Wen Raiti, founder of Hakka Kitchen and its previous iteration, House of Leaf & Bean, is Hakka, a Chinese ethnicity with a long history of migration, travel, learning and exchange. She opened the restaurant November launched Hakka with Chef Marshall Ziehm to create traditional Hakka Chinese inspired dishes that draw on local and organic ingredients.
The kitchen sits just before the bridge that leads to the vegan-lacking beach side of Jacksonville. Next to a strip mall with a confusing entrance point, Hakka is worth the U-turn. The doors open to an airy, window-bordered dining room surrounding the open coffee bar, kitchen and drive-thru window. The walls are lined with local products, like housemade teas, with bench seats parted by a small room named Wen’s Zen room (that I regrettably did not sit in) and the atmosphere sprinkled with trickling water and traditional music.
The menu opens to the Hakka story, their migrations from northern China to the way the families farmed, an endearing and educational piece that seems key to the experience. Each menu item has an introduction: where the inspiration came from, who the dish is named after, and what wine or tea it pairs best with.
I started with an Organic Frey white wine and Zheng’s Cool Cucumber Salad, named after the founder of the Chinese women’s symphony, Zheng Xiaoying. The dish is made up of thick chunks of a halved cucumber dressed in mushroom soy, rice vinegar and sesame oil tossed with cabbage. Though they were described as smashed in the intro, the garlic cloves were whole, soft, delicious additions that cut through the cool flavor of cucumber. Growing up with a Filipino best friend I thought I was decent with chopsticks, but the slippery cucumber bits proved me wrong. Opt for the fork if you are a novice.
Up next, Zeng’s Crispy Tofu Bites, smothered in Chinese garlic sauce inspired by Fujian snack food and named after Zeng Jinyan, a famous activist and Hakka daughter from Fujian, who according to the menu, is like the dish that bears her name, as her tough shell surrounds a soft heart.” The crisp tofu is cut into thick triangles, a sure sign they’re professionals, layered on garlicky vegetables and a classic cabbage mixture.
Arriving before lunch time, only a handful of people were coming in and out. The crowd consisted of a Spanish-speaking couple sharing a salmon dish, a frat guy staying at an nearby Airbnb (who apparently had eaten there for every meal of his stay), a classic older Jax Beach hippie couple discussing the prices of the menu items, a lean man in the drive-thru window and a girl taking photos of all her food. The underlying similarity being health and good authentic food.
The Peanut Pancakes were the star of the show. Small, flat, dense cakes made from “grandma’s secret recipe” (which I learned was tofu and rice flour) were smothered in an orange cream and decorated with roasted peanuts and cinnamon. The unique flavor I was searching for from the unfamiliar food was smooshed inside these circles. The meal was filling, in a good way, and a nice break from the infamous “southern-style vegan food” found in most vegan restaurants in Jacksonville. I will be eating here again.