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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

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

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

While food trucks have become wildly popular in Jacksonville in recent years, on the other side of the ditch, they've not been so welcome. But last week, after a two-year campaign by food-truck advocates, the Jacksonville Beach City Council finally agreed to allow the trucks to operate within city limits, at least during a 14-month pilot program.

There are limitations: Food trucks have to get permission from property owners to set up shop (they can't use vacant or noncommercial land), and they can't do so within 100 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants. They have to apply for a permit at City Hall and pay an annual business tax ($79.20). They have to shut down by 3 a.m., or by 10 p.m. if they're close to residential properties.

But at least it's something. "There is so much creativity coming out of these food trucks, and there is some really, really good food," says Councilwoman Chris Hoffman, who championed the food truck cause.

She's right — and I've tasted it firsthand. On The Fly Sandwiches ‘n' Stuff chef Andrew Ferenc serves freshly seared ahi tuna over crunchy napa cabbage slaw that's topped with pickled ginger and a sweet chili sauce. Chew Chew has a flavor-packed Korean short rib melt with smoked provolone and diced kimchi slaw. And just last week I tried beet fries (yes, that's a thing) from Funkadelic. Verdict? Delicious. And it's just the beginning. Jax Beach residents will soon have all kinds of innovative culinary options to choose from, and that has foodies like me chomping at the bit.

(Disclosure: My fiancé Mike Field and I manage the Jax Truckies Facebook group.)

That's because food trucks offer room for experimentation. Consider this: Long-time Beaches resident John Stanford and his brother Jeff opened a food truck in the summer of 2012 in an effort to get the name of their then-under-construction brick-and-mortar restaurant, The Salty Fig (now The Blind Fig), out to the masses. The Blind Fig's wildly popular pork belly and …   More

BITE-SIZED

Know that feeling you get when you try a new place and enjoy it so much you want to shout it from the rooftops to every food-loving soul you know? I'm going to be that girl.

Excellent sashimi and Japanese fare have been hard to nail down in Jacksonville, but I've finally unearthed a gem that's nestled off San Jose in a Carrabba's strip mall, of all places. Had two people not mentioned Kazu to me, I'd have never set foot in there, due to that location. Upon entering, however, I saw a place that's spacious and spotless, with a modern feel and comfortable vibe.

Open for two months, Kazu has a menu that offers a delightful variety of Japanese comfort food, including a variety of soups, dumplings, sushi bar appetizers, salads, bento boxes, sushi, maki handrolls and sashimi. Prices are fair and the servings are abundantly portioned and artfully plated.

We started with agedashi tofu ($4.50), pork gyoza ($4.95) and Kazu sashimi salad ($9.95). I highly recommend the tofu. These soft soybean cubes are fried in a tempura batter then served afloat a slightly sweet yet salty dashi, a soup-like stock. The pan-seared gyoza dumplings ($4.95) were good but not as memorable as the tofu. And the colorful salad had plenty of fresh pieces of sashimi, sliced avocado, mango, carrot and red onion, tossed in a light yuzu vinaigrette. It was refreshing and perfect for sharing.

On the sushi menu, I was immediately drawn to the Dancing Eel ($7.95): eel, shrimp, seaweed salad, creamy avocado and spicy mayo. So many of my favorite things all rolled (no pun intended) into one! It was solid. My next order was the Spider ($7.95), which touted tempura soft-shell crab, avocado, cucumber, a sweet eel sauce and tobiko on top.

Sushi and apps aside, I can't stop thinking about the Chirashi ($15.95) — the most remarkable dish of the evening. An absolutely gorgeous rainbow medley of amazingly fresh sashimi garnished with an edible flower, pieces of tamago omelet, colorful pickled daikon …   More

BITE-SIZED

Food, beer and a sense of community: three of my favorite things. And in keeping with that trio, Riverside brewery Intuition Ale Works has embarked on its first publishing journey. The finished product, Cooking with Intuition, is a stunning hardbound collection of recipes incorporating locally crafted beer by area chefs, home brewers, food truckers and Intuition's own Mug Club members.

The book is co-authored by Intuition general manager Cari Sanchez-Potter and creative projects coordinator Robin Rutenberg, but it's local photographer Laura Evans' keen eye and attention to detail that really sets it apart. These 288 pages are as much a coffee-table book as a must-have recipe index.

"Cooking with Intuition isn't just for folks who enjoy cooking or for people who are major craft beer snobs," says Sanchez-Potter. "The book is much more than that. It's about shining a spotlight on our amazing culinary community and highlighting all the creative talent we have here in Jacksonville, using beer as a lens."

