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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

Looking for some tasty, inexpensive, low-frills, diner-style fare served in a chill atmosphere? Check out 5 Points' Derby on Park, near the landmark flashing light roundabout.

Start with the supremely simple yet savory Derby Fries ($5.95): A pile of crisp house-cut potatoes topped with a rich, flavorful beef gravy. If you're dining with a group, the diced chicken and spinach nachos ($9.50) with tomatoes and a runny white cheese sauce are ridiculously large and should more than hold you over until your meal arrives.

As far as burgers go, you can't go wrong with the popular 3B — a perfect trifecta of smoked bacon, crumbled bleu cheese and balsamic spring mix ($10.95). Or try the Jack & Tom, complete with fried green tomato, onion, jack cheese and ranch dressing.

Perhaps the most interesting menu item is a 12-inch, hand-dipped, cornmeal battered corn dog that brilliantly recalls carnival food. The batter is delicious and slightly sweet. Order it with a hearty helping of fries; you won't be hungry again for days (or weeks).

The Van Fletcher Reuben ($9.95) is a traditional offering done right. Think two grilled slabs of marble rye bread smothered with sambal aioli then loaded with a half-pound of corned beef and pastrami, as well as the requisite tangy sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese.

Derby uses local Intuition Ale Works' Jon Boat Coastal Ale to batter the flaky redfish on the Intuition Fish 'n' Chips ($12.50) platter, which includes fries, cole slaw and a cup of smoky chipotle aioli for dipping — comfort food at its finest.

For vegetarians, the meatless, crêpe-like Tuck & Roll ($10.50) touts creamed spinach, sautéed portabella, mixed peppers and onions rolled up in an oversized lasagna noodle and topped with mozzarella and marinara. The corners of the noodles were overcooked, resulting in oddly (though not undesirable) crunchy edges.

One complaint: The service was prompt, but it took way too long for our lunch to get to our table. …   More

BITE-SIZED

If you're like me — and you are, right? — you spent your New Year's Day deep in thought, pondering the eternal mysteries of our existence. And if the cronut thing is here to stay. (Answer: Yes!) For my fellow foodies out there, here's a quick list of the things and trends I'm betting will go off this year. Get your taste buds ready:

Donuts. Cupcakes seem soooo 2012, right? The popularity of the donut has steadily risen (no pun intended), with even Jacksonville offering the highly sought-after cronut, a hybrid of a croissant and donut born in NYC. Cinotti's Bakery in Jax Beach does a limited run of pumpkin donuts that we all go crazy for each fall, and The Donut Shoppe on University is a Jacksonville institution. Its Apple Ugly, a misshapen donut-like fritter made from leftover dough, is worth every single delicious calorie. And at newcomer Sweet Theory Baking Co. in Riverside, the options are endless. Its unique vegan (no eggs or dairy) donut offerings include varieties like dreamsicle, root beer, banana French toast bacon and eggnog.

Biscuits. Even carb-conscious Southerners enjoy a great biscuit every now and then. (It's in your genes, people. Deal with it.) With the addition of a second Maple Street Biscuit Co. in Jacksonville Beach, the biscuit frenzy is here to stay. The Blind Fig in Riverside recently offered a spin on chicken pot pie, placing a flaky biscuit on top. Look for biscuits used in unique ways — incorporated into dishes and topped with both savory and sweet concoctions.

Unusual ingredient pairings. There's been national uproar over the arrival of the ramen burger — a burger sandwiched between a "bun" of fried noodles — and here in Jacksonville, local chefs are combining unusual ingredients, too. Five Points' Sun-Ray Cinema offers a pizza topped with a fried egg and spicy Korean kimchi, a blend of fermented cabbage and vegetables. Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails at St. Johns Town Center features popped kettle corn …   More

BITE-SIZED

It's no secret that I eat most of my meals in restaurants. It's convenient, I don't have to do dishes 
 and I can seek creative culinary offerings when the mood strikes. (Also, kinda my job.) Over the last year, I've had a lot of memorable meals. Here are a few of my favorite crave-worthy items from 2013:

Favorite breakfast treat: Tomato pie (Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, Riverside)

This savory, handheld quiche-like pie makes getting out of bed 100 percent worth it: buttery, flaky pie crust houses a blend of egg and cheese, thin slices of tomato (both green and red), cooked onion and a generous dusting of cracked black pepper.

Favorite salad: Greek kale salad (Native Sun Natural Foods Market, Baymeadows and Mandarin)

Organic kale tossed with homemade Greek dressing, pepperoncini, chunks of crumbly feta, salty kalamata olives, diced artichoke hearts and — in my version — hold the red onion, add chickpeas. There's something about the tangy dressing with this assortment of toppings that makes this salad shine.

Favorite soup (tie): Barley ash (Green Erth Bistro, San Marco) and BBQ pork and wonton pho 
(Bowl of Pho, Southside)

These two soups couldn't be less alike, but I love them equally. The first is a thick Persian number overflowing with barley, beans and herbs and bursting with flavor. The pho is brothy, stocked with thin tangled egg noodles and pork-stuffed wontons, and quite comforting on a cold day.

