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BITE-SIZED

It can be a daunting task to pick a lunch spot 
in bustling historic St. Augustine when so many great options abound. I love a nice al fresco meal, so Casa Maya always comes to mind, with its sprawling open-air courtyard charm and eclectic menu.

In late 2012, the restaurant relocated from 17 Hypolita to 22 Hypolita — a much roomier space, complete with outside second-story patio seating and the aforementioned courtyard.

On one visit, we started with homemade-style salsa and organic blue corn chips ($3.50), which proved unremarkable; on another visit, we chose gooey queso fundido ($7.50) — baked Mexican cheese, salsa and chips aplenty. Black bean soup with rice ($3.95 for a cup) is also a satisfying choice, but obviously not as sharable.

Now, the dilemma: The marinated shrimp tacos (3 for $10.95) are satisfying, but the fish tacos are an absolute must. Savor these three tortilla-wrapped treasures (your choice of soft corn or flour) with flaky, flavorful grilled chunks of mahi, crisp slivers of romaine, refreshing diced pico de gallo and a heavy-handed drizzle of homemade chipotle mayo. Accompaniments aside, it's the freshness of the fish that makes this dish shine.

Another go-to is the huinic sandwich ($8.95) — ropa vieja with sweet plantains and creamy avocado slices on freshly baked bread, served with chips and salsa. The flavors and textures work fabulously with one another. If you've never had ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban-style dish, definitely experience this one: shredded slow-cooked brisket with onions, bell pepper, tomatoes and a touch of chipotle. Because it's slow-roasted, the meat is extraordinarily tender.

Casa Maya is open Wednesday through Monday, and it's a treat to dine outside and relax. Grab an adult beverage and unwind. The Sunday breakfast menu looks great, too — crunchy deconstructed enchilada-like chilaquiles, pillowy sweet potato pancakes, huevos rancheros and more. Did I mention homemade sangria? Oh, and save room …   More

Bite-Sized

A former Subway 
sandwich shop turned
 short-lived crêperie has
recently re-emerged as an inviting family-owned-and-operated bakery and bistro.

While still evolving, Corrado's Bakery 'n Bistro's menu is straightforward; a signboard in front of the restaurant entices passersby with daily specials. Inside, it's casual, comfortable, clean and well-designed.

My order of Pat's gourmet chicken salad ($8.95) arrived on a bed of arugula and crisp romaine; juicy white meat pieces were tossed with a light mayonnaise-type dressing and an assortment of diced grapes, crunchy apple pieces and colorful crisp bell peppers. A cluster of red grapes, a cantaloupe wedge, strawberries and simple slice of bread and butter accompanied the salad.

Drawn to the summer salad ($8.95; $2 more to add meat) by the combination of salty, sweet, crunchy and tangy, I began by swapping the raspberry vinaigrette dressing for balsamic, which was tangy and thin, perfect for this salad of greens topped with feta cubes, slices of strawberries, pears, cucumbers and a generous sprinkling of walnuts.

The ham, bacon and broccoli quiche ($8.95) served with a muffin and side of fruit was also a contender. Speaking of sides, the homemade broccoli salad, with bacon, golden raisins, red onion slivers and a sweet dressing, was delicious.

Offerings from the dessert case change daily; the Key lime coconut squares, chocolate raspberry brownie bites and freshly baked peach cobbler should get you started. With self-control not on the menu, I picked three: a frosted brownie, Oreo pudding cupcake and a red velvet mini-cupcake because — let's face it — lunch is better with dessert. The brownie won me over; it's magically soft in the center and slightly crispy around the edges with a not-too-sweet chocolaty frosting on top.

Currently serving lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Corrado's plans to open for dinner service and in the near future, add espresso, cappuccino and latte …   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

In a former McAlister's Deli in bustling Tinseltown sits a spacious pho-friendly 
Vietnamese restaurant. The menu may be a 
bit overwhelming, so ask for recommendations if you're feeling adventurous — or stick to a standard broth-based pho soup that's loaded with noodles.

We bypassed the standard starters — edamame, dumplings and spring rolls — and went big. The thin pancake special (also known as banh uot dat biet) with minced shrimp, charbroiled pork and Vietnamese ham ($9.25) called our names. Our waitress warned us it wouldn't be like an "American pancake," and it certainly wasn't. The 
dish arrived unassembled, reminiscent of lettuce 
wraps — an interesting assortment of squishy, 
translucent "pancakes," pickled julienned 
vegetables, bean sprouts, scallions, shredded 
lettuce and the aforementioned meats, all 
accompanied by a thin, tangy fish dipping sauce. It was a fun start to the meal, and good for sharing.

With such a large menu, it can be difficult to narrow your choices. At nearby Bowl of Pho (my personal gold standard for local pho), I love the wonton egg noodle soup with pork, so I ordered the same ($8) at Pho Today. When my colorful oversized bowl arrived, there were noticeably more pork pieces in it than at Bowl of Pho, but after a few generous slurps, it was apparent the broth was lacking — more salt, perhaps? Otherwise, it had plenty of thin noodles, baby bok choy and plump pork-filled wontons.

