13 gypsies

by erin thursby
Though 13 Gypsies has only been open to the public for about six months, it’s quickly become one of the newest dining hotspots on the Jacksonville map. We’re happy to report that the cuisine stands up to the buzz.
Like the gypsies it’s named for, the cuisine of 13 Gypsies goes almost everywhere gypsies do. Chef Howard sticks mainly to the Mediterranean area because of the similarity in preparation for the region.
Most everything is made from scratch, if it isn’t imported from Europe or Spain (like the quince paste). Freshly-made pasta and bread is enough to keep customers coming back for more. They often cure their own meat. This degree of control ensures a selective dining experience.
While fusion has become the norm for most menus, there’s been a swing back to pure, traditional cuisine. 13 Gypsies is one of the restaurants behind that swing, looking toward exotic dishes in their purest form. It’s an impressive, fresh simplicity you can taste in each bite.
The tapas menu encourages friendships between tables. Often patrons pass their dishes around to each other, encouraging one another to have a taste. After a few minutes, a man at the table next to mine started chatting me up about the food. A course later, when his beautiful, glossy flan arrived, he offered me a bite. I couldn’t resist. It was creamy, but firm and slippery. Most of the sweetness came from the caramel sauce, as it should be. It was unburnt perfection.
An eclectic décor pulled together by gypsy styling gives the place a warm and homey, but fashionable vibe. Large picture windows frame the Westside neighborhood. Vintage photographs, Catholic iconography, a few tarot books, kitschy and local art decorate the walls. (My favorite is the bunnies on a stormy sea behind the counter).
First to grace my plate was the cheese and quince tapas. Sweet and savory, this simple appetizer is the chef’s choice of cheese topped with a sweet quince paste and drizzled with a bold and unfiltered olive oil. The quince paste is imported from Spain, if it isn’t made from fresh quince in the kitchen. Chef Howard stays away from the South American quince paste because he feels it doesn’t have the same sort of taste that the Spanish version does.
Gypsies doesn’t use a vegetable provider like most restaurants do. Instead, they go to the market themselves and handpick the vegetables. Even though patrons have been begging for the small, in-demand restaurant to expand, Chef Howard knows he’d have a difficult time providing the same level of expertly crafted dishes if he did. He’s keeping things small because he believes in presenting a true bistro experience.
I also plunged my fork into their Roman-style gnocchi, which is unlike most gnocchi you’ll experience. Made fresh and fluffy, they are not the usual dried out bits of gnocchi most of us are used to. Instead they’re served in flat rectangles, topped with parmesan and mushrooms with a beef stock-based sauce. Since everything is made fresh, they can accommodate a wide range of dietary preferences. The Roman gnocchi, for example, can be made vegetarian-friendly by subbing the regular sauce for a Parmesan cream sauce.
Meat lovers won’t get left behind here either. My flan-sharing dining buddy recommended the Angry Bull, a pan seared beef filet. Even though there are things on the menu you might not be able to identify at first glance, there are enough items to satisfy a picky and more unadventurous eater. And because the tapas format encourages sharing, those picky eaters will find themselves enjoying something that they might not normally order. If you’re unsure about an ingredient, don’t be shy about asking. KiKi, Chef Howard’s wife and hostess at 13G, is happy to help anyone who wants to know more about what they’re eating. There’s no snobbery to their cuisine or attitude—just a desire for excellence.
The tapas menu ranges in price from about $5- 9. You can also get a sandwich or a salad for about the same price. The warm artichoke salad looked particularly pleasing to me. You can make a meal out of many of their appetizers or you can get together with a group and pass plates around for tasting.
All the wines on the menu are also available by the glass (from $6- 8). None of the bottles go for over $30. The wine list constantly changes. Homemade sangria is also a beverage of choice.
When I got to the dessert, I sampled the Tres Leche, made with love by KiKi. It’s the most authentic I’ve had in Jacksonville. Like the flan, the sweetness didn’t overpower the dish—but rather floated on the creamy texture. The cake was not too moist nor was it too dry. It crumbed just enough. That balance is one of the most difficult things to achieve. I felt lucky to be eating it.
Whether you live on the Westside or not, it’s worthwhile to make a reservation. Their superb peasant food makes it a standout in Jacksonville gastronomy. Peasant food is the soul food of the world. It’s hearty, satisfying fare made from the readily available ingredients of a region. It might not be exotic to a farmer in Spain, but here, it is. 13 Gypsies has the culinary edge of simultaneously serving up comfort food and a stimulating adventure in cuisine.

887 Stockton Street, 389-0330, 13gypsies.com
Closed Sunday and Monday
Tuesday-Thursday 11 am-2 pm & 5 pm-9 pm
Friday-Saturday 11 am- 2 pm & 5 pm- 10 pm