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BITE-BY-BITE

Finally checking Pepe’s off my ‘must-try’ list felt like an accomplishment since this strip mall find isn’t a place I pass on my day-to-day commute. Pepe’s has a seat-yourself dining area and doubles as a fully stocked Mexican grocery store. I was instantly drawn to its festive flair: a stack of sombreros, oversized piñatas, colorful wall murals and blaring music, all helping to set the mood.

Our group of four grabbed a booth and ordered a bucket of Negra Modela beers (6 for $15). We eagerly worked our way through a complimentary basket of thick, crispy tortilla chips and standard-fare salsa which was seemingly void of cilantro but heavy on the garlic.

Pepe’s has a broad menu with exceptionally low prices. Tacos (corn or flour) are cheap, ranging from $1.50 to $2.25. We chose the more authentic preparation (corn) on our three-taco platter ($6.99), served with rice and refried beans. The lengua, or cow tongue, was the best of the tacos. My grandmother’s iteration was my first introduction to cow tongue, so I was pleased to find Pepe’s lengua cooked correctly (not overcooked, which causes it to be tough) and served with diced onions, generous cilantro sprigs and lime wedges. The chicken taco was good, yet the pork carnitas left something to be desired. It was dry and unremarkable. Surprisingly, the refried beans and rice included in the platter were well-seasoned and full of flavor.

Standouts were the chile relleno platter ($7.99) and chicken sopa ($2.99), a savory corn cake topped with shredded chicken, lettuce, sour cream and cheese. The chicken torta ($4.99), a Mexican sandwich, was another winner, with its soft bread, juicy breaded chicken, thick smear of mayo, shredded iceberg, sliced tomato, onion, pickled jalapeno slices and creamy avocado.

Service (read: one waitress for the entire restaurant) was slow, so skip Pepe’s if you’re on a schedule. If you have time, though, definitely take in the ambience and sit back with a cold …   More

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For a finger-lickin' good barbecue experience that's off the beaten track, drive west on Interstate 10 and take the exit for Marietta — then follow your nose.

Gators BBQ owners John and Sandy Shepherd's smoker cooks the signature meats low and slow.

Located in an old house converted into a restaurant, Gators may be small and no-frills, but portions are generous, and the prices are right. Start by ordering at the counter then take a seat. With fewer than 10 tables inside and on the small front porch area, you may find yourself sharing a table with strangers — but it's worth it.

There are the requisite starters — corn nuggets, fried okra, onion rings and Brunswick stew. The menu's broken into plates (your choice of meat plus two sides and garlic bread), sandwiches (served with one side), fresh seafood (with two sides and hushpuppies), family meals, an Angus beef hamburger, a hot dog and BBQ salad. With more than eight varieties of meat, channel your inner carnivore.

The tender, moist brisket and chopped pork had a nice smoky flavor and hardly any fat, with pieces of flavorful bark mixed in. An assortment of sauces is available, but a special sweet thicker sauce is spot-on (request it from the counter). Our tablemates had the smoked pork ribs which looked — and smelled — amazing.

As for sides, I'd order the collard greens and baked beans again, but the mac 'n' cheese was nothing special. Other options include potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni salad, corn on the cob, green beans and crinkle-cut French fries. The bite-sized corn nuggets with ranch dressing were perfectly golden pockets of creamy sweet corn, and can be a side item for an upcharge.

An incredibly friendly and warm staff greeted us; one woman with a slight Southern drawl brought out complementary small cups of freshly made banana pudding for everyone. The creamy, sweet dessert was studded with chunks of banana and crisp Nilla Wafers.

Closed on Sundays, …   More

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Mandaloun offers an authentic Lebanese culinary experience in the 
Baymeadows neighborhood.

For the past five years, Mandaloun has opened seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Chef Pierre Barakat usually visits each table at lunch and dinner, flashing his warm smile and speaking with a thick accent that adds to the authenticity of the experience.

If you're new to Mediterranean food, check out the expansive lunch buffet ($12.99 weekdays, $19.99 on Sunday), which offers an impressive assortment of authentic hot and chilled Lebanese delicacies.

From the cold mezze (appetizers) selections, my go-to choices are baba ganoush ($5.95), a smoky tahini, garlic and eggplant dip, and the thick, creamy hummus ($5.95) topped with a swirl of olive oil and a scattering of chickpeas. Both are served with warm pita bread.

Another favorite is the vegetarian-friendly, lemony tabouli ($6.45), a mix of finely chopped parsley, diced tomatoes, bulgur wheat, onion, lemon juice and olive oil.