Throughout the book's 80-plus recipes, beer-as-common-denominator proves to be quite a versatile ingredient, offering chefs myriad flavor and complexity options. "Our brewers at Intuition brew so many styles of beer that cooks have a lot of options for using [them] in their dishes," Sanchez-Potter says. "Stouts add a subtly sweet and malty flavor to long-simmered stews or slow braises; the carbonation in certain brews adds lift to foods like hushpuppies or fish-and-chips; and hoppy beers like IPAs lend depth to brines, marinades and sauces."

For some people, Cooking will serve as an introduction to beer-infused cuisine, but it's also designed to help more experienced cooks break free of their culinary comfort zones, Sanchez-Potter says. Recipes range from the über-simple (stout floats, with Intuition's Truck Stop Stout topped with ice cream) to multi-step, restaurant-quality dishes like Black Sheep Chef Waylon Rivers' King Street BBQ pork belly with …   More

BITE-SIZED

Concealed within a unique town-within-a-
 town called Yukon lurks a simple seafood shack surrounded by bikers, sailors, lumberjacks and Baptists. This is the culinary story of J.L. Trent's Seafood.

Inside you'll find a communal experience where leather-clad bikers from neighboring Murray's Tavern down two-for-one beers while legions of gray-haired Christians from the fundamentalist Baptist church across the street pass tartar sauce to a table full of workers from the nearby lumberyard. This strange juxtaposition of parallel universes seems to mimic the curious and harmonic ocean world from which the restaurant's menu originates.

Aesthetics aside, a growling stomach must be tamed. After consulting the menu and a chalkboard full of specials, I order a classic combo platter ($15.99), which will allow me to savor several items — oysters, scallops and clam strips. Since it's January and New Year's resolutions are still fresh, I opt for baked instead of fried seafood, except for the clam strips, which only come fried. Platters are served with glorious little golden hushpuppies and two sides. Sadly, mac 'n' cheese isn't an option, and I'm not feeling like a hefty baked potato or the standard crinkle-cut fries, so I pick grits and collard greens.

I also order a mahi sandwich ($9.99) and side of fried shrimp ($5), because who comes to a place like this and doesn't get shrimp? The sandwich — a hoagie housing leafy Romaine, tomato, pickles, onions and Trent's secret sauce, was decent. The sandwich may have worked better with a smaller ciabatta roll, as the hoagie-to-mahi ratio did not quite find a proper equilibrium. And sadly, the shrimp didn't win me over, either. The batter could have been crisper and a bit more flavorful. I've had better.

That said, the seafood on my platter tasted fresh and the collard greens were particularly saporous. Worth noting: The tangy tartar sauce was thick and creamy, and flecked with relish — just how I like it.

The …   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

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

BITE-SIZED

It's no secret that I eat most of my meals in restaurants. It's convenient, I don't have to do dishes 
 and I can seek creative culinary offerings when the mood strikes. (Also, kinda my job.) Over the last year, I've had a lot of memorable meals. Here are a few of my favorite crave-worthy items from 2013:

Favorite breakfast treat: Tomato pie (Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, Riverside)

This savory, handheld quiche-like pie makes getting out of bed 100 percent worth it: buttery, flaky pie crust houses a blend of egg and cheese, thin slices of tomato (both green and red), cooked onion and a generous dusting of cracked black pepper.

Favorite salad: Greek kale salad (Native Sun Natural Foods Market, Baymeadows and Mandarin)

Organic kale tossed with homemade Greek dressing, pepperoncini, chunks of crumbly feta, salty kalamata olives, diced artichoke hearts and — in my version — hold the red onion, add chickpeas. There's something about the tangy dressing with this assortment of toppings that makes this salad shine.

Favorite soup (tie): Barley ash (Green Erth Bistro, San Marco) and BBQ pork and wonton pho 
(Bowl of Pho, Southside)

These two soups couldn't be less alike, but I love them equally. The first is a thick Persian number overflowing with barley, beans and herbs and bursting with flavor. The pho is brothy, stocked with thin tangled egg noodles and pork-stuffed wontons, and quite comforting on a cold day.

Favorite lunch: Bruschetta (French Pantry, Southside)

Possibly the longest line I'll wait in for a meal, let alone lunch, is at French Pantry. Thick, house-baked crusty bread is generously buttered then topped with shrimp, artichoke hearts and

rich goat cheese, served with a heaping mound of balsamic and basil diced tomatoes atop a bed of mixed greens. Go now to get in line.

Favorite seafood: Raw oysters (Cap's on the Water, St. Augustine)

Plump raw oysters served on the half-shell with cocktail sauce, mignonette, lemon wedges …   More

 
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