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BITE-SIZED

I would never, ever have driven by Health 
 Zone but for the heads-up from a few 
 friends. First, there's the poor signage and kinda-sorta misleading name: Is it a fitness center? A supplement shop? And then there's the fact that it's tucked away off Bowden Road and I-95 near Mr. Taco.

Nonetheless, Health Zone proved a pleasant find. I decided to check out the lunch menu. (Breakfast is served 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch until 2 p.m., Monday through Friday). As I walked in, I noticed a long line-up of freshly blended juices (12 oz.) and smoothies (16 and 32 oz.), all concocted with fresh fruit and juice — no pre-made mixes in sight. I tried the St. Augustine smoothie ($5.59) — spinach, kale, banana, mango and orange juice — and the Really Green ($5.59) juice. With its glowing green hue, the Really Green certainly lives up to its name, and with an über-healthy blend of cucumber, celery, kale, parsley, lemon and apple, each sip felt refreshing. Thumbs up.

Woman cannot live on green juice alone, so I next ordered a Zone Bowl ($5.99, with a $1 upcharge to add protein), which piqued my interest. Start with a starch like brown rice, jasmine rice or quinoa, and then pick a legume — black beans, black-eyed peas or pinto beans. Then choose from a slew of fresh vegetables and a list of both carnivore- and vegan-friendly proteins (grilled chicken breast, roast pork, roast beef, tofu, tempeh and seitan).

My Asian tempeh Zone Bowl, with quinoa, black beans, sautéed spinach, colorful carrots and zucchini, and a housemade chimichurri sauce, was easily enough for two meals. Also filling was the cleverly named H.A.M. ($7.99) — ham, apple slices and melted Monterey jack cheese with spicy mustard. Not in the mood for a sandwich? Health Zone also has salads, soups, hot dogs and an extensive dessert list.

If you're feeling adventurous, go for grilled beets ($1.99) or kale slaw ($1.99) as your side. The beets were especially juicy …   More

BITE-SIZED

At The Blind Rabbit, you'll find a bustling 
 dining room filled with the chatter of 
 bronzed beachgoers and families alike, an impressive two-page whiskey list and a menu to surely please the pickiest of eaters. The spot — in business now for six months — is the brainchild of local restaurateurs John and Jeff Stanford, who also own and operate The Blind Fig in Riverside. (The Rabbit's dining room is much larger than the Fig's, and the back wall touts a colorful mural by local artist Shaun Thurston, who also created the detailed mural on the Fig's exterior.)

We began with bacon and corn croquettes ($8), served atop a nicely presented bed of creamy diced avocado, corn, microgreens and jalapeño-tomato hot sauce. They were crisp on the outside and delightfully soft on the inside. With a portion serving of five, these larger-than-a-hushpuppy fried balls are an easily shared appetizer.

After perusing the multiple burger options, I landed on The Southern Burger ($12) — fried green tomato, Creole pimento cheese, peach habañero hot sauce, arugula, Georgia cane syrup and pickled okra spears — accompanied by sweet potato fries and several dipping sauces (curry mayo, bourbon-spiked Creole mustard and spicy ketchup), all of which were winners. So was the burger.

The shrimp rémoulade salad ($15) was another standout. Butter lettuce, grape tomatoes, long pieces of hearts of palm, fried green tomato, red bell pepper, celery and red onions tango with jumbo shrimp tossed in a creamy rémoulade dressing. The artful presentation and size of the shrimp were impressive.

The s'mores brownie ($6) was much too rich — layers of graham cracker crumbs, warm Belgian chocolate brownie and peanut butter mousse, topped with gooey brûléed marshmallow. Go for one of the milkshakes as a lighter treat. While the vanilla ($4) was perfectly creamy, for a few bucks more, aim high and get the maple bacon ($7), which, as the name suggests, is mixed with bacon-infused …   More

BITE-SIZED

What started as a taco stand in St. Augustine more than 10 years ago has transformed into a small, laid-back eatery in St. Augustine Shores. Since nothing on the menu is priced over $10, Nalu's is a great spot for dining in or grabbing a bite 
on the run.

A chalkboard outside the door displays specials, and I was immediately enticed by the Mermaid Wrap ($9): seared Cajun ahi tuna, sticky rice with cilantro pesto and soy sauce and diced cucumber, all happily tucked away in a toasted spinach wrap. It was a magical blend of ingredients and flavors, and I'd certainly order it again.

The Ahi Burger ($9) is a burger-shaped mound of fresh yellowfin tuna steak that's seasoned and served on a soft whole-wheat bun. Topped with a cilantro pesto, crisp pieces of red cabbage, shreds of cheddar and jack cheeses and homemade baja sauce, it was nicely portioned.

After observing the "Best Tacos in St. Augustine" embellishment on the menu, we also ordered two tacos — one shrimp, one blackened mahi. Both arrived on flour tortillas piled haphazardly with cabbage, shredded cheese, cilantro pesto and a drizzle of thick, creamy baja sauce. Of the two, the mahi was better; the fish was juicy, nicely seasoned and, perhaps most important, full of flavor.

