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BITE-SIZED

Just over the Intracoastal Waterway bridge lies a hidden gem specializing in Eastern Shore seafood. The popular former TacoLu spot (complete with valet parking) has been redone and the coastal vibe is casual yet slightly upscale, perfect for a date night or appetizers and cocktails with co-workers.

Owner and executive chef Gary Beach brought Marlin Moon Grille of Ocean City, Md., to Northeast Florida less than a year ago. The recipes are his. He credits his Cajun grandmother for his informal culinary training, in addition to practical experience he picked up along the way in restaurants from Maryland to Florida.

Beach describes his restaurant as a "happy-go-lucky, sport-fishing themed bar with no pretense that serves simple, fresh eclectic fare at a fair price." I couldn't agree more.

Start with tuna nachos. Crunchy fried wontons are nicely plated and piled with tangy seaweed salad, a spicy cucumber wasabi mayo, vibrant sesame-crusted ahi tuna, finished with a sprinkling of scallions and a drizzle of sweet teriyaki.

The Greek kadaif-wrapped jumbo Mayport shrimp appetizer (served with a sweet red chile dipping sauce) was a delightful blend of crunchy, spicy and sweet. Kadaif is shredded phyllo dough that's light and crunchy, with a unique texture.

Everything is noticeably fresh. Even the basket of bread was perfection. Marlin Moon's daily fish specials are created from the fresh catch from nearby Safe Harbor Seafood in Mayport. And if you're a crabcake snob, do yourself a favor and order them. Definitely some of the best in town I've found. Plump, juicy and hardly any fillers in these jumbo lump crab cakes, paired with a homemade island aioli.

My entrée, the Eggplant Boat, earned an A+ for creativity. Oversized slabs of breaded and lightly fried eggplant cradle perfectly cooked scallops, shrimp and crawfish tails. A savory shiitake crab butter sauce tops the dish.

The baked mixed-berry bumbleberry pie was a tad too sweet for my liking, …   More

BITE-SIZED

For the past 74 years, locals have flocked (no pun intended) to this no-frills St. Nicholas hot spot. Comfortably nesting in the same location since 1939, when Atlantic Boulevard was the only road to the beach, Beach Road Chicken Dinners is truly a Southerner’s dream. (On the flip side, it is not a vegetarian’s dream.)

We kicked off our feast by devouring bite-sized fried okra and sweet corn nuggets, served with a creamy homemade ranch sauce that had a slight jalapeño kick. The breading was light, and the okra was both fresh and crisp, as if it were picked yesterday. The sweet corn nuggets were piping hot.

How could I resist ordering fried chicken? Three of my tablemates also opted for it, so I'm not exaggerating when I say a platter of strategically piled pieces of crispy, golden-brown chicken arrived at our table. The need for multiple napkins aside, the chicken was the perfect trifecta: crisp, juicy and flavorful. I also managed a bite of country-fried steak and topped it with some of the gravy from the mashed potatoes; it too was delicious. If you’re from the South like I am, you’ll certainly appreciate the authenticity. And to make Grandma proud, yes, there are gizzards and chicken livers. But that’s where I draw the line.

Served family-style, the fixins are all-you-can-eat. If you're scooping out the last heap of mashed potatoes, don't fret, y'all — just order another bowl. The table quickly became crowded with creamed peas, mini-biscuits (with butter and honey), mashed potatoes, gravy, crinkle-cut crisp French fries, white rice and creamy cole slaw. The biscuits, slaw and mashed potatoes with gravy had the most flavor; the four of us left the creamed peas practically untouched. I longed for mac ‘n’ cheese and collard greens, but they were nowhere to be found on the menu.

Eyeing the table next to us, I spotted fruit cobbler. Stuffed to the brim, I knew I couldn't hold another bite. Judging from our neighbors’ quickly …   More

BITE-SIZED

In an unassuming spot on South Third Street in Jax Beach sits Eva’s Grill & Bar. Home to several restaurants over the years, the building's interior feels dated and plain, but small windows lend a few rays of natural sunlight. It’s spacious and kid-friendly, and would work well for larger parties.

Owner Chris Wright, along with his father William, opened Eva’s in early 2012. Many of the recipes are passed down from Chris’ mother, Eva. (He also has a daughter named Eva.) The menu includes Greek, Italian and Cajun dishes, but Eva’s is traditional in its approach, not a fusion of cuisines or flavors. Everything is homemade-style, except the hamburger buns and soda rolls.

My items were plated nicely, and I noticed the portions are quite generous and prices are fair. I see many take-out boxes in my future.