If you're craving a warm starter, share an order of falafel ($5.95) — four crisp balls of gently fried ground chickpeas, herbs and spices.

For a light lunch or side item at dinner, try the fatoush salad ($6.45) — a mix of lettuce, tomato, chopped cucumber, radish, onion, mint, sumac and crispy pieces of Lebanese flatbread tossed in a dressing of olive oil, pomegranate molasses and lemon.

Entrées include kebab skewers of shish taouk (cubed spiced chicken, $12.95), kafta meshwi (minced lamb with parsley and onion, $11.95) and kafta khosh-khash (charcoal-grilled minced beef, $11.95). Each is served with sautéed mixed vegetables and a side of warm rice or salad. Seafood and vegetarian items are also available.

With indoor and outdoor seating, the restaurant is spacious and comfortable with large windows lining the perimeter. A small bar area is good for a pre-meal beer, glass of wine or cocktail.

For dessert, indulge in a traditional favorite — baklava. These petite, …   More

BITE-SIZED

The marriage of food and beer is synergistic. It opens the door to creativity on the chopping block. Multicourse dinners featuring a single brewery's curated selection of beers have been popular nationwide for years; locally, these half-liquid collaborations are taking place about once a month at Whole Foods Market in Mandarin. (Pre-sale tickets, ranging from $35-$40, include all of your food and beer.)

At the most recent dinner, Kristine Day from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and Whole Foods' Rachel Deremer hosted a five-course pairing that included diverse beer selections: Sierra's robust Bigfoot Barleywine, slightly tart Brux ale, wheat Kellerweis, hoppy Ruthless Rye IPA and a collaboration ale, Ovila Abbey Quad, as well as a welcoming simple pale ale served upon arrival. All were hearty pours, and you got a logo-emblazoned keepsake pint glass.

After we were seated, Day gave an overview of Sierra Nevada and the company's history, and explained the brewing process and various components that comprise beer. For show-and-tell, a jar of Cascade finishing hops was passed from table to table.

With a warm welcome and pair of manchego cheese-stuffed prosciutto-wrapped medjool dates that were all things savory, salty and sweet, the evening took off with a pour of the deeply hued Bigfoot Barleywine. Strong, and boldly flavored, it clocked in at a hefty 9.6 percent alcohol content.

Selecting the right beer to complement a dish is like winning the food lottery. Generally speaking, beer's carbonation helps to rid the tongue of fat, readying it for the next forkful. Hop-forward beers work well with fattier foods, helping to counterbalance rich sauces and lessening the dense feeling in your mouth. Malt-forward beers are better for spicy foods, as the malt's subtle sweetness tames the heat.

Following a bouillabaisse swimming with shrimp and mussels — paired with a copper-colored American wild ale called Brux — came a simple palate cleanser, a light mix of …   More

BITE-SIZED

It's hard to top a great meal enjoyed in a modern space with a well-curated wine list in the center of bustling, historic San Marco Square. Taverna recently expanded after four years in the former Café Carmon spot. It's evident that Executive Chef Sam Efron and wine director/wife Kiley Wynne Efron are passionate about the new environment and wider-ranging menu.

So what's new? Taverna now boasts a quick-casual lunch service along with an option for lunch delivery, a classy private dining room and the addition of craft cocktails (they'd offered only beer and wine before) to the menu.

The menu remains European-inspired, drawing from both Spain and Italy. Start with the house-made caprese ($10) with prosciutto ($6), meatballs and peasant bread ($10), sautéed calamari ($12) or citrus-marinated beet salad ($9).

The caprese's house-made cheese is amazing in and of itself, but when paired with fresh basil, juicy tomato, balsamic and olive oil, it's a huge hit. (The upcharge to add prosciutto is worth every penny.) The meatballs were also good, and the calamari served with Israeli couscous, tomatoes, garlic, capers, niçoise olives and a touch of lemon zest was just the right amount of spicy.

Speaking of great cheese, Taverna's customizable cheese-and-charcuterie plates are another smart way to start your meal. And since the selections change frequently, be sure to partake in Sweet Grass Dairy's delightfully creamy Green Hill, from Thomasville, Ga. The meat selections include popular cured meats like jamon Serrano, prosciutto di parma, hot capocollo, soppressata, Genoa salami and chorizo.

