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BITE-SIZED

Concealed within a unique town-within-a-
 town called Yukon lurks a simple seafood shack surrounded by bikers, sailors, lumberjacks and Baptists. This is the culinary story of J.L. Trent's Seafood.

Inside you'll find a communal experience where leather-clad bikers from neighboring Murray's Tavern down two-for-one beers while legions of gray-haired Christians from the fundamentalist Baptist church across the street pass tartar sauce to a table full of workers from the nearby lumberyard. This strange juxtaposition of parallel universes seems to mimic the curious and harmonic ocean world from which the restaurant's menu originates.

Aesthetics aside, a growling stomach must be tamed. After consulting the menu and a chalkboard full of specials, I order a classic combo platter ($15.99), which will allow me to savor several items — oysters, scallops and clam strips. Since it's January and New Year's resolutions are still fresh, I opt for baked instead of fried seafood, except for the clam strips, which only come fried. Platters are served with glorious little golden hushpuppies and two sides. Sadly, mac 'n' cheese isn't an option, and I'm not feeling like a hefty baked potato or the standard crinkle-cut fries, so I pick grits and collard greens.

I also order a mahi sandwich ($9.99) and side of fried shrimp ($5), because who comes to a place like this and doesn't get shrimp? The sandwich — a hoagie housing leafy Romaine, tomato, pickles, onions and Trent's secret sauce, was decent. The sandwich may have worked better with a smaller ciabatta roll, as the hoagie-to-mahi ratio did not quite find a proper equilibrium. And sadly, the shrimp didn't win me over, either. The batter could have been crisper and a bit more flavorful. I've had better.

That said, the seafood on my platter tasted fresh and the collard greens were particularly saporous. Worth noting: The tangy tartar sauce was thick and creamy, and flecked with relish — just how I like it.

The …   More

BITE-SIZED

Food, beer and a sense of community: three of my favorite things. And in keeping with that trio, Riverside brewery Intuition Ale Works has embarked on its first publishing journey. The finished product, Cooking with Intuition, is a stunning hardbound collection of recipes incorporating locally crafted beer by area chefs, home brewers, food truckers and Intuition's own Mug Club members.

The book is co-authored by Intuition general manager Cari Sanchez-Potter and creative projects coordinator Robin Rutenberg, but it's local photographer Laura Evans' keen eye and attention to detail that really sets it apart. These 288 pages are as much a coffee-table book as a must-have recipe index.

"Cooking with Intuition isn't just for folks who enjoy cooking or for people who are major craft beer snobs," says Sanchez-Potter. "The book is much more than that. It's about shining a spotlight on our amazing culinary community and highlighting all the creative talent we have here in Jacksonville, using beer as a lens."

Throughout the book's 80-plus recipes, beer-as-common-denominator proves to be quite a versatile ingredient, offering chefs myriad flavor and complexity options. "Our brewers at Intuition brew so many styles of beer that cooks have a lot of options for using [them] in their dishes," Sanchez-Potter says. "Stouts add a subtly sweet and malty flavor to long-simmered stews or slow braises; the carbonation in certain brews adds lift to foods like hushpuppies or fish-and-chips; and hoppy beers like IPAs lend depth to brines, marinades and sauces."

For some people, Cooking will serve as an introduction to beer-infused cuisine, but it's also designed to help more experienced cooks break free of their culinary comfort zones, Sanchez-Potter says. Recipes range from the über-simple (stout floats, with Intuition's Truck Stop Stout topped with ice cream) to multi-step, restaurant-quality dishes like Black Sheep Chef Waylon Rivers' King Street BBQ pork belly with …   More

BITE-SIZED

Know that feeling you get when you try a new place and enjoy it so much you want to shout it from the rooftops to every food-loving soul you know? I'm going to be that girl.

Excellent sashimi and Japanese fare have been hard to nail down in Jacksonville, but I've finally unearthed a gem that's nestled off San Jose in a Carrabba's strip mall, of all places. Had two people not mentioned Kazu to me, I'd have never set foot in there, due to that location. Upon entering, however, I saw a place that's spacious and spotless, with a modern feel and comfortable vibe.

Open for two months, Kazu has a menu that offers a delightful variety of Japanese comfort food, including a variety of soups, dumplings, sushi bar appetizers, salads, bento boxes, sushi, maki handrolls and sashimi. Prices are fair and the servings are abundantly portioned and artfully plated.