Favorite lunch: Bruschetta (French Pantry, Southside)

Possibly the longest line I'll wait in for a meal, let alone lunch, is at French Pantry. Thick, house-baked crusty bread is generously buttered then topped with shrimp, artichoke hearts and

rich goat cheese, served with a heaping mound of balsamic and basil diced tomatoes atop a bed of mixed greens. Go now to get in line.

Favorite seafood: Raw oysters (Cap's on the Water, St. Augustine)

Plump raw oysters served on the half-shell with cocktail sauce, mignonette, lemon wedges …   More

BITE-SIZED

Off the beaten path in Mayport Village lies a hidden gem with remarkably fresh seafood, reasonable prices, outdoor seating and speedy, friendly service.

Upon arriving, we found a sprawling counter with fresh fish and seafood galore. Looking to our left, we saw an oversized menu hanging above a smaller counter.

We ordered, then took our number and headed outside to a spacious covered deck overlooking the river. A nice breeze wafted through the air as we sat down to the sounds of Jimmy Buffett and seagulls cheerfully gawking in the near distance. Our lunch arrived minutes later.

I was impressed that, for $5.99, I could get a dozen steamed oysters with cocktail sauce, melted butter and a lemon wedge. After devouring all 12, I dug into my blackened scallop basket ($10.99), overflowing with crisp crinkle-cut French fries, a cup of coleslaw and two hushpuppies. Believe me when I say that these were some of the freshest, most perfectly cooked scallops — my plastic fork cut right through them! — I've eaten in a while. And the slightly sweet hushpuppies had nice crunchy exteriors and warm, moist centers, and were accompanied by a mild Thai chili dipping sauce. The coleslaw deserves praise, too, as it was lightly dressed instead of being slathered in mayo like at some restaurants.

If fries and coleslaw aren't your thing, there are other side items for $2.99, including fried okra and buttermilk ranch, a twice-baked potato, bacon black-eyed peas and green bean medley.

It was my first visit, so I was interested in exploring the menu further. The shrimp po'boy ($10.99) — available with grilled, blackened or fried shrimp — looked tempting. A soft, oversized hoagie roll was stuffed with shredded romaine, juicy tomato slices, rémoulade and freshly breaded shrimp (we ordered it fried). While messy, it was also bursting with flavor.

The shrimp tacos ($10.99) are also winners. Tossed in a datil pepper sauce, the shrimp were bite-sized, and the basket they …   More

BITE-SIZED

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 large, open kitchen in the back of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails bustles with activity — and energy. Chef Tom Gray, formerly of San Marco's Bistro Aix, opened this exquisite two-story spot in November with wife and business partner Sarah Marie Johnston.

You can see the thought put into Moxie's details, from rustic tree-stump-like salt and pepper shakers to steampunkesque light fixtures to ice cubes customized to the shapes of individual drink glasses.

The fried cheese curds starter ($7), accompanied by a slightly spicy ranch dip, paired well with pre-meal cocktails.

Moxie's oysters ($3 each) were the freshest I'd ever tasted, and I'm a self-proclaimed oyster fanatic. I ordered two from each coast — they arrived with lemon wedges, a flavorful pink peppercorn apple mignonette sauce and housemade cocktail sauce.

My favorite item of the evening was Dr Pepper-glazed short rib ($20) with buttermilk mashed potatoes and shaved vegetables. The beef was tender and juicy, and the sweet glaze contrasted nicely with the creamy mound 
of potatoes.

The chicken pot pie ($16) topped with fried sage leaves was loaded with chunks of chicken, asparagus, carrots and lima beans. The crust was melt-in-your-mouth good, yet not so flaky it fell apart.

From eight side item offerings ($5 each), the Brussels sprouts tossed in bacon vinaigrette were crisp and flavorful, and the mac 'n' cheese hit the right blend — neither too sharp nor too creamy.

The dessert menu includes whoopie pies (2 for $8), various malted milkshakes ($6) and traditional favorites with a twist, like chocolate mint-infused crème brûlée and pound cake with candied kumquat compote.

The pleasantly sweet apple hand pie ($8) was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and salted custard with a brûlée top. The peanut butter mousse stack ($8) was ridiculously rich (even sharing, we couldn't finish it), with layers of peanut brittle, peanut butter mousse and silky chocolate accompanied by …   More

BITE-SIZED

In a spot locals mobbed for two decades as the former Sun Dog Diner in the bustling Beaches Town Center now sits a hip, 
beachy taqueria.

Owner Al Mansur, of Al's Pizza area restaurants fame, opened Flying Iguana's doors Oct. 28, after spending more than a $1 million in renovations.

In the kitchen is Chef Josh Agan, a New England Culinary Institute graduate, who concocts an ambitious menu of Latin American-inspired dishes.

Upon being seated, we were quickly supplied with complimentary chips and two homemade salsas; I favored the spicy verde to the milder roja. Shortly after we ordered tableside guacamole ($9) and chips, a cart containing all the requisite ingredients to concoct the creamy avocado goodness was wheeled up.