I started with an Italian panzanella salad: a bountiful plate of arugula, mixed greens, tomatoes, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, red onion and herbed croutons, tossed with a flavorful housemade white balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was fresh and the flavors blended nicely.

Several small plates are available, including a Greek meze platter with spinach and feta pastries (spanakopita), fresh mint and feta pastries (tiropita), Greek salad and stuffed grape leaves (dolmades). The table next to ours had one, and my stomach growled with envy.

Feeling adventurous, I tried the beef short rib lasagna. Warm gooey mozzarella generously covered a tower of alternating lasagna noodles, ricotta, spinach, fontina and braised beef, surrounded by a mote of homemade marina sauce. I expected the dish to be heavy, but it wasn't. The sauce had a lot of flavor. I’m eager to try the calzones and pizzas next time.

Wanting to sample each culture represented on the menu, I ordered the cochon de lait, a French-sounding term with Cajun roots. The slow-roasted, seasoned pork was accompanied by buttery housemade …   More

BITE-SIZED

In the heart of Riverside lies a casual yet 
 borderline hip café, complete with free WiFi and a self-service bottomless coffee station.

Breakfast is available even at lunchtime, which is a bonus. Sometimes you just want (OK, need) an omelet, eggs Benedict or French toast in your life after a hectic morning has passed.

In addition to a clever build-your-own omelet selection, Cool Moose's menu boasts four Benedicts — traditional, smoked bacon and tomato, smoked salmon, and veggie.

Daily specials are scrawled across a blackboard, including the homemade soup selection. A recent offering, the Desayuno de Costa Rica, caught my eye: a breakfast platter with scrambled eggs, chorizo and cheddar on a grilled corn tortilla, topped with tomatillo salsa and accompanied by sweet plantains, black beans and rice.

The lunch sandwich options run the gamut — Cuban, chicken salad croissant, ham and brie panini with maple mustard, half-pound Angus burger with sharp cheddar, a gyro with tatziki, and a classic Reuben, to name a few. The chicken salad croissant, made with all white meat, is tossed with crunchy celery, red onion, walnuts and a slightly sweet honey mayo. Complement the sweetness with a side of garlicky truffle fries.

For vegetarians, options include a veggie burger on herbed focaccia bun, a marinated grilled portobello panini with roasted red pepper, provolone and sweet basil pesto (which pairs nicely with a side of crisp sweet potato fries dusted with sugar), and a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cool Moose's buttery Texas-style toast makes for a simple yet satisfying grilled cheese. You can add slices of tomato or crisp bacon if the mood strikes. Or pair your 'wich with a cup of soup for dunking.

Open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Cool Moose can be counted on for an inexpensive, laidback bite. On the weekends, the outside tables fill up fast with patrons — mimosas in hand and pups …   More

BITE-SIZED

I’ve never met a sweet I didn’t like. At Sweet Theory Baking Company, I have yet to meet a sweet I don’t love.

This place is super-cool (I’d say “sweet,” but perhaps that pun is going overboard?). While there’s only room for about 12 diners, the vintage décor, chalk art and ephemera, together with a collection of blasts from the past like Alf and the California Raisins, make it seem as though it’s been in the neighborhood forever.

Sweet Theory whips up fluffy doughnuts in every flavor imaginable — egg nog, chai, French toast, cinnamon sugar, pink lemonade, chocolate peppermint, strawberry, lemon poppy, root beer, SunButter (a creamy sunflower seed alternative to peanut butter) and jelly and more. Orange creamsicle — my flavor of choice — melts in your mouth. If you’re feeling extra gluttonous, go for a doughnut sundae, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, caramel, cookie crumbs and coconut whipped cream.

Owner Katie Riehm emphasizes quality ingredients and ensures there’s something for everyone, even those with food allergies. Her concoctions are peanut-free, dairy-free, egg-free and soy-free, thus making items vegan. And, while I feel a bit like Dr. Oz writing this, the doughnuts are even fried in heart-healthy organic, cold-pressed coconut oil — but if I didn’t know that, I’d never guess. There are no refined sugars in sight, just organic whole cane sugar and all-natural agave nectar. While the prices are steep — $3 for one donut, not a dozen — quality ingredients go a long way.

Sweet Theory also serves local Bold Bean Coffee Roasters brews and hand-crafted Brooklyn egg cream sodas made using non-dairy cream, chocolate syrup and seltzer water. Some days, there are cookies, cupcakes, shortbread cookies and whoopee pies. On one of many recent visits, I had the delightful banana-maple whoopee pie: two …   More

BITE-SIZED

Every season, Ovations Food Services strives to bring new food offerings to a stadium full of hungry Jaguars fans. Hot dogs and hamburgers are mainstays, but many are unaware of unique cooked-to-order, reasonably priced items available around the stadium.

