by erin thursby
Jacksonville sprawls, and we’re sometimes deceived into thinking our neighborhood is the only place to be. But restaurants representing cuisines from around the globe are scattered all over our fair city, often in places you’d never suspect. While the Westside has more than its share of culinary beauties, the Southside, for instance, which at first glance seems blatantly commercial, is home to a plethora of independently owned restaurants, fixing food from around the world. We’ve gathered some of Jacksonville’s hidden gems and best representatives of particular cuisines from around the world. If you crave the exotic, we hope you’ll find something new to try here.
While African influence can sometimes be found in an occasional restaurant’s dish, there’s only one place devoted to African cooking entirely. That’s The Queen of Sheba (10214 Atlantic Blvd, 721-1001). It’s all about Ethiopian cuisine there. Read about that dining experience on page 11.
Three places immediately spring to mind when thinking about Vietnamese food in Jacksonville: Pho Cali (5624 Cagle Rd, 730-7333), Bowl of Pho (9902 Old Baymeadows Rd, 646-4455) and PK Noodles (11925 Beach Blvd, 646-0707). Pho Cali, though it’s humbly situated inside a Ramada, is the choice for many pho fans. Bowl of Pho promises excellent pho and they do deliver fragrant, steaming pho goodness. PK Noodles also serves pho and, of all things, Vietnamese sub sandwiches. Their boba tea is apparently notable, though limited in flavors.
For Korean food, the most popular place to nosh is Sam Won Garden (4345 University Blvd S, 737-3650). Like many of these ethnic finds, it’s in a strip mall. Korean barbeque is excellent, so do make sure you order the pork ribs (called kalbi or galbi).
Though hardly as ubiquitous as sushi joints, Thai eateries are remarkably easy to find in Jacksonville. The oft heard lament is that most of the Thai food in town is priced higher than it is in larger cities where Thai takeouts and holes-in-wall joints are common. But that’s because it’s popular. One of the newer, fancier places, Lime Leaf (9822 Tapestry Park Cir, 645-8568) in Tapestry Park, already has devotees. It’s true that Thai in Jacksonville is served, by and large, in swankier settings, but there are exceptions. Even in one of the more casual settings, such as the family-owned Taste of Thai (4317 University Blvd S, 737-9009), most of the time you should expect to pay around $10 and up for an entree. If you like Thai you’ll eventually find your own neighborhood favorite, and praise it profusely. While each Thai restaurant has its own particular flair, the most consistent Thai food I’ve found is Lemongrass (9846 Old Baymeadows Rd, 645-9911).
Blue Bamboo (3820 Southside Blvd, 646-1478) doesn’t focus on a particular Asian country. Instead, the chef pulls from various countries, mixes in a little East meets West fusion for some delish dishes. It’s one of my favorite upscale restaurants in Jacksonville.
As our culinary roots are European, seeking out Euro dining is both refreshing and not as far of a stretch for those who are less adventurous.
We do have plenty of swanky restaurants that look to France as an inspiration- Bistro Aix (1440 San Marco Blvd, 398-1949), Orsay (3630 Park St, 381-0909), Pastiche (4260 Herschel St, 387-6213) -however there are only a few in the area owned or run by the French.
French cuisine has an upscale reputation, but we should remember that the most popular restaurants in France are tiny, affordable cafes. In the spirit of that, French Pantry (6301 Powers Ave, 730-8696) is pricier than fast food, but it’s still an affordable lunchtime treat for office-workers in the Bowden, Lakewood or Southpoint areas. The secret is out and it can be densely crowded come lunch. Because of the bread ovens and the small size of the place, in the summertime I highly recommend ordering to go. But the food is so fantastic and fresh that I’d sweat at a table for it, elbow to elbow with other diners.
JJs Bistro de Paris (7643 Gate Pkwy, 996-7557) is French owned. The other locale in Ponte Vedra is called JJ’s Liberty Bistro (330 A1A North Suite 209, 273-7980). Among other things, the French Onion soup is fantastic.
While there are lots of neighborhood joints that serve Americanized Italian, true Italian cuisine is rarer than you might think. The closest we come is the pricey and exclusive La Cena (211 Laura St N, 633-9255) and the fabulous Primi Piatti (2722 Park St, 389-5545).
Good German food is hard to find in Jacksonville, though there is a dubious German place that also serves pizza (which shall remain nameless and inexplicably has a rating above 80% on Urban Spoon).
13 Gypsies (887 Stockton St, 389-0330) should always get a mention when it comes to European fare, though they tend not to focus on just one country.