Lately, it's been hard to pass up the Monday night special — any of Taverna's signature brick-oven pizzas paired with a pint of cold Intuition Ale Works beer for $12. The pizzas usually run up to $18, and another $5 for the beer. (That's 11 bucks you can put toward dessert.) I recommend the soppressata — topped with house-made mozzarella, juicy robust San Marzano …   More

BITE-SIZED

I love pizza. And you do, too. I mean, who 
 doesn't? There's something intrinsically 
 comforting and magical about the harmony of that scalding-hot gooey cheese, a proper smear of flavorful sauce, a mishmash of crazy toppings and the crisp, chewy crust.

We all have lists of our favorite pizza joints in town, but there's something to be said about a place around the corner that's good, cheap and easy. And sometimes I just like the laidback vibe, fun décor, wafting music and oversized comfortable booths at Moon River.

It's low frills: walk in, peruse the chalkboard menu, place your order, pay. You'll receive a framed postcard that's totally random (think Mr. Rogers or My Little Pony on roller skates), which will help your server know who ordered what. Grab a seat and they'll bring it to you.

Feeling healthy? Begin with a salad. I enjoy the Greek, because it's fresh and simple but not wimpy — leafy Romaine topped with sliced tomatoes, strips of green pepper, both green and black olives (olive lovers, rejoice!), fresh mushrooms, slices of onion and crumbles of feta cheese. And the accompanying creamy Caesar dressing is dreamy. (I dunk my pizza crust in it, too.)

If you're not counting calories (lucky you), start with the pesto stix ($4.75) or bread stix ($4.50), which are generously portioned and perfect for sharing.

Moon River's pizza is best when ordered as an entire pie rather than just a slice or two. My favorite is the white (large $16.50, slice $2), which is sauce-less and topped with a blend of mozzarella, feta and Parmesan, extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, oregano and a sprinkle of black pepper.

On other occasions, I'll grab a slice of the vegetarian just because it's so stacked with veggies. Like, there's literally a pile, and many of them are raw (tomatoes, onions, peppers). More cheese is then added on top and re-melted.

You can, of course, create your own pies from the list of two dozen toppings, and there's options for …   More

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Until recently, there was only one choice for Ethiopian cuisine in town. Now there are two. That means two excuses to eat with your hands, people!

Situated in a small strip center near ethnic shops and specialty stores off Baymeadows and Old Baymeadows roads, Ibex Ethiopian Kitchen is a spacious restaurant with an assortment of tables, booths and bar seats, and a straightforward menu.

If you’ve never experienced Ethiopian cuisine, you may be surprised to find your silverware missing. Instead, you’ll use injera, a room-temperature, fermented spongy bread served in rolls. When the basket arrives, unroll, pinch off a piece and use it to pinch and pick up food.

If you have had Ethiopian fare, at Ibex you’ll find traditional favorites like sambusas, kitfo, tibs, wots and much more.

We first ordered the savory lentil, cabbage, carrot, onion and jalapeno pepper sambusas ($3.95 for two), but our server politely informed us that the kitchen had run out. Next time for sure.

Eager to try a bit of everything, we then ordered the chef’s special combination platter ($29.95). Ideal for two; with an appetizer, three people could easily share this. It arrived nicely plated in a rainbow-like assortment. There was a good bounty of mostly vegetarian items: cabbage, collard greens, lentils, green beans, split peas and kitfo (minced steak tartare with an herbed butter sauce and spiced chili powder). There were also three individual bowls of various meat-filled stews — chicken doro wat, beef alicha and key wot, a stew of beef cubes with onions, cooked in a bright red bebere (a spice mixture including chili peppers, garlic, ginger and fenugreek) butter sauce.

Our server helped us select a good Ethiopian beer to complement our selections. Even the chef came out to introduce herself and make sure everything was to our liking.

Prices for signature meat entrées, served with your choice of vegetarian sides, range from $11.95 …   More

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With nearly four dozen sushi rolls to choose from — classics to deep-fried treasures to vegetarian and vegan-friendly options — at Sushiko there’s something for everyone.

On a recent lunch visit, I ordered a Bento Box ($9.25). You select two items — sushi rolls or three pieces of sashimi or an assortment of tempuras, teriyakis and starters — along with a choice of fried rice or pan-fried lo mein noodles. And there’s more — miso or clear soup and a side salad with ginger dressing.

I picked the miso soup, which was loaded with seaweed and cubed tofu, a spicy white tuna and avocado roll, noodles, and the steamed-shrimp-filled shumai dumplings.

A new favorite is the Icy Veggie Roll ($6.25), which is rice-less and wrapped in rice paper instead of seaweed, then stuffed with seaweed salad, lettuce, avocado, cucumber, carrot and asparagus and served with a light ponzu sauce. It’s both healthy and refreshing, but nonetheless packs a powerful textural crunch.

