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BITE-SIZED

The New York Times may have declared the camel rider as Jacksonville’s primary contribution to the dining world; however, another curious culinary invention was created here, too, equally deserving of your attention. Let me regale you with a story of my recent visit to the forgotten enclave of Lubi’s.

The Southside location (11633 Beach Blvd.) is a well-preserved time capsule maintained so that one can study the sort of mad gastronomic science once practiced in Jacksonville’s commercial kitchens. The menu boasts six versions of a hot sub aptly called The Lubi. The base is made up of browned ground sirloin, American cheese, onions and your choice of mayo, mustard, and hot or sweet peppers. The bread is a mix between a giant hot dog bun and hoagie roll. Variants include the Mozzarella Lubi (with sour cream, mozzarella cheese and marinara), Mean Machine (with lettuce, tomato, mozzarella cheese and Italian dressing) and Stroganoff Lubi (with sour cream, mushrooms, gravy and mozzarella cheese).

I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of tequila-filled night inspired someone to bake an oversized hot dog bun, stuff it full of condiments, onions and ground beef, and top it with a Hamburger Helper-inspired stroganoff. My invitation to that party must have gotten lost in the mail, sadly.

I decided to dip my toe in the water by ordering the comparatively tame Our Famous Lubi (topped with Kraft American cheese) with mayo, mustard and hot peppers. My Lubi artist began to construct this meaty delight on a sheet of aluminum foil, and suddenly things became quite interesting when she whisked my meal toward a microwave in order to “steam the bun.” Is she really going to put that aluminum foil-wrapped meat dog in the microwave? Oh my God, she’s going to burn this place to the ground!

Is this how it ends? Everything I thought I knew about modern science flew out the window as 30 mesmerizing seconds ticked by without that microwave (and the surrounding kitchen) …   More

BITE-SIZED

I don't get out to Mandarin often, but a recent 
 find, Thai Cuisine & Noodle House, in a strip 
 mall set off the road, gives me reason to return.

We began with a few appetizers. The dumpling-like pan-fried chicken and vegetable pot stickers ($5.95) were adequate, but the standout starter was skewered chicken satay ($6.95 for 4) served with a creamy peanut dipping sauce and a fiery-red sweet Thai chili sauce. Each bite of chicken was delightfully moist, and the marinade made it both tender and flavorful.

Despite the steadily climbing mercury outside, it felt like a soup night, so I secured a cup of Thai-style hot-and-sour tom-yum soup ($2.95), and added seafood for $1.30, a savvy move, I thought. The broth had just the right amount of spice, and the fragrant herbs — lemongrass and cilantro — really boosted the flavor (as did the scallions and lime juice).

From the noodles and rice section, I landed on the pad kee mao with shrimp ($12.95), which translates to "drunken noodles." Items from these sections are available with vegetables, tofu, chicken, pork, beef, krab meat, shrimp or calamari. There were ample shrimp tossed among the vegetable pieces and an abundance of thin, flat noodles. Easy enough for leftovers or sharing, these noodle dishes are massive. Next time, I'm trying the pad Thai with tofu.

Of the many chef's specials, we sampled jungle steak ($12.95) with rice. Unsure of what to expect, we were pleased with the marinated and grilled pieces of bite-sized steak that mingled with sautéed onions, scallions and chili peppers.

Prices are reasonable, and the menu has lots of options, from Thai curries with steamed jasmine rice to a crispy fried whole fish.

When we ate dinner, there was only one other patron seated in a booth behind us, and the owner, who was busy fielding take-out orders. It was eerily quiet — no music playing, just the occasional clink and clack of pans from neighboring Papa John's. It made for a slightly awkward …   More

BITE-SIZED

For the 15 years I've lived in Jacksonville and eaten my way across town, I've somehow missed El Ranchito, which I learned has been here since 2000.

Perhaps that's because it's not easy to spot, given its tucked-away location in a plaza at the intersection at Beach and San Pablo. Nonetheless, it's well worth stopping there.

The menu is sectioned into three cuisines: traditional Colombian, Cuban and Mexican.

With rumbling stomachs, we started with café con leche ($2.50) and the empanadas Columbiana (six for $4.99), corn pockets filled with a mix of ground beef and spices and served with a light but flavorful, finely minced salsa. Bypassing other favorites like assorted arepas, shrimp ceviche with tostones and fried yucca with mojo sauce, we instead went with the sopa del dia, which on Sundays is sancocho de gallina ($10 with white rice, plantains and salad), a traditional Columbian chicken-and-vegetable soup that I'd never seen around this area. It was a tasty medley of chicken broth, corn, green plantains, potatoes and cilantro.