Most tacos and burgers are served with your choice of side — beans and rice, corn tortilla chips and salsa (red or verde), or a simple salad tossed with light mango dressing, garnished with cucumber slices and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds.

Nalu's serves only wild-caught fish (no farm-raised nonsense here!), making for really flavorful tacos, burritos and sashimi. And fresh is the name of the game: The eatery's sauces, salsas, soups and pestos are crafted using fresh ingredients from a local farmers' market and various area produce stands.

Kids will go crazy for the assortment of cleverly named shaved Hawaiian ices ($2-$3), such as luau lime, big kahuna cherry and da cotton candy kine.

The original location …   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

What's 31 days long, full of health benefits and colorful vegetables, and has local community and restaurant support? If you guessed No Meat March, you win. (I probably shouldn't proclaim "winner, winner, chicken dinner!")

Foregoing meat is gaining momentum for a number of reasons, and while many already honor Meatless Monday — dedicating one day a week to conscientious vegetarianism — No Meat March (nomeatmarch.com) encourages Northeast Floridians to take a 31-day pledge to give up meat and seafood. As a participant for the past two years, I found my energy increased and I began craving leafy greens and juicy fruits. Honestly, tempeh and tofu (which, when cooked properly, is quite versatile) are delicious and enabled me to experience one of the best Reuben sandwiches of my life, made with tempeh, sauerkraut and avocado on pressed ciabatta bread.

Local meteorologist Julie Watkins, a vegan all the time (not just Mondays, and not just March), helped found Girls Gone Green in 2007 to bring awareness to the environment, animal welfare and health. "Everything is connected," she says, "and how we look at one greatly impacts the others."

Meat-free for nearly 20 years, Watkins has several favorite places around the area with menu items she recommends. "Happy Cup in Atlantic Beach has the yummiest wraps — the strawberry with hazelnut, almonds and agave is the best," she raves. "And Tapa That [in 5 Points] has mushroom quesadillas that are amazing!"

Looking for easy meat-free options? Hit these spots: any Mellow Mushroom, any Tropical Smoothie (which carries Beyond Meat, chicken-free strips you can substitute in any menu item), Buddha Thai Bistro and any European Street Café.

"No Meat March is a short-term commitment and challenge that will take you out of your box," says Jessica Campbell, co-founder of Jax Vegan Love. "It will inspire you to explore new recipes at home and try new menu items you may have previously overlooked when dining …   More

BITE-SIZED

Is it considered an obsession if you've eaten at a place five times the first two weeks it's open for business? If so, consider me obsessed with Hawkers.

First, the menu. Part infographic (so that's how I hold my chopsticks!), part design masterpiece, there's an abundance of mouthwatering options, and that's because Hawkers serves up street food from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Malaysia. (The food is so good, I temporarily forget I'm in 5 Points.)

I can't say enough about the atmosphere: Huge windows open to unveil an entirely open façade. Large upside-down wok-like pans serve as light fixtures and hang from an exposed wood beam ceiling. An old upcycled wooden palette with chalkboard paint serves as the craft beer list.

Hawkers is thoroughly modern, comfortable and hip.

The food speaks for itself. I can't think of any comparable places in town that have such a culturally diverse menu with such reasonable prices.

Start with the roti canai, a Malaysian flat bread ($3) that I can best describe as fluffy Indian naan meets the airiness of a French crêpe. It's served with a cup of delightfully spicy curry dipping sauce. Another standout is the crispy roasted pork "siu yoke" ($6), or pork belly, served with a thick hoisin dipping sauce and garnished with scallions.

Items are intended to be shared, even the soups. You'll receive a large bowl, two smaller cups and a giant ladle. The tom yum soup ($8.50) touts a spicy lemongrass broth that's loaded with flat rice noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, basil, straw mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers. It's great on a chilly day and leaves you feeling warm inside.

I preferred the stir-fry noodle dishes to the rice bowls. Hawkers' stir-fry udon noodles ($8), with eggs, scallions, onions, bean sprouts and carrots, and chicken pad Thai ($8) earn my top honors. Runner-up? The Zha Jiang Mian ($7.50), a traditional Chinese dish with blanched noodles, ground chicken, yow chow (a leafy green similar to bok …   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

While food trucks have become wildly popular in Jacksonville in recent years, on the other side of the ditch, they've not been so welcome. But last week, after a two-year campaign by food-truck advocates, the Jacksonville Beach City Council finally agreed to allow the trucks to operate within city limits, at least during a 14-month pilot program.

There are limitations: Food trucks have to get permission from property owners to set up shop (they can't use vacant or noncommercial land), and they can't do so within 100 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants. They have to apply for a permit at City Hall and pay an annual business tax ($79.20). They have to shut down by 3 a.m., or by 10 p.m. if they're close to residential properties.

