A good meal breaks the ice and makes connecting with people very easy. In this melting pot of a country, and a city, some of my favorite restaurants are our local ethnic spots. These small, locally owned restaurants make amazing food packed with authentic flavors, and many make you feel like family from the moment you step through the door. As many of these treasured spots are actually owned by immigrants, I’ve spotlighted a few of my personal faves. Their owners may have been born in foreign lands, but we’re glad they’ve chosen Jacksonville to be their home.
–Brentley Stead & Claire Goforth

Ariana Kabob & Grill
10916 Atlantic Blvd., Ste. 6, Southside, 565-0019,
|Owners and Afghanistan natives Younus Zury and Nahida Zury have created a welcoming atmosphere in this local Afgani spot. Nahida, the force behind the food, has more than 20 years of experience as a chef, and your taste buds will receive ample benefits from that experience. The menu has vegetarian and carnivore options, but the Banjon Borani (small $9/large $11.50) is sure to please everyone. The layered circles of eggplant are simmered in a rich red sauce so good, I say don’t play around, go for the large! –BS

Antojitos Colombianos Panaderia Bakery
5111 Baymeadows Rd., Ste. 6, 448-1880
A family-run Latin eatery with three generations of restaurant experience, Antojitos serves up the best of what’s fresh. You might not know what the menu will offer the day you go, but it’s sure to be flavorful, authentic Colombian. Word on the street: The best items are the pan de bono, a traditional Colombian cheese bread, and pan de yuca. They also serve a tasty assortment of breakfast/lunch items and bakery creations. –BS

The Olive Tree Mediterranean Grille
1705 Hendricks Ave., San Marco, 396-2250,
Owner Mona Kandah’s bright smile greets you as you walk in. While Kandah’s genuine warmth makes the experience special, it’s Olive Tree’s bold claim to some of the best falafel in town that captures and keeps your attention. It’s routine for restaurant management to advertise that they make “The Best (insert item here) EVER!” In this case, though, I’m willing to back up Olive Tree and agree–they do serve some of the best falafel in Northeast Florida.

Indian Restaurants on Baymeadows
It’s hard to choose just one of the several Indian restaurants in Jacksonville’s Little India neighborhood on Baymeadows Road, and while most of us have a favorite, each spot has its strong points. India’s Restaurant (conveniently located next to 5F(x) Ice Cream) has the best Saag Paneer, a creamy spinach dish with squares of cheese. If you’re in the mood for a lunch buffet, the strongly recommended India House brings plates of naan out to you, fresh and hot. These spots are all run by families who are actually from India, so you’re sure to get the best cuisine of that land, whether it’s from the north or south.

Zodiac Bar & Grill
120 W. Adams St., Downtown, 354-8283,
Is there any occasion that isn’t improved by baklava, hummus and spanakopita? #Nope. Downtown Jacksonvillians have long turned their toes and tires toward Zodiac Bar & Grill for delectable Mediterranean fare–with a side of hookah. For a quick lunch that’s heavy on the hell yeah, hit up their buffet. –CG

Pi Infinite Combinations
19 S. Third St., Fernandina Beach, 432-8535,
This laid-back, crazy cool spot in Fernandina Beach’s historic  district features a stellar array of innovative pies that will blow your mind. Together with her U.S.-born husband Billy, Eva Hutchison, a native of the Czech Republic, whips together an inviting atmosphere and some tip-top local examples of America’s favorite entrée: pizza. We highly recommend specialty pies like the curry, goat cheese and shrimp or the little neck clam pie, or pi. –CG

Ibex Ethiopian Kitchen 
5111 Baymeadows Rd., Ste. 2, 551-0403
Ethiopian cuisine is all about community-centric dining. You’ll find that each entrée comes around injera, which can best be described as kind of a giant sourdough pancake. Owners Tsione Chiksemo and Teddy Aboye cook up beautiful, traditional African dishes. You’ll find plenty of items for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, and don’t forget to partake in a glass of honey wine. –BS

JJ’s Liberty Bistro, JJ’s Bistro de Paris
7643 Gate Pkwy., Ste. 105, 996-7557,
330 A1A N., Ponte Vedra Beach, 273-7980
If you’re a Francophile on a quest for the finest, most authentic French cuisine, luck–and JJ’s Bistro–are on your side. At its two locations, this local import brought to us by J.J. Vigoureux, a real, live knight Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Merite Agricole serves exquisite classic French fare in atmospheres sure to inspire joie de vivre. Save room for some of the best pastries on the planet! –CG

Pho at Vietnamese Restaurants
We can’t say enough great things about pho, our absolute favorite soup (and a killer hangover cure–for realz). There are a plethora of places to get the traditional Vietnamese soup that’s equal parts soul food and flavor explosion, so it’s impossible to pick a favorite from winners like P.K. Noodles, Pho 99 Vietnamese Grill, Yummy Pho and Bowl of Pho. Even better news: Getting your fill of this delicious soup won’t drain your wallet. As one Yelp reviewer writes about P.K. Noodles, “The prices are low but the quality of the food is A1.” –CG