We shared the Columbian bandeja paisa ($13.99) — an almost-unwieldy platter loaded with flank sirloin steak, a plump pork sausage, crispy pork belly, egg, sweet plantains, corn cake, avocado, rice (yellow or white) and beans (black or red). It was great for sharing, and gave us a little taste of a lot of items.

We were eager to also try some of the many Cuban offerings on the menu, but we were torn between the picadillo and the ropa vieja, so we flipped a coin. The vieja won — and it turned out to be a winner, with shredded flank steak, a peppery sauce, garlic, onion, tomatoes and bell peppers, and a side of vibrant yellow rice.

I can't wait to return for happy hour ($1.80 domestic beers, $2.25 imports) and try all the items I was too full to order on my inaugural visit — the Cuban sandwich, lechon asado, traditional Cuban empanadas, tres leches, and perhaps something (or everything) from the …   More

BITE-SIZED

Named for Vernon Kelly, a real estate developer who helped design the TPC Sawgrass golf course, Vernon’s offers an impressive menu and friendly service in a relaxed, sophisticated atmosphere perfect for commemorating a special occasion or just grabbing appetizers and a glass of wine.

On the way to our table, we walked by an enticing display of fresh fish and lobster. Our Vernon’s dining experience began with a trip to the complementary self-serve chowder bar. Grab a three-compartment (genius!) bowl and ladle at your leisure. I loaded up with spicy Minorcan, a delightful crawfish-and-lobster bisque, and gator tail gumbo, which I topped with crunchy homemade oyster crackers. Each was a comfy, innovative way to start our meal.

From the raw bar, I ordered a half-dozen raw Blue Point oysters ($13, or $6.50 from 5-7 p.m.). These plump beauties went down easy, accompanied by a tangy champagne mignonette and juicy lemon wedges.

All of the appetizers were tempting, but the lobster strudel ($15), with boursin, lemon butter, chervil and truffles, stood out. With chunks of fresh lobster meat and a buttery, flaky crust, it wasn’t too rich or filling. There are no words to describe just how amazing it was; go experience it for yourself.

Craving something fresh and green, we noted four salad choices on the menu. Our waiter recommended Vernon’s Salad ($9); great choice. It was a nice portion of Bibb lettuce topped with candied pecans, heirloom tomatoes, Asher blue cheese and dried cherries, tossed in a flavorful roasted shallot vinaigrette and topped with a tangle of shoestring carrots.

There’s an extensive selection of fresh fish and several steaks (filet mignon, T-bone, New York strip, rib eye) from which to choose; we opted for two fresh catches: snapper with mashed potatoes (market price) and the signature pan-seared salmon ($28), atop fingerling potatoes and julienned sautéed squash with blueberry gastrique. I’d …   More

BITE-SIZED

The Baymeadows Road corridor is loaded with Indian restaurants, by my count at least four within a six-mile radius. Zesty India, which has been open about 11 months, is among the newest. Before stepping inside, I pondered the choice of the word “zesty” in its name — I wouldn’t put it in my list of top-10 adjectives that come to mind when I think of Indian food. 

After we were seated, our waitress greeted us with a basket of complementary papadum (thin, oversized crispy crackers) and a trio of chutneys — mint, tamarind, and onion and ketchup — for dipping. Each was flavorful, though not exactly zesty.

We ordered vegetarian samosas ($6), stuffed with peas and potatoes, and chicken tikkas ($8) to start. The tikkas proved to be the most airy, tender cubes of chicken I’ve ever tasted. Cooked in a clay oven, these bite-sized poultry pieces were marinated in ginger, garlic, yogurt and a mix of fragrant spices.

For the main attraction, we picked Rogan Josh ($15), a classic North Indian lamb dish made with fennel seeds and cardamom; kofta in palak gravy ($12), which featured fresh spinach and cheese seasoned with herbs in a spinach sauce; and chicken tikka masala ($15). We spooned globs of all three atop perfectly cooked basmati rice and devoured it all. The tikka masala, a traditional dish of fire-roasted chicken breast mixed with creamy onion, tomato and a fenugreek sauce, was good, but the kofta was our favorite.

There’s a bread menu with assorted Indian favorites — roti, naan, paratha and kulcha. Sadly, the garlic naan ($3.50 for four pieces) left something to be desired, despite a strong garlicky aroma and visible minced garlic on top. 