And I tried something new (to me) — uni ($3.25), aka sea urchin. It arrived over rice and had a burnt-orange hue. It was creamy and custard-like, and briney, which reminded me of the ocean.

The fried sweet potato roll ($4.25) proved to be simple yet satisfying. And for heat-seekers, the Diablo ($8.75), with tuna, salmon, yellowtail and krab, fried and then topped with scallions, shrimp sauce and hot sauce, was a hit.

The interior space offers natural light flooding in from large windows, soothing peach-colored walls and dark wood tables and chairs. Our server was friendly and attentive, always a winning combination in my book.

Open seven days a week for dine-in lunch and dinner or carry-out, Sushiko also serves beer, wine and sake if you’re thirsty.

NIBBLES

BlackFinn has changed names. Now BLACKFINN AMERIPUB, the St. Johns Town Center eatery has remodeled and shifted its focus to a more casual dining experience, with a new menu and …   More

BITE-SIZED

Jacksonville restaurateur Michael Thomas, of Sterling’s and 24 Miramar, opened Terra in late February. Touted as “a deceptively simple, innovative dining experience,” Terra’s menu is intentionally limited out of the gate. Dishes are created with an emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients, resulting in frequent menu changes to feature the freshest of ingredients. Terra will soon add an organic vegetable and herb garden near its outdoor patio space.

While relatively small, the seating area is spacious with plenty of windows and a soon-to-be-completed patio area, just in time for spring. Formerly the Patio at Pastiche, Terra received a minor facelift — including an awning and new interior paint in an earthy terracotta color. The bar area seats about 15, where a few local brews are featured on draft.

We arrived in time for happy hour (3-6 p.m. weeknights) and scored half-priced glasses of wine. Our table of four started with three small plates: French fries with freshly grated parmesan, truffle oil and creamy garlicky aioli, a cheese plate and charcuterie. The fries were delightfully crisp — not one was burned or soggy. The hint of truffle oil was detectable, the parmesan and aioli finished the savory treat.

Our charcuterie (a plate with small mounds of prepared meats) featured toasted crostini, perfect for piling the thin slices of dry-cured Serrano ham, soppressata and Genoa salami. Tangy homemade pickled green beans and onions, along with a spicy French Maille whole grain mustard, rounded out the dish. Our cheese plate included an extremely pungent (but surprisingly delicious) bleu cheese, a slightly smoky, spicy chipotle cheddar and a spreadable brie. Colorful strawberries, thinly sliced apples, crisp crostini, sweet honey, pecans, figs and a fig jam share the plate — begging to be paired with the cheeses.

One star of the evening arrived next: the wilted frisée salad. Tossed with shallots, cubes of …   More

BITE-SIZED

Love enjoying your breakfast or lunch while peering into an open kitchen, using free Wi-Fi and leaving with a full stomach due to generous portions made with fresh ingredients? Then look no further than Uptown Market.

Brought to you by the same owners as downtown hot spot Burrito Gallery, Uptown Market has created a name for itself in historic Springfield by serving breakfast and lunch daily and brunch on the weekends — in a clean, fresh, modern space. And the best news of all: Dinner service should be starting in May.

Peek into the open kitchen and watch as Chef Eddy Escriba whips up clever lunch specials that are posted to Facebook every morning. Lunch is 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and the specials change daily based on what’s fresh. One day you might find a bison burger with jalapeño havarti and bacon, while on another, you’ll see anything from Cajun catfish and sweet corn grits with Creole tomato sauce to Puerto Rican-style picadillo with ground beef, peppers, raisins, capers, potatoes and onions over rice.

The menu is solid without being overly complicated. For breakfast, there’s brioche French toast, buttermilk pancakes, omelets, frittatas, eggs, crêpes and traditional breakfast specials like huevos rancheros, lox and bagel, and eggs Benedict. Insider tip: You can order a single fluffy buttermilk pancake if you desire. Best idea ever. (Well, that and those vitamin-C-packed $10 bottomless mimosas on the weekends.) With butter and a side of maple syrup, these light, spongy pancakes are the stuff breakfast dreams are made of.

That one pancake comes in handy when ordering the big-as-your-head breakfast burrito — eggs, chorizo sausage, home fries, cheddar cheese and salsa stuffed in an oversized flour tortilla — because I can hardly finish the burrito <> an entire stack of pancakes. My pick is the “ranch eggs” or huevos rancheros. This traditional Latin American dish features crispy flour …   More