culinary hidden gems

by oliver dodd
For anyone who enjoys the occasional meal out, it can be easy to constantly fall back on old, familiar favorites. But hidden along the winding roads of this sprawling city are some incredible little restaurants that you’d never know existed were it not for a friendly suggestion. And there are plenty more hidden in plain sight, part of the scenery we pass by every day during our high speed commutes. They are unassuming little eateries that, for some reason or another, never succeeded in beckoning us to stop by. We here at EU hope to reveal these hidden gems. This month we’re starting with worthwhile places that are either tucked away in strip malls or that you’d never find on your own.

pho cali vietnamese restaurant
5624 Cagle Rd., 730-7333
Pho Cali, one of Jacksonville’s small handful of Vietnamese restaurants, is almost completely hidden and, like Vietnam’s own Perfume Pagoda, you might just need a guide to get here. It can be found just off of I-95 at University Boulevard in the Ramada Inn.
This restaurant is basically the textbook definition of a hole-in-the-wall. The general decor and atmosphere, seemingly unchanged since the 70s, only serves to enhance the experience and shifts the focus on to their food. Pho Cali is family owned and operated. The same mother and son duo always take orders and deliver the food while the patriarch toils away in the back concocting authentic Vietnamese cuisine for all who know well enough to stop by.
The name comes in part from the primary food served: Pho. Pho is a delightful Vietnamese soup made from thinly sliced meat, rice noodles and spices (typically including Saigon cinnamon, star anise, charred ginger and cloves). It is often served with basil, lime, sprouts and peppers on the side that can be added at will.
The Pho comes in three sizes: small, medium, and large (take that, Starbucks), all for very reasonable prices. I must caution you that these sizes run a little large. I have never been able to comfortably finish a small portion by myself and a medium is more than sufficient for two very hungry people to share.
For those not interested in the soup, they offer plenty of rice and noodle based meals. Number 32 on the menu, the spicy chicken dish, has an incredibly varied flavor. The different spices hit your tongue, the most intriguing of all being the lemongrass which provides a subtly sweet contrast to the savory overtones.
Because I’m planning a trip to Vietnam later this year, I think I’ll be obliged to stop by a bit more often in order to fully prepare our taste buds for the trip. Even if you aren’t going to Southeast Asia, Pho Cali is a great place to enjoy an exotic but family served meal at a reasonable price.

tommy’s pizza
4160 Southside Blvd. Unit 2, 565-1999
We’ve extolled the virtues of Tommy’s before, but it remains an excellent place to grab a slice of brick oven goodness.
At Tommy’s you won’t want to wantonly discard the crust as you might do with any ordinary pizza. With a light slathering of garlic butter baked into the crispy bread, you’re going to want to savor that little end piece. Besides the kick-ass pizza crust, there’s also the super fresh topping that still retain their full flavor, even after being cooked in the brick oven. Not in the mood for pizza? There are a number of other items including sandwiches and dinner entrees. If you’re looking to eat light then try the strawberry-spinach salad. It may sound like a strange combination but it tastes amazing and makes a perfect companion to the huge slices of pizza Tommy cooks up.

pisco’s restaurant
4131 Southside Blvd., 646-3888
If you’ve traveled down Southside Boulevard between Tinseltown and Beach, you’ve passed Pisco’s without even knowing it. It is, as far as we know, the only place in town serving traditional Peruvian food.
Despite the lack of one of Peru’s most popular dishes, guinea pig, (yep, guinea pig) Pisco’s has a huge menu for such a small place. Authentic Peruvian food is some of the tastiest Latin America has to offer and Pisco’s does it better than many of the restaurants we visited in Peru, all for an incredibly meager price.
Any fan of Latin American cuisine is bound to regret not stopping by sooner after an enormous helping of their delicious Pollo Saltado. Potions tend to be large and decently priced. Don’t forget to try the corn and cheese appetizer to reacquaint yourself with how flavorful corn should be and purely to experience the spectacle that is Peruvian corn. If you order a beer, try one of the Peruvian varieties as they do a better pilsner than many of the domestic breweries. Sushi fans should order a plate of the ceviche, seafood “cooked” in lime juice. The great food is complemented by a friendly and engaging staff who are incredibly welcoming and helpful towards new patrons and regulars alike.