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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

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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

 
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