, deep dish pizza at Pequod's and Asian fusion at Sunda.

As I waited in line for Bang Bang to open Sunday morning, the smell of butter wafted through the air. Inside, Bang Bang is small, with large windows, brick walls and an open kitchen, with seating for only about 10. A spacious backyard courtyard with two rows of white picnic tables offers another 40 seats. The spot feels rural and charming, a relaxed vibe for your pending calorie-bender.

While noshing on the Bacon Biscuit, I had a thought: What if I pitted these two caloric champions, Bang Bang and Maple Street, against each other? How would our local fare compare to that of the Windy City, a place with (supposedly) a much richer foodie culture?

In this corner was my Maple Street go-to, the Garden Egg, made with butter only — no lard — and served stacked with collard greens, a fried egg and a drizzle of hot sauce. In the other corner was Bang Bang's Bacon Biscuit, served open-face with thick strips of candied Applewood smoked bacon, collard greens, homemade Fresno chili hot sauce and a sunny-side-up poached egg — noticeably larger and much denser (perhaps from the sour cream?) than Maple Street's Southern-style biscuit. …   More

BITE-SIZED

I recently spotted Howard Kirk, the chef at Riverside's 13 Gypsies, dining at 5 Points' Corner Taco, which prompted a question: Where do local chefs choose to eat when they're not at work devouring their own culinary creations? After all, these guys know food, so maybe their choices can inform ours.

I put the question — four questions, actually: 1.) What three restaurants do you frequent the most in Northeast Florida? 2.) What's your go-to dish at these places? 3.) Why do you eat most often at your favorite spot? 4.) What's your guilty culinary pleasure? — to four high-profile local chefs. Their answers were illuminating.

Scott Schwartz, 29 South Restaurant (Fernandina Beach), chef for 23 years

1. Taverna, Black Sheep, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails.

2. Taverna's pasta with pork Ragu, Black Sheep's pastrami sandwich topped with chicken liver mousse, and Moxie's fried chicken livers or the short rib.

3. The restaurant I eat at most often in Northeast Florida is Taverna because I love the simple approach to classic Italian cooking.

4. Good old-school soul food at the Soul Food Bistro. My wife only lets me eat there a couple times a year, but sometimes I sneak in a lunch with the boys. Always finish the meal with a slice of hummingbird cake.

Chris Dickerson, Corner Taco (5 Points), chef for 8 years

1. Orsay, 13 Gypsies, Pom's.

2. Steak frites at Orsay, duck shu mai at Pom's, chorizo at 13 Gypsies.

3. The restaurant I eat at most often in Northeast Florida is Orsay because it's so solid.

4. Chocolate soufflé at Roy's.

Tom Gray, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails (St. Johns Town Center), chef for 18 years

1. I have many favorites — too many to mention! When I'm with my family, we try to hit spots my son enjoys, so that usually means Sakura for sushi and Picasso's for the pizza.

2. Sakura's tuna salad, octopus salad and the sushi rolls. At Picasso's, Chef Chris knows I'm in the house when "The Gift" is ordered with the …   More

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

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

BITE-SIZED

In a back corner of The Lemon Bar, a popular Neptune Beach watering hole, is where Chris Dickerson's Corner Taco got its start three years ago. After succeeding in that oceanfront spot, he took the leap into the food truck scene, buying a 1965 Airstream trailer to peddle his self-proclaimed "semi-swanky tacos."

That's all history now. Dickerson's dream of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant came true in February. Occupying the former Gina's Deli location, his 5 Points eatery touts fare made of fresh ingredients, local craft beers on draft, plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, and decorative strings of globe lights to replicate that singular food truck experience.

Every morning, the staff cranks up a tortilla maker, one of only two in the state (the other is at EPCOT), sending through a mound of fresh dough; moments later, a pile of fresh corn tortillas is born. No preservatives here, folks.

As the name suggests, get the tacos: $3.45 nabs you a carnitas (cooked for 24 hours!), crispy Dijon buttermilk-fried chicken, jerk chicken or local Artie's tempeh taco. For another buck, you can snag a semi-swanktacular taco — brisket, seared asparagus with flaked Maldon sea salt, mahi or a vegan hummus-and-tabouli taco aptly dubbed The 5 Points. Tacos come atop shredded red cabbage, sweet chile-lemon sauce and sprigs of cilantro, with lime wedges to squeeze. The portions are modest, but Corner Taco aims to leave you satisfied, not stuffed. There's also no cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce or diced pico de gallo like you find at other taco joints around town.