Ovations General Manager Ryan Prep has announced "The Jungle," in the upper east concourse of the stadium (section 435), is launching two new concepts, Stix and The Duval Taco Company. No item costs more than $10. Executive Chef Barrie Weathersbee, who's been with the team on and off for 16 years, has been finessing her recipes in the Jaguars' test kitchen.

Stix are two wooden skewers of bite-sized pieces of meat served atop a bed of Asian noodles. With teriyaki-glazed Korean beef, sweet-and-spicy mojo-glazed pork and jerk chicken with a mango chutney glaze, there's something for all tastes. The Korean beef, studded with sesame seeds, is my favorite.

Bold flavors abound at The Duval Taco Company. Pairs of gourmet hand-held tacos (there are three varieties) are served alongside homemade salsa and wedges of freshly fried flour tortillas dusted with adobo seasoning. The chicken verde features shredded chicken braised in salsa verde, topped with pickled onion and a creamy drizzle of cilantro crema. The Big Bang taco is loaded with spicy fried shrimp, chopped pineapple, diced red pepper and jalapeño and served atop a cabbage slaw that's marinated in a cumin-lime vinaigrette. Smoky braised pulled-pork carnitas are dressed with a sautéed green-pepper-and-onion medley and cilantro lime crema. All of the tacos are served on flour tortillas but can be made gluten-free when you request corn tortillas.

Perhaps the most creative addition is the handheld chicken-and-waffle sliders, a unique twist on a Southern favorite. Scratch-made batter is first poured into hot Belgian waffle irons. The resultant golden waffles are then topped with a hunk of fried white-meat chicken breast, a sweet-and-spicy red …   More

BITE-SIZED

Ever get that yearning for pizza and need to tame your hunger ASAP? Look no further than Your Pie, a fast-casual chain with a new Fleming Island location. Custom pizzas piled high (no skimping here!) with your favorite toppings are ready in a mere five minutes, thanks to a 600-degree pizza oven and nimble staff.

It's often difficult to get a group to agree on pizza toppings: Some begrudgingly pick off mushrooms and pepperoni, while others secretly wish for garlic and pineapple. Good news, picky pizza fans: Your Pie offers personal-size 10-inch pie.

While casual, the interior feels much nicer than similar assembly-line style spots like Chipotle, Moe's and Subway. Seating is abundant, and I foresee many families stopping in after Little League games or swim practices. Grownups will appreciate beer, wine, sangria and free Wi-Fi.

With more than 40 toppings (add as many non-meat toppings as you'd like without additional cost), eight sauces and nine different kinds of cheese, Your Pie caters to the tastes of all pizza lovers. Even food allergies are given serious consideration: Gluten-free pies are cooked in their own pans, and there's an option for dairy-free vegan cheese.

The crust is light and chewy without being too thin or too thick, and the edges maintain a perfect crispness. I had trouble choosing from eight sauces, but I enjoyed the flavorful sun-dried tomato pesto. On another recent visit, I tried the pizza sauce, then added shredded mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, jalapeños for kick and bacon (because, well, it's bacon).

Not in the mood for pizza? Several paninis and bread bowl salads await. I enjoyed the caprese: slices of fresh mozzarella, leafy spinach, tomatoes and shredded basil with extra virgin olive oil and a side of balsamic dressing, served in a baked pizza dough bowl.

Your Pie touts a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, allowing for several clever soda flavor combinations, like orange vanilla Diet Coke or raspberry Sprite.

For …   More

BITE-SIZED

Know what’s comforting? A plate of piled-high barbecue — with all the fixins.

Monroe’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Q, with a location on the Westside off Cassat and Edgewood at 4838 Highway Ave., and a mobile food truck (Monroe’s On the Go), recently opened a second brick-and-mortar on bustling Beach Boulevard. The former Woody’s Bar-B-Q has been revamped, and the wood floors, country décor and picnic bench seating is apropos.

After starting with bite-sized corn nuggets <> fried okra, I ordered the pulled pork platter — a large portion of moist and flavorful meat — with two sides, and added a third. Life’s short — why not? The collard greens, with a vinegar base, won over my Southern heart. The creamy mac ‘n’ cheese and sweet potato soufflé were perfect accompaniments: cheesy goodness and a subtly sweet soufflé topped with chopped nuts.

Worth mentioning are those addictive corn nuggets: I recommend starting with a shared basket. They’re stuffed with sweet creamed corn, fried and paired with a slightly spicy homemade ranch dipping sauce.

