Orignial artwork In the Grotto by SEBASTIAN PIERRE
For more information about these and other delicious flavors in your neighborhood, check out our BITE BY BITE Restaurant Directory by Cuisine HERE. It’s Northeast Florida’s most complete and comprehensive guide to dining out!
TASTES LIKE CHICKEN FRIED
Zac Brown might’ve been singing about Northeast Florida when he crooned, “You know I like my chicken fried.” There’s a lot of fried chicken browning in skillets and bubbling in fryers all over the land, but where is the best?
The first thing to do with fried chicken: Separate it into two categories. The first is fast-casual, including chicken fingers, fried chicken sandwiches, all the skinless, boneless varieties that pose as the real thing. For me, the best in this class is at Maple Street Biscuit Company. The chicken always arrives hot and juicy, and well-seasoned. The biscuits are flakey, tender and delicious. The next best in this group — well, definitely a step down, is Chick-fil-A. I know it’s fast food, but it’s a bit better than the unknown “meat” at the burger places. Third is Zaxby’s chicken, fairly reliable, and very convenient.
Now for the real stuff. I’m talking old-fashioned chicken parts, not fingers of filets, but recognizable pieces of an actual chicken. The best is the oldest in town: Beach Road Chicken Dinners on Atlantic Boulevard. The chicken is hot, crispy, juicy and crazy delicious. Metro Diners’ Chicken & Waffles is quite special as well, and The Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro poultry has many fans. There are two really good versions on Amelia Island: The first is at Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen – believe me, it’s outstanding. Next is available during T-Ray’s Burger Station’s Wednesday lunch special. That chicken is definitely worth the trip. Third Nassau County fried chicken must-have? It’s out on S.R. 200; my older daughter may as well be a promoter for Callahan Barbecue’s fried chicken — she swears it’s the best around.
FISH CAMP-TOWN PLACES
I’m told that back in the day, before highway bridges were built across every river, creek, and stream in Northeast Florida, fish camps were the place to be. (Well, they kinda still are.) Originally, fish camps were inexpensive little vacation campgrounds where you could get away for a few days and relax, enjoy a little fishing and prepare simple foods highlighting local ingredients with seafood as the star.
Though a few survive, these types of fish camps are, by and large, things of the past. Nowadays, we have modern restaurants called fish camps, which aren’t quite the same.
But fear not, these new-fangled, non-bait-and-ice-and-beer-selling establishments still put together an Old Florida style menu, using ingredients and items from some of my favorite spots. One of the quintessential meals that must be tried at a fish camp is the catch of the day, prepared broiled, blackened or — if you must — fried, with hushpuppies, greens and/or fried okra. There’s nothing else like it.
So pull up by boat, bike or Bentley (or more humble transportation) at one of the many surviving fish camps, where there’s an open-air screened porch or deck, and the delightful smell of jumping-fresh fish wafts around you as the friendly salt o’ the sea staff cater to your needs. Slow things down for a few; grab a picnic table, crack open a cold one and tuck into piping-hot, perfectly seasoned, flaky fish, dip those hushpuppies in some butter and get your Old Florida on.
Ah, now that’s what I’m talking about.
POPSICLES LIKE IT’S HOT
There’s an illustrator in Lexington, Kentucky, one Andrew Heath, who created a series of images of popsicle ice creams inspired by pop culture. There’s Walter White on a stick, RoboCop on a stick, The Joker on a stick and even Daft Punk on a stick. It’s easy to understand why an artist would make popsicles a theme. From Bomb Pops to Creamsicles, frozen treats on a stick are really quite awesome. Happily, if you’re in Northeast Florida, there are plenty of places to hit if popsicles are your thang. Check out The Hyppo with locations in downtown St. Augustine and now on Riverside Avenue in Jacksonville. Starting about five years ago by young entrepreneur Stephen DiMare, The Hyppo creates more than 450 seasonal flavors of popsicles including Rosemary Apple, Prickly Pear, Banana Vanilla, Blackberry Clove and Watermelon Hibiscus. Also making a mark in the ’sicle biz is Backyard Pops on Third Street North in Jax Beach. Owned and operated by Chesley and Ashlee McCormick, the popeatery offers everything from Peach Jalapeno and Cranberry Orange pops to Concord Grape and Pineapple Papaya. Still haven’t gotten your fill of delectable icy treats? Find Bold City Pops, which travels around Duval offering sweet treats at Community Loaves, Serenata Beach Club and other sites. Personally, we’re dying over the Cookies & Cream and Cucumber and Lemon varieties. Soooo goooood!
The Caviar of Cassat Avenue. The Hors d’Oeuvres of Orange Park. The Canapé of Palatka. The Amuse-Bouche of Baymeadows. You get the idea — we are blathering on about boiled peanuts! Like those of much of the best Southern cooking, the origins of boiled peanuts can be traced back to African culinary practices. And not unlike grits, okra, cornbread, and black-eyed peas, if there’s a decidedly “Southern” food signifier, it is the illustrious goober pea, the most salubrious of all soggy legumes.