From the house specialties, we selected Vietnamese shaking beef ($12.95), served with a mound of rice, slices of cucumber and tomatoes, and a cup of soup. The pieces of tender beef were cut into small pieces and cooked in a sauce rich in flavor, then shaken in a wok with cooked onions and garlic. Order this.

By the time our waitress informed us that they'd run out of their two Asian desserts — a three- and five-flavored bean dessert — we were already full. I'd usually go for an iced taro boba drink, but I was …   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

Behind an unassuming little Murray Hill
 storefront emblazoned with "Bread" and 
 "Community Loaves" are two passionate 20-somethings crafting upward of 500 loaves of organic, hearth-baked bread each week.

In 2011, Sarah Bogdanovitch founded Community Loaves as a bread-delivery-via-bicycle service. Two years ago, she connected with fellow bread enthusiast Meredith Corey-Disch. Just two months ago, the duo opened the Community Loaves storefront.

How is the bread they bake different? First, it's organic. Second, it's sourdough, created using a process unlike that used for most other breads. No commercial yeast is used; instead, it's produced through a long fermentation of dough (hence the slightly sour taste, and the name). Sourdough stays fresher longer, retains more nutrients and has a lower glycemic index. Each day, six or so varieties are available at Community Loaves — whole wheat, country white, baguettes, rosemary and garlic, among others.

In addition to the no-frills loaves (ranging from $5-$6), there are assorted muffins, pastries and cookies, as well as various teas and Sweetwater (out of Gainesville) French press and pour-over coffee. I sipped the nettle peppermint rose hip-fermented iced tea ($2.50), which was summery and refreshing. The banana bread almond muffin ($3.20) was a winner, too. On my most recent visit, I noticed a sign for salted dark chocolate rye cookies ($1.75), but I was too late — they'd sold out already.

Once a month, Community Loaves hosts a pizza night in the garden behind the storefront. It's BYOB, and there's live music. The best part, of course, is the hearth-baked sourdough pizza crust, topped with Wainwright Dairy cheese and whatever fresh vegetables arrive from local KYV Farm and Down to Earth Farm.

Outside the Murray Hill location (which offers casual seating for about 10), Community Loaves' breads can be found all over town. Ever notice the delicious bread served at Black Sheep in 5 Points? That's …   More

BITE-SIZED

Less than a year ago, Blake Burnett revved up the engine of his new food truck — and he hasn’t looked back. The owner and chef of Chew Chew describes his truck’s menu as “fresh and eclectic.”

“I try to be playful with our food, but use quality ingredients and make everything from scratch,” he says.

Offerings change about once a week, but lucky for you (and me!) several mainstays remain due to their popularity. Top-sellers include lobster corn dogs ($10), Korean BBQ short rib melt ($8) and a newer item, goat cheese polenta fries ($6).

I’ve had the massive Korean melt on toasted sourdough several times — its tangy, salty homemade kimchi coleslaw adds another dimension to the savory shredded barbecue short ribs and melty smoked Gouda. (It’s perfect paired with the accompanying crispy homemade potato chips.) But lately my weakness has been the polenta fries, artfully arranged rectangles of polenta goodness topped with goat cheese crumbles, crisp bacon pieces and a scattering of diced scallions. The way the cheese slightly melts but doesn’t get liquid-y is what makes these so fabulous. And I could drink the creamy basil aioli dipping sauce.

As for the Maine lobster corn dogs — where else in Northeast Florida can you get skewers of tender lobster pieces, battered and fried to a golden brown and served with a lemon Dijon honey mustard dipping sauce? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

If burgers are your thing, go for the trio of BBQ slider burgers ($8), which are nicely seasoned and then piled with bacon, white cheddar, fried jalapeños and homemade barbecue sauce.

And vegetarians, don’t fret: Caprese grilled cheese ($7) on parmesan-crusted sourdough is for you. The mozzarella is marinated in a basil pesto and topped with juicy sliced tomatoes. Yum.

Most items are served with a generous portion of Chew Chew’s homemade chips, which are just the right balance of crunchy and crispy, and perfectly salted (and ridiculously …   More

BITE-SIZED

En route to Chicago for Memorial Day 
 weekend, I grabbed a copy of June's Food & Wine from the airport bookshop, because this is what I do. And while thumbing though Food & Wine, I landed on a small feature called "Where to Find America's Best Biscuits," and noticed happily that our very own Maple Street Biscuit Company (410 N. Third St., Jax Beach and 2004 San Marco Blvd.) was featured alongside noteworthy spots in the Big Apple, Asheville, Portland and — hey, what do you know? — Chicago. Touted as sour cream-based biscuits that are baked hourly, Chicago's Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits was quickly added to my must-eat trip list — along with tacos at Big Star, anything and everything at Girl & the Goat, dessert at Mindy's Hot Chocolate, deep dish pizza at Pequod's and Asian fusion at Sunda.