For dessert, we favored rasmalai ($5), spongy sweet cheese dumpling-like pieces heavily soaked in a sweet, thickened milk. It was garnished with slivers of almonds. The rajwada kheer ($5), a thick rice pudding with hints of cardamom, didn’t do much for …   More

BITE-SIZED

From the decidedly oceanic décor to the menu's naming convention to the apparel of the waffle makers, Cousteau's Waffle & Milkshake Bar appears to be straight out of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic. Heck, if you wear a red beanie, you get 10 percent off your order.

Let me begin with this: Cousteau's offers wonuts, waffle-donut hybrids that are seriously legit ($3 for one, $15 for a half-dozen, $28 for a dozen). After eyeing a caseful of these beauties, I had to do it: The maple bacon wonut would be mine. Captain Zissou would be proud. Next time, I'm going grabbing a Butterfinger wonut, and/or one topped with mini M&Ms.

From the milkshake choices, I selected and proceeded to slurp a Pele dos Santos ($6.49), a creamy blend of bananas, Nutella and vanilla ice cream (topped with fresh whipped cream) that hit the spot, though I was also coveting the Calypso ($5.25), touted as Key lime pie in a milkshake. Again, next time.

Waffles are made before your eyes in one of several cast-iron waffle presses. Large enough to share, the Whirlybird ($8.95) is a warm homemade-style Belgian Liege waffle piled high with chopped cinnamon apples, vanilla ice cream, a generous caramel drizzle and bourbon whipped cream.

For good measure, we also ordered a Belafonte ($6.95), which features rich, hazelnutty Nutella covered with an abundance of juicy strawberry slices and a glorious dollop of whipped cream. Something about a chewy, warm waffle with Nutella really works.

There are nearly two-dozen toppings you can add for a slight upcharge, ranging from 50 cents for a caramel drizzle to $2 for blueberry compote. Extra toppings include candied orange peel, brownie crumbles, toasted coconut, crushed peppermint, real maple syrup, candied pecans, white chocolate sauce and marshmallow fluff — it may be hard to contain yourself.

Open daily, Cousteau's is a necessity when in St. Augustine. I'm decidedly jealous of the nearby Flagler College students who are …   More

BITE-SIZED

Looking for standout soul food? Soul Food 
 Bistro — owned and operated by Potter's 
 House International Ministries (the bistro's original location is based out of the sprawling 48-acre property that was Normandy Mall, which the church has since taken over) — is doing it right, and Chef Celestia Mobley personally sees to it. A 2002 graduate of Florida State College at Jacksonville's culinary program, her buffet-style restaurants on the Westside and now on Atlantic Boulevard in Arlington offer a seemingly endless sea of home-cooked favorites like slow-braised oxtail, candied yams, fried chicken gizzards and more.

The mac-and-cheese is some of the best I've ever eaten — and that's saying something. Mobley uses a secret blend of four cheeses that contribute to its gooey goodness. It's a must.

And while the green beans may not look like much, they're seasoned with a proprietary blend of spices and are addictive. Even kids will wolf down these veggies. The simmered collard greens and black-eyed peas are legit, too. A couple shakes of hot sauce and you'll be wishing for more.

The cornbread — magically moist and crumbly — is so very good, the folks at Soul Food Bistro call it "Slap Yo Mamma" cornbread. It pairs perfectly with the golden-brown fried chicken with hints of spiciness, the country-fried chicken, or the smothered pork chop and yellow rice.

Weekdays, you'll find daily specials at both locations, including baked spaghetti on Wednesdays and meatloaf with mashed potatoes on Thursdays.

Pastry Chef Valerie Harris whips up old favorites — classics like red velvet cake, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler, along with new hits like a dreamy coconut cheesecake — that will make you swoon.

Both locations are comfortable and feature modern décor. And, on Thursday nights at the Arlington location, there's live jazz.

NIBBLES: 

SIMPLY SOUTHERN EATERY opened at 11230 New Berlin Road on the …   More

BITE-SIZED

Don’t let the rundown strip-mall façade or the neighboring Karaoke bar fool you: World Food Mart’s hidden food corner is a treasure trove for adventure.

As you walk in, you’re surrounded by seemingly endless aisles of Asian products — canned, bagged, frozen, loose — so hang a left and walk straight back to find a cash-only lunch counter serving made-to-order Korean and Japanese specialties. You won’t be disappointed.

Peruse a straightforward menu board, wait for one of the two adorable serving ladies to greet you, then order and pay. When your tray is ready, add any sauces you’d like, and grab a seat at one of the several tables, most of which were occupied the day we went there.

We ordered the lunch special bulgogi ($6.95): strips of Korean BBQ beef mixed with white onion and a light sauce. It arrived in a bento box with a heap of steamed white rice, a simple chopped cabbage salad, crunchy pickled daikon radish and two plump fried stuffed dumplings.