But at least it's something. "There is so much creativity coming out of these food trucks, and there is some really, really good food," says Councilwoman Chris Hoffman, who championed the food truck cause.

She's right — and I've tasted it firsthand. On The Fly Sandwiches ‘n' Stuff chef Andrew Ferenc serves freshly seared ahi tuna over crunchy napa cabbage slaw that's topped with pickled ginger and a sweet chili sauce. Chew Chew has a flavor-packed Korean short rib melt with smoked provolone and diced kimchi slaw. And just last week I tried beet fries (yes, that's a thing) from Funkadelic. Verdict? Delicious. And it's just the beginning. Jax Beach residents will soon have all kinds of innovative culinary options to choose from, and that has foodies like me chomping at the bit.

(Disclosure: My fiancé Mike Field and I manage the Jax Truckies Facebook group.)

That's because food trucks offer room for experimentation. Consider this: Long-time Beaches resident John Stanford and his brother Jeff opened a food truck in the summer of 2012 in an effort to get the name of their then-under-construction brick-and-mortar restaurant, The Salty Fig (now The Blind Fig), out to the masses. The Blind Fig's wildly popular pork belly and …   More

BITE-SIZED

Know that feeling you get when you try a new place and enjoy it so much you want to shout it from the rooftops to every food-loving soul you know? I'm going to be that girl.

Excellent sashimi and Japanese fare have been hard to nail down in Jacksonville, but I've finally unearthed a gem that's nestled off San Jose in a Carrabba's strip mall, of all places. Had two people not mentioned Kazu to me, I'd have never set foot in there, due to that location. Upon entering, however, I saw a place that's spacious and spotless, with a modern feel and comfortable vibe.

Open for two months, Kazu has a menu that offers a delightful variety of Japanese comfort food, including a variety of soups, dumplings, sushi bar appetizers, salads, bento boxes, sushi, maki handrolls and sashimi. Prices are fair and the servings are abundantly portioned and artfully plated.

We started with agedashi tofu ($4.50), pork gyoza ($4.95) and Kazu sashimi salad ($9.95). I highly recommend the tofu. These soft soybean cubes are fried in a tempura batter then served afloat a slightly sweet yet salty dashi, a soup-like stock. The pan-seared gyoza dumplings ($4.95) were good but not as memorable as the tofu. And the colorful salad had plenty of fresh pieces of sashimi, sliced avocado, mango, carrot and red onion, tossed in a light yuzu vinaigrette. It was refreshing and perfect for sharing.

On the sushi menu, I was immediately drawn to the Dancing Eel ($7.95): eel, shrimp, seaweed salad, creamy avocado and spicy mayo. So many of my favorite things all rolled (no pun intended) into one! It was solid. My next order was the Spider ($7.95), which touted tempura soft-shell crab, avocado, cucumber, a sweet eel sauce and tobiko on top.

Sushi and apps aside, I can't stop thinking about the Chirashi ($15.95) — the most remarkable dish of the evening. An absolutely gorgeous rainbow medley of amazingly fresh sashimi garnished with an edible flower, pieces of tamago omelet, colorful pickled daikon …   More

BITE-SIZED

Food, beer and a sense of community: three of my favorite things. And in keeping with that trio, Riverside brewery Intuition Ale Works has embarked on its first publishing journey. The finished product, Cooking with Intuition, is a stunning hardbound collection of recipes incorporating locally crafted beer by area chefs, home brewers, food truckers and Intuition's own Mug Club members.

The book is co-authored by Intuition general manager Cari Sanchez-Potter and creative projects coordinator Robin Rutenberg, but it's local photographer Laura Evans' keen eye and attention to detail that really sets it apart. These 288 pages are as much a coffee-table book as a must-have recipe index.

"Cooking with Intuition isn't just for folks who enjoy cooking or for people who are major craft beer snobs," says Sanchez-Potter. "The book is much more than that. It's about shining a spotlight on our amazing culinary community and highlighting all the creative talent we have here in Jacksonville, using beer as a lens."

Throughout the book's 80-plus recipes, beer-as-common-denominator proves to be quite a versatile ingredient, offering chefs myriad flavor and complexity options. "Our brewers at Intuition brew so many styles of beer that cooks have a lot of options for using [them] in their dishes," Sanchez-Potter says. "Stouts add a subtly sweet and malty flavor to long-simmered stews or slow braises; the carbonation in certain brews adds lift to foods like hushpuppies or fish-and-chips; and hoppy beers like IPAs lend depth to brines, marinades and sauces."

For some people, Cooking will serve as an introduction to beer-infused cuisine, but it's also designed to help more experienced cooks break free of their culinary comfort zones, Sanchez-Potter says. Recipes range from the über-simple (stout floats, with Intuition's Truck Stop Stout topped with ice cream) to multi-step, restaurant-quality dishes like Black Sheep Chef Waylon Rivers' King Street BBQ pork belly with …   More

 
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