Most locals nosh on two styles of these bad boys: plain or Cajun. The standard packaging is a big-ass Styrofoam cup, full of the succulent, salty morsels sold out of the original food truck: a ’94 Chevy Suburban parked on the side of a county road. As per custom, the sucked peanut shells are then flung cavalierly to the ground. Hell, they’re biodegradable and we already have enough actual stuff to worry about, like the next trendy, organ-melting virus or an apoplectic, former-reality TV star presidential candidate, intent on faceplanting this fine country of ours smack into Armageddon!
The mind reels as to why these mushy treasures haven’t been tweaked and gastronomically modified by foodies, or even spread their swampy joy above the Mason-Dixon Line. Sriracha-fied, jerk-infused, wasabi-dusted truffle oil … Let it be known that Folio Weekly Magazine has prophesied the new dawn of boiled peanuts for Millennials.
TO BARBECUE OR TO BLASPHEME
If there’s one food that seems to divide people into near-warring tribes, it’s barbecue. Forged from a primordial crucible of fire and meat, barbecue is arguably mankind’s original entrée, barring several generations of rampant, luck-of-the-draw (or paw), self-induced food poisoning.
The initial line in the sand involves proper technique. Marinating v. dry rubs, charcoal v. wood, grilled v. smoked … These are arguments that can lead to a BBQ bloodbath.
And then the damn sauces. A zealot trumpeting the savory ecstasy of mustard-based sauce is shut the hell down by a fan of sugary, sweet red. Next thing you know, some knucklehead from team chipotle pepper steps into the ring. Good god almighty.
(Apparently, in northern Alabama, a mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce is all the rage, proving the theory that there’s something inherently wrong with northern Alabama.) (Send vituperous emails to [email protected])
A cursory search on Amazon pulls up 6,000-plus tomes about barbecue, so apparently when we are not cooking meat, we are reading about how to barbecue or possibly enjoying a nice meat-related memoir. And while regional BBQ burgs like Kansas City and the Carolinas like to thump their sooty chests, Northeast Florida boasts some 70-plus locations to nosh down on pulled pork or brisket.
So, while the city is rife with political boondoggle and violence, we are at least unified as we rally around the greasy joys of gnawing on charred, seasoned animals. Damn straight, Duval!
FRUIT BY THE SEA
Citrus is practically Florida’s logo. Heck, citrus is even on our license plates and advertised on interstates, highways and dirt roads all over the land. The “Sunshine State” may as well have been named for bright, juicy oranges bursting with flavor rather than that fiery ball that keeps us in shorts and flops most of the year, shelling out of money to dermatologists.
But Florida has more fruit to offer than just oranges. There are strawberries and blueberries at pay-by-the-pound u-pick farms where you, the fruit-lusting adventurer, get to pick as many red and blue beauties you can. There’s also wild fruit, such as blackberries, palm fruit (which makes a great jelly), prickly pear cactus (also makes a great jelly, but stay off the dunes) and grapes. The local varieties of muscadine aren’t awesome snacks BUT you can make wine with them – that’s right, wine.
Newsflash, canned fruit loyalists: In-season fruit is some of the best there is. Eating fresh local fruit is like drowning in candy, each bite sweeter than the last. But it’s a fleeting season, so get creative to preserve that tasty bounty. Mixed berry pies, lemon curds, strawberry and blueberry shortcakes are on the menu, and that’s just getting started. Use lemon peels for Limóncello – if you’re of age – which you can also use to flavor cakes, frostings, sauces and more if you’re not 21 yet. And don’t forget about jams
If you play your fruit right, you’ll be able to make so many scrumptious things to enjoy sun-ripened fresh fruit flavors all year long.
SALTY BALLS (OF CHOCOLATE AND POPCORN)
Everyone knows there’s no such thing as too much chocolate. But if all this beach weather has you feeling a little salty and sweet, it’s Peterbrooke Chocolatier’s chocolate covered popcorn to the rescue.
Since 1983, this iconic local treat has been spreading its classic savory-and-sweet combination around the globe. Many have tried to imitate, but most everyone agrees that Peterbrooke’s chocolate popcorn is the gold standard. It’s so delicious it defies logic.
Maybe it’s the way they spin the chocolate in the secret chocolatier kitchen? Maybe it’s how they spread a generous helping of that chocolate over a two-inch-thick layer of freshly popped popcorn that makes it so good? Or maybe it’s because you can choose from milk or dark chocolate, depending on your chocolate priorities? No matter how they do it, they do it better than any homemade version I’ve tried, and I’ve tried a fair few.
While we may never know the secret production process of achieving a perfect balance of chocolate and popcorn, we do know that Peterbrooke is a local institution. No matter where you go in life (even Switzerland, renowned for its chocolate), that flavor will remind you of Northeast Florida. That’s why Peterbrooke’s chocolate-covered popcorn pops up in packages sent to homesick Jacksonvillians far and wide, and is considered a must-try for Jax visitors and newcomers. If you’ve never had the pleasure, stop by a Peterbrooke for a sample. One taste and you’ll be as hooked as we are.
For more information about this and other delicious flavors in your neighborhood, check out our BITE BY BITE Restaurant Directory by Cuisine HERE. It’s Northeast Florida’s most complete and comprehensive guide to dining out!