As I waited in line for Bang Bang to open Sunday morning, the smell of butter wafted through the air. Inside, Bang Bang is small, with large windows, brick walls and an open kitchen, with seating for only about 10. A spacious backyard courtyard with two rows of white picnic tables offers another 40 seats. The spot feels rural and charming, a relaxed vibe for your pending calorie-bender.

While noshing on the Bacon Biscuit, I had a thought: What if I pitted these two caloric champions, Bang Bang and Maple Street, against each other? How would our local fare compare to that of the Windy City, a place with (supposedly) a much richer foodie culture?

In this corner was my Maple Street go-to, the Garden Egg, made with butter only — no lard — and served stacked with collard greens, a fried egg and a drizzle of hot sauce. In the other corner was Bang Bang's Bacon Biscuit, served open-face with thick strips of candied Applewood smoked bacon, collard greens, homemade Fresno chili hot sauce and a sunny-side-up poached egg — noticeably larger and much denser (perhaps from the sour cream?) than Maple Street's Southern-style biscuit. …   More

BITE-SIZED

I recently spotted Howard Kirk, the chef at Riverside's 13 Gypsies, dining at 5 Points' Corner Taco, which prompted a question: Where do local chefs choose to eat when they're not at work devouring their own culinary creations? After all, these guys know food, so maybe their choices can inform ours.

I put the question — four questions, actually: 1.) What three restaurants do you frequent the most in Northeast Florida? 2.) What's your go-to dish at these places? 3.) Why do you eat most often at your favorite spot? 4.) What's your guilty culinary pleasure? — to four high-profile local chefs. Their answers were illuminating.

Scott Schwartz, 29 South Restaurant (Fernandina Beach), chef for 23 years

1. Taverna, Black Sheep, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails.

2. Taverna's pasta with pork Ragu, Black Sheep's pastrami sandwich topped with chicken liver mousse, and Moxie's fried chicken livers or the short rib.

3. The restaurant I eat at most often in Northeast Florida is Taverna because I love the simple approach to classic Italian cooking.

4. Good old-school soul food at the Soul Food Bistro. My wife only lets me eat there a couple times a year, but sometimes I sneak in a lunch with the boys. Always finish the meal with a slice of hummingbird cake.

Chris Dickerson, Corner Taco (5 Points), chef for 8 years

1. Orsay, 13 Gypsies, Pom's.

2. Steak frites at Orsay, duck shu mai at Pom's, chorizo at 13 Gypsies.

3. The restaurant I eat at most often in Northeast Florida is Orsay because it's so solid.

4. Chocolate soufflé at Roy's.

Tom Gray, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails (St. Johns Town Center), chef for 18 years

1. I have many favorites — too many to mention! When I'm with my family, we try to hit spots my son enjoys, so that usually means Sakura for sushi and Picasso's for the pizza.

2. Sakura's tuna salad, octopus salad and the sushi rolls. At Picasso's, Chef Chris knows I'm in the house when "The Gift" is ordered with the …   More

BITE-SIZED

I’m about to let you in on some secrets. One: Until last week, I’d never experienced dim sum. (I know, right?) Two: Inside a restaurant, inside a strip mall, lies a special room that serves up Cantonese-style small plates — dim sum — that will rock your world.

Since dim sum isn’t readily available across the area, it was exciting to order a range of dishes and embark on an exploration of these new-to-me items. Dim sum is essentially Chinese tapas, served on individual small plates or in a small steamer basket. You won’t find most of these versions on a standard Chinese menu.

We started with the chicken feet ($3.75), shark’s fin dumplings ($4.25), scallop dumpling ($4.25), fried shrimp balls ($4.25), shumai ($3.75), fried taro dumpling ($3.75), steamed taro bun ($3.75) and crispy pork belly ($9.95).

So, the chicken feet? Not for the faint of heart, or me — lots of small bones, odd texture (think of the fat that surrounds your rib-eye) and generally weird because they arrive looking like little feet that are waving (or high-fiving?) at you. Since they’re mostly skin, I found them to have an extremely gelatinous mouthfeel. My tablemates loved them, so maybe it’s just not my thing.

The piping-hot oversized shrimp balls had a super-crisp, crunchy exterior akin to fried noodles, which gave way to a chewy, shrimpy interior. Along with the shark’s fin dumplings, fried taro dumplings, steamed taro buns and crispy pork, I’d definitely order them again.

Our plate of perfectly crispy pork belly, served with a side of hoisin sauce, was gigantic — more than enough for three to share. Our waitress also presented us with a diluted Hong Kong red vinegar, tangy and acidic, which we preferred to the sweet hoisin.

The steamed taro buns were tennis-ball-sized rolls of goodness of a light purple hue, and soft and fluffy in texture, imparting a subtly sweet taro flavor.

The Dim Sum Room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and if your …   More

 
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