Mediterranean & Middle Eastern
When it comes to this region, Jacksonville doesn’t lack for eateries serving up tasty (and sometimes even authentic) regional cuisine.
Zaitoon (13475 Atlantic Blvd, 221-7066) has a Jacksonville address but it’s but not far from the Intracoastal on Atlantic. You’ll find it in a classy strip mall (yes, there is such a thing) called the Harbor Village Shopping Center, behind a Fresh Market. It’s an upscale choice for a pan-Mediterranean experience. Their wine list is also excellent, so plan on drinking!
Athens Cafe (6271 St Augustine Rd, 733-1199) remains my choice for local Greek fare. Yes, it’s family-owned by Greeks, and jam packed with decoration, family pictures and, well, Greekness. My menu pick is the hardy pastichio, the Greek version of lasagna.
The last time I went to Mandaloun (9862 Old Baymeadows Rd, 646-1881) I sat next to a table of Lebanese women who were having an exceptionally good time. When the belly dancer came over, they danced too. Laughter streamed from their table as they drank and ate. The restaurant is one of those unexpected Baymeadows restaurants/bars, in a corner of a Winn Dixie strip mall. Everything I ate was up to my standards, but the baklava, rolled like tiny cigarettes (and therefore easy to eat) far surpassed them.
The cheap Middle Eastern standby is still Hala Cafe, which has various locales in Jacksonville. There isn’t much ambiance, but it’s inexpensive and they have a lunch buffet. Every Hala is a bit different, and though it isn’t my choice for Middle Eastern, it’s well-loved by its fans here in Jacksonville.
There are two places named Istanbul in Jacksonville. One occupies a space that used to be a Waffle House in the Avenues area. It’s more like a diner. The other Istanbul (13170 Atlantic Blvd, 220-9192) is the one you want to go to. The full name is Istanbul Mediterranean and Italian Cuisine. Just go with the Turkish fare, rather than the Italian stuff.
Those who live in Springfield recommend Waffa & Mike’s (1544 N. Main St, 683-8313). It’s family owned and quite popular. While they serve traditional diner food, Syrian and Middle-Eastern cuisine is also a major part of the menu.
Local hipsters, of course, flock to the Avondale hookah lounge of Casbah (3628 St Johns Ave, 981-9966). But it’s not just about where the cool kids hang: the food is actually pretty good! While I enjoy a great many things on their menu, I must confess that it’s the grape leaves that have me addicted.
You can find South American food in Jacksonville, but as is the case for more obscure-but-vaguely-familiar-food, you’ll often find that such menus include items from locales that have a higher profile in the culinary world. Most people, for example, wouldn’t be able to tell you what Colombian cuisine consists of, so more recognizable options such as Mexican appear on the menu. El Ranchito (14333 Beach Bvld, Jacksonville Beach, 992-4607) is the Ur-example of this in Jacksonville.
Less of a mix is a Peruvian place on Southside called Pisco’s (4131 Southside Blvd, 646-3888). Many of the dishes don’t seem all that strange. (They didn’t serve Guinea pig last time I was there). But try the Peruvian corn for something you’ve probably not experienced. Just don’t expect it to have the texture or taste of the supermarket variety we’re used to.
I have one bit of advice to you, if you’re seeking out Brazilian food: don’t be a vegetarian. While there are Brazilian vegans and vegetarians out there (and even one lonely vegan Chef), they traditionally serve a very meat-centric cuisine. That meat obsession is reflected in the Brazilian steak house. In Jacksonville we have Espeto (4000 St Johns Ave, 388-4884) and in Jacksonville Beach we have Tentos (528 1st St N, Jacksonville Beach, 246-1580), where you can sit as meat is brought to you in an endless parade of gauchos. If this sounds like heaven- go Brazilian!
In the form of the previously mentioned El Ranchito, Jacksonville is also home to some down-home Colombian food. There are Mexican and Cuban items on the menu as well, but they bill themselves as “Northeast Florida’s best Colombian restaurant.” According to those who crave Colombian cuisine, they do a good enough job to be on their short list.
Also in the Colombian category is Antojitos Colombianos Bakery (5111 Baymeadows Rd, 448-1880), which I found because of a poster on an online forum (metrojacksonville.com). That’s the wonderful thing about Jacksonville. There’s always something somewhere you haven’t discovered yet. For more on this Hidden Gem, check out page 11.
Jacksonville has far more culinary diversity than we’re often given credit for. So have an adventure, leave behind those chain restaurants and cross the globe with your taste buds, all without leaving the city limits.
dining around the world
by erin thursby