We tried the sweet corn tamale cakes ($10), topped with smoked salmon, crema and ancho chile sauce, and chorizo-and-potato empanadas ($8). Portions were generous — three tamale cakes and four empanada halves. The sweet, moist tamale cakes proved more flavorful than the somewhat dense empanadas.

With 11 tacos from which to choose, I opted for three: crispy pork belly ($4), Dirty South ($3) and five spice shortribs ($4) with homemade kimchee. The pork belly was flavored with a sweet rum-and-Coke glaze and accompanied by chunks of watermelon, pickled onions and a sprinkle of cotija cheese, while the Dirty South (a thick, creamy pimento cheese sauce, black-eyed peas, fried green tomatoes and arugula) tasted like Southern comfort food wrapped in a flour tortilla.

I enjoyed the flavor and texture combinations of my tacos, even if they were a bit messy, as evidenced by many fallen bits strewn about the table.

The habanero mango glazed swordfish ($22) atop creamy sweet potato purée with fried green tomatoes and garlic spinach was tasty, and large enough for two meals.

For dessert, the sharable stuffed churros ($7) stood out. Crispy and cream-filled, these doughy sticks were generously dusted with cinnamon and sugar, …   More

BITE-SIZED

Surrounded by art and culture inside and out, The Café at The Cummer offers a relaxing escape from a busy day — and with the addition of an outdoor deck, dining beneath an oversized oak tree has never been easier.

The Café's menu features fare from several local purveyors, such as bread from The French Pantry, coffee from Bold Bean Coffee Roasters and vegetables from Blue Buddha.

Start with the tomato bisque ($5) with boursin cheese crouton. Also warm and comforting is mac 'n' cheese ($8), a hearty portion of elbow noodles mixed with a creamy blend of cheddar and gouda, then topped with a layer of crispy parmesan panko pieces. (For an additional $1, you can add bacon, caramelized onion or truffle.)

Use your bisque to dunk the Southern grilled cheese ($10) — a stack of thick green tomato slices and rich sheep's milk manchego cheese pressed between slices of buttery French Pantry bread.

Seafood fans will enjoy crab cakes ($10) served atop a sweet corn relish. With hardly any filler, the pair of plump cakes is drizzled with a sweet-and-spicy red pepper remoulade. (Tip: Crab cakes can be added to any salad.)

A chopped kale salad ($8) mixed with slivered Marcona almonds, red onion, golden raisins, diced bacon and goat cheese crumbles makes a colorful, tasty impression tossed in a citrusy housemade lemon-thyme vinaigrette and topped with two oversized pieces of crisp flatbread.

The massive quinoa and black bean chef's garden veggie burger ($9.50) arrives on a soft French Pantry bun, piled with sweet caramelized onions, a juicy slab of tomato, lettuce and roasted red pepper aioli. The combination of quinoa, a fluffy grain high in protein and fiber, and black beans provides a filling meal.

Sandwiches are served with orzo salad, napa cabbage slaw, house salad, chips or fruit.

Dessert options include homemade cookies ($2), a rich molten lava cake ($5) and my personal favorite, rosemary lemon squares ($4).

Perhaps most …   More

BITE-SIZED

Step up to The Swedish Bistro Food Truck and fall into Scandinavian culinary nirvana.

Swedish Chef Karen Asmus Herke and her husband, Andre, teamed up with former Taverna Sous Chef Johnny Lee Weeks. The Herkes have worked in restaurants in Sweden, Germany and France, and Karen owned her own eatery, Sorgardens Gastgiveri in Linkoping, Sweden.

"Even though Sweden is recognized as one of the best culinary countries in the world, the most difficult part is getting people to try Swedish food, since it is not very well known in the U.S.," Andre Herke said. "The response has been great so far. We have only been in business for a couple of months, and we have many returning customers, which is a positive sign."

Like many, I'd never experienced Swedish meatballs or gravlax outside of an IKEA store's cafeteria, but once Swedish Bistro arrived, I was ready to sample offerings not available anywhere else in Jacksonville.

The Swedish meatballs ($8) — the truck's best-selling item — are served with a flavorful brown cream sauce, a mound of mashed potatoes, tangy pickled cucumber slices and a dollop of lingonberry jam. The contrast of ingredients makes a highly satisfying dish.

Also popular is the cold salmon wrap ($8): a tortilla stuffed with cold-cured salmon called gravlax, a Swedish honey mustard dill sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and red onion served with a side of potato wedges.

The Viking dog ($7) rolls up a beef hot dog, creamy dill shrimp salad and mashed potatoes in a wrap.

Vegetarians can try the black bean veggie burger ($8) with beet slaw, lettuce, red onion, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes and a side of potato wedges. The truck recently debuted veggie rolls ($8) — a colorful ratatouille of eggplant, squash, tomatoes, onion, garlic and red peppers fried in crisp eggroll-like skins and served with a mint and cumin yogurt dipping sauce. A heap of shredded-cabbage-and-carrot salad is served alongside two rolls.

Swedish chocolate balls …   More

 
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