Our bimimbap ($6.99), an oversized bowl full of an assortment of mixed vegetables, rice, and a sweet-and-spicy sauce, was topped with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds and a sunny-side-up egg. Break the yolk and mix everything together — yum.

Several soups are available. I selected the udon, which was full of tangled, thick, wheat-based, long udon noodles, a fish cake, tofu pieces and some sort of seafood, but it needed a little something, so I added a few shakes of soy sauce to the light and mild broth. When I go to World Food Mart again, I want to try the jjam bbong, a red-hued spicy seafood noodle soup with mussels, shrimp, ginger, bamboo shoots, vegetables and noodles. It’s about as authentic a Korean dish as you can get — the folks dining near us had ordered it, and I was quite envious.

The Korean kimbap ($3.99) resembled Japanese sushi with its seaweed-wrapped white rice, vegetables, egg and krab, but used sesame oil …   More

BITE-SIZED

Ever wished your pizza was topped with mashed potatoes? Yeah, me either — until I sat down and indulged in a few slices of the mashed potato pie ($10-18, depending on size) at Mama Q's. Hooked.

With only four tables, Mama Q's is best suited for takeout or delivery, but it certainly delivers (pun intended) big flavor regardless what pie you pick. On the four I shared, I found the crust to be perfect — neither too dense nor soggy, despite the multitude of unique topping offerings, and still crisp on the edges.

No skimping on the toppings either, as they are weighed to achieve a consistent pie every time. And the bacon, which comes on many of the specialty pies, is also perfectly crispy and not too fatty — kudos to Mama!

If you're craving a pre-meal snack, go for the pepperoni-stuffed bread ($7), three-cheese bread ($7), garlic knots ($5) or wings ($9). Lunch or dinner will be out shortly, as pizzas only take about six minutes to cook, at 476 degrees, after being created.

Create your own or pick a specialty pie like the Backyard BBQ (large for $16), which won me over. Loaded with grilled chicken breast, bacon, chopped red onion, cheddar cheese and a heavy-handed drizzle of smoky-yet-sweet BBQ sauce, it was surprisingly tasty for a pizza that I typically wouldn't gravitate toward.

Now, back to that mashed potato pie. The golden crust is layered with an olive oil and garlic sauce that's then topped with a layer of mashed potatoes and abundantly sprinkled with shredded cheddar, crispy bacon pieces and thinly sliced chives. (For good measure I got a side of ranch — a la potato skins — and felt like a kid on Christmas morning.)

Each month an off-menu specialty pizza is available, so get the 411 on this creative offering before you order. And at lunch there are specials like two slices and a drink for $5, which really can't be beat.

Oh, and if you've got a sweet tooth, kids and adults alike will enjoy the homemade …   More

BITE-SIZED

Spacious and modern, Pulp — which recently opened a second location in the historic Shoppes of Avondale — is ideal for a quick sip on the go, a post-gym beverage or a light lunch. If you're in need of java, there's also hot or iced Bold Bean coffee (available in a variety of preparations — French press, hand drip, Turkish or moka pot) for $2.50 and an assortment of tea, organic beers and wines.

This locally owned shop specializes in smoothies, juices and acai bowls. And you won't find refined sugar or any artificial sweeteners here — just organic cane sugar, raw sugar, stevia, agave and local wildflower honey.

The good news is that while these healthy concoctions may not be calorie-free, they are delicious and loaded with vitamins and antioxidants.

Each sip is like doing a sit-up, right?

Juices are concocted in front of your eyes with massive juicers, smoothies whipped up in record time via high-powered VitaMix blenders, and the do-it-yourself frozen yogurt bar ($0.49 an ounce; no fro-yo in Avondale, sadly) with a plethora of toppings is self-serve, making for a fun experience.

My go-to juice is the brightly hued Green Energy ($6.50). I enjoy the sweetness of the apples and carrots, spiciness from the fresh ginger, tanginess from the lemon and earthy boost from the spinach, parsley, kale and celery.

As for smoothies, the Nuts about Nutella (4.95 for the 16-ounce) is your best bet: It's a silky mix of soymilk, banana, creamy Nutella, peanut butter and organic vanilla frozen yogurt.

At breakfast I've been to known to order the Pulp Acai Bowl ($7.25), packed with antioxidant-rich frozen acai berries blended with your choice of milk then topped with crunchy granola pieces and freshly cut strawberries, bananas and blueberries. Honey drizzle optional. Yes, please.

NIBBLES

• San Marco’s V PIZZA is planning a second area location by the end of the year at 521 N. First St. in Jacksonville …   More

 
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