The Dyno-Mite ($9.95, plus $3.45 for added protein) is a hefty mound of crispy Dijon buttermilk fried chicken, marinated chicken or carnitas atop tortilla chips smothered with a homemade creamy white cheddar and brie fondue, chopped piquillo peppers, halved grape tomatoes, lime wedges and fresh cilantro. It's smart to share.

Sides clock in from $2.95 to $4.95. The Carolina rice pilaf, quinoa, and black …   More

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

Ever thought about slowing down a bit?

If you have, you're in luck. On May 2, the fourth annual Slow Down event at Intuition Ale Works will feature at least 26 local restaurants and artisans. For $20, attendees can feast upon dishes crafted by these restaurants and artisans (see sidebar) that focus on locally grown and sourced ingredients. (One hundred percent of proceeds go to Slow Food First Coast.)

In addition to local nibbles, there will be cold craft beer, music and plenty of socializing — but perhaps most important is the awareness being raised.

"Slow Food is important because it is an educating organization," says Kurt D'Aurizio, director of events at Slow Food First Coast. "By spreading the word about foods, farmers, restaurants and artisans who are preserving our food heritage, Slow Food allows us all to learn, make educated choices and be part of the future of our food system. I began working with Slow Food years ago as a chef because my food philosophy matched their vision: local, quality, artisan and heritage — good, clean and fair food for all."

Slow Food First Coast is one of 255 Slow Food USA chapters. Each aims to strengthen the connection between the health of our planet and the food we see on our plates by celebrating foods that are local, seasonal and sustainably grown. The nonprofit touts nutritious food that is beneficial for both our bodies and the planet.

Slow Food USA was founded to counteract the prevailing fast-food lifestyle, and its adherents believe we should consciously embrace where our food comes from, who makes it, how it's made and how it's transported. We should also be aware of how our food is produced, and how it impacts the environment and animal welfare — as well as our own health.

"All of the participants are locally owned food businesses that make it a priority to support local artisans and farmers," says event producer Cari Sanchez-Potter. "The Slow Down celebrates their commitment to fostering our …   More

BITE-SIZED

I would never, ever have driven by Health 
 Zone but for the heads-up from a few 
 friends. First, there's the poor signage and kinda-sorta misleading name: Is it a fitness center? A supplement shop? And then there's the fact that it's tucked away off Bowden Road and I-95 near Mr. Taco.

Nonetheless, Health Zone proved a pleasant find. I decided to check out the lunch menu. (Breakfast is served 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch until 2 p.m., Monday through Friday). As I walked in, I noticed a long line-up of freshly blended juices (12 oz.) and smoothies (16 and 32 oz.), all concocted with fresh fruit and juice — no pre-made mixes in sight. I tried the St. Augustine smoothie ($5.59) — spinach, kale, banana, mango and orange juice — and the Really Green ($5.59) juice. With its glowing green hue, the Really Green certainly lives up to its name, and with an über-healthy blend of cucumber, celery, kale, parsley, lemon and apple, each sip felt refreshing. Thumbs up.

Woman cannot live on green juice alone, so I next ordered a Zone Bowl ($5.99, with a $1 upcharge to add protein), which piqued my interest. Start with a starch like brown rice, jasmine rice or quinoa, and then pick a legume — black beans, black-eyed peas or pinto beans. Then choose from a slew of fresh vegetables and a list of both carnivore- and vegan-friendly proteins (grilled chicken breast, roast pork, roast beef, tofu, tempeh and seitan).

My Asian tempeh Zone Bowl, with quinoa, black beans, sautéed spinach, colorful carrots and zucchini, and a housemade chimichurri sauce, was easily enough for two meals. Also filling was the cleverly named H.A.M. ($7.99) — ham, apple slices and melted Monterey jack cheese with spicy mustard. Not in the mood for a sandwich? Health Zone also has salads, soups, hot dogs and an extensive dessert list.

If you're feeling adventurous, go for grilled beets ($1.99) or kale slaw ($1.99) as your side. The beets were especially juicy …   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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