Monroe’s has finger-licking-good wings (both dry and wet), sandwiches (pulled pork, chopped Carolina pork, brisket, pulled chicken and sliced turkey), salads and platters. The sides are where it’s at; secretly, I’d love to order one of each and stuff myself silly. Talk about tempting: creamy coleslaw, homemade potato salad, collard greens, mashed potatoes, baked beans, black-eyed peas, sweet yellow whole-kernel corn, simmered Southern-style green beans and red coleslaw. The standard fries and side salad are also available.

As a big dipper (no pun intended), I get my kicks by tasting all of the homemade squeezable barbecue sauces: Two sticky thumbs-up for the tangy mustard sauce. There are also sauce flavors of mustard, hot mustard, Monroe sauce, chipotle, Carolina and sweet.

In the back of the restaurant is a …   More

BITE-SIZED

Historic 5 Points has become one of the hip and happening spots in town. In addition to neighborhood favorites like The Mossfire Grill, O’Brothers Irish Pub and Sake House, a handful of new spots have opened and business is booming.

Black Sheep Restaurant (1534 Park St., 355-3793, blacksheep5points.com) is open for lunch and dinner. The spot, Orsay’s sister restaurant, serves new American favorites with a Southern twist. With the rooftop bar now open, Black Sheep will debut a brunch menu in the weeks ahead.

Black Sheep pays great attention to utilizing locally sourced ingredients and plating them beautifully. At lunch, meals arrive at your table on shiny silver retro cafeteria-style trays. The pimento cheese-stuffed fried green olives are stacked high with a creamy dipping sauce, while the Black Hog Farms Egg Toast is a sturdy rectangle of brioche topped with melted cheese and two symmetrical parallel placed eggs.

The vibe is fun and hip, with large floor-to-ceiling windows that are perfect for sunlight and people-watching.

Derby on Park (1068 Park St., 379-3343, facebook.com/DerbyOnPark) replaced the former Derby House with new owners, a new space and new menu at the corner of Park Street and Lomax. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and brunch on Sunday, Derby touts a $3 to $5 drink and appetizer special list for happy hour.

Cozy Tea Café (1023 Park St., 329-3964, cozyt.com) moved down a few storefronts to a larger space and has reinstated its celebrated Friday and Saturday Indian dinners in addition to its popular Monday-through-Saturday lunch service. Every time I stop in for lunch, I snag a warm lemon cookie. The freshly baked treat has a perfect chewy-to-crispy ratio, and the warm lemon drizzle on top sends it over the edge.

Spot 5 on Park (1020 Park St., 655-5533) recently opened and serves lunch and dinner, coffee and drinks. Spot 5’s simplistic menu includes salads, six styles of hot dogs, and …   More

BITE-SIZED

With spring in the air and summer close behind, now is the prime time to roll down the windows and head down picture-perfect Highway A1A to this casual hideaway on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Cap’s doesn’t take reservations and — like most amazing beachfront spots — the nicer the weather, the longer you may wait for a seat. Unarguably, the biggest selling point is the sprawling wooden deck under a canopy of shady trees. (The outside oyster bar’s a close second.) The deck provides views of breathtaking sunsets, flocks of seagulls and tranquil waters.

The menu is lengthy, so go with a group so you can share and experiment. It’s also kid-friendly.

Of the more than 25 appetizers, I have some recommendations. If you’re into soups, Cap’s creamy signature she-crab soup or spicy roux-based gumbo, with freshly made cornbread, will fill you up. The generously portioned, tenderized fried gator tail with a light citrus sauce is a staple. A platter with hot smoked salmon, caper cream cheese, chopped egg and diced onion is simple but nicely done. For creative presentation and texture, I recommend the flaky phyllo dough cups filled with chopped sesame soy tuna tartare. The Belgian fries are fried twice — thick, golden and beyond crisp. The best parts are the dipping sauces: curry mayo, datil and peanut sauces get my vote.

The vanilla grouper, with sweet vanilla rum sauce, is flaky, horseradish-crusted, flash-fried grouper atop mashed potatoes and fried crisp spinach. Your taste buds will dance. And you can’t go wrong with Cap’s jambalaya — shrimp, crawfish, sausage, chicken, onions and peppers meet jasmine rice.

There’s plenty of other fresh seafood, and I made a dozen oysters my entrée (I ordered an extra half-dozen). You can go raw or steamed and select from East, West or Gulf coasts. Snow crab legs, peel-and-eat Mayport shrimp and steamed clams round out the “surf” …   More

 
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