We started with agedashi tofu ($4.50), pork gyoza ($4.95) and Kazu sashimi salad ($9.95). I highly recommend the tofu. These soft soybean cubes are fried in a tempura batter then served afloat a slightly sweet yet salty dashi, a soup-like stock. The pan-seared gyoza dumplings ($4.95) were good but not as memorable as the tofu. And the colorful salad had plenty of fresh pieces of sashimi, sliced avocado, mango, carrot and red onion, tossed in a light yuzu vinaigrette. It was refreshing and perfect for sharing.

On the sushi menu, I was immediately drawn to the Dancing Eel ($7.95): eel, shrimp, seaweed salad, creamy avocado and spicy mayo. So many of my favorite things all rolled (no pun intended) into one! It was solid. My next order was the Spider ($7.95), which touted tempura soft-shell crab, avocado, cucumber, a sweet eel sauce and tobiko on top.

Sushi and apps aside, I can't stop thinking about the Chirashi ($15.95) — the most remarkable dish of the evening. An absolutely gorgeous rainbow medley of amazingly fresh sashimi garnished with an edible flower, pieces of tamago omelet, colorful pickled daikon …   More

BITE-SIZED

While food trucks have become wildly popular in Jacksonville in recent years, on the other side of the ditch, they've not been so welcome. But last week, after a two-year campaign by food-truck advocates, the Jacksonville Beach City Council finally agreed to allow the trucks to operate within city limits, at least during a 14-month pilot program.

There are limitations: Food trucks have to get permission from property owners to set up shop (they can't use vacant or noncommercial land), and they can't do so within 100 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants. They have to apply for a permit at City Hall and pay an annual business tax ($79.20). They have to shut down by 3 a.m., or by 10 p.m. if they're close to residential properties.

But at least it's something. "There is so much creativity coming out of these food trucks, and there is some really, really good food," says Councilwoman Chris Hoffman, who championed the food truck cause.

She's right — and I've tasted it firsthand. On The Fly Sandwiches ‘n' Stuff chef Andrew Ferenc serves freshly seared ahi tuna over crunchy napa cabbage slaw that's topped with pickled ginger and a sweet chili sauce. Chew Chew has a flavor-packed Korean short rib melt with smoked provolone and diced kimchi slaw. And just last week I tried beet fries (yes, that's a thing) from Funkadelic. Verdict? Delicious. And it's just the beginning. Jax Beach residents will soon have all kinds of innovative culinary options to choose from, and that has foodies like me chomping at the bit.

(Disclosure: My fiancé Mike Field and I manage the Jax Truckies Facebook group.)

That's because food trucks offer room for experimentation. Consider this: Long-time Beaches resident John Stanford and his brother Jeff opened a food truck in the summer of 2012 in an effort to get the name of their then-under-construction brick-and-mortar restaurant, The Salty Fig (now The Blind Fig), out to the masses. The Blind Fig's wildly popular pork belly and …   More

BITE-SIZED

I would never, ever have driven by Health 
 Zone but for the heads-up from a few 
 friends. First, there's the poor signage and kinda-sorta misleading name: Is it a fitness center? A supplement shop? And then there's the fact that it's tucked away off Bowden Road and I-95 near Mr. Taco.

Nonetheless, Health Zone proved a pleasant find. I decided to check out the lunch menu. (Breakfast is served 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch until 2 p.m., Monday through Friday). As I walked in, I noticed a long line-up of freshly blended juices (12 oz.) and smoothies (16 and 32 oz.), all concocted with fresh fruit and juice — no pre-made mixes in sight. I tried the St. Augustine smoothie ($5.59) — spinach, kale, banana, mango and orange juice — and the Really Green ($5.59) juice. With its glowing green hue, the Really Green certainly lives up to its name, and with an über-healthy blend of cucumber, celery, kale, parsley, lemon and apple, each sip felt refreshing. Thumbs up.

Woman cannot live on green juice alone, so I next ordered a Zone Bowl ($5.99, with a $1 upcharge to add protein), which piqued my interest. Start with a starch like brown rice, jasmine rice or quinoa, and then pick a legume — black beans, black-eyed peas or pinto beans. Then choose from a slew of fresh vegetables and a list of both carnivore- and vegan-friendly proteins (grilled chicken breast, roast pork, roast beef, tofu, tempeh and seitan).

My Asian tempeh Zone Bowl, with quinoa, black beans, sautéed spinach, colorful carrots and zucchini, and a housemade chimichurri sauce, was easily enough for two meals. Also filling was the cleverly named H.A.M. ($7.99) — ham, apple slices and melted Monterey jack cheese with spicy mustard. Not in the mood for a sandwich? Health Zone also has salads, soups, hot dogs and an extensive dessert list.

If you're feeling adventurous, go for grilled beets ($1.99) or kale slaw ($1.99) as your side. The beets were especially juicy …   More

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