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BITE-SIZED

Riverside newcomer Café Freda delivers 
 a diverse menu in a comfortable, casual setting. Prices are reasonable and Chef Brian Freda and Sous Chef Kyle Cobb's "global comfort food" draws inspiration from Asian, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine.

Creative entrées, sandwiches and salads, along with a small (but sufficient) beer and wine selection, make it a good fit for brunch or lunch with friends or a quiet date night.

On a recent lunch visit, I ordered the veggie curry ($9) — chock full of potatoes, carrots, peas and cauliflower simmered in a yellow curry sauce ladled over fluffy basmati rice and topped with toasted almonds, mango chutney and a sprinkle of scallions. Not overly spicy, the crunch of the almonds and the sweetness from the chutney added complexity to the vegetables and rice.

The Asian pork bahn mi ($8) with house pâté, pickled daikon, carrot and cucumber, Sriracha mayo spread and fresh cilantro was tasty but felt inauthentic on a soft roll instead of a traditional crunchy baguette. Since it came with no side item, I ordered the mac 'n' cheese ($3). Next time I'll try green pasta salad or maybe black beans and rice.

For dinner, Café Freda had run out of a few items, so options were somewhat limited. The slow-roasted (in local beer, mind you) Cornish hen ($16) was a solid choice. Accompanied by a slab of moist, savory bread pudding and crisp, fresh green beans, it was quite filling.

Wanting to end on a sweet note, I ordered the fruit crisp ($5), but was tempted by the ginger snap banana pudding. The top layer in the small ramekin was not crisp or crumbly as I'd expected, but hard like a very thick cookie. After forcing my spoon through this crust, I uncovered a few bites of unimpressive chopped cinnamon apples.

Café Freda is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday for brunch. It's easily accessible by foot or bike for locals, but ample parking spots exist in …   More

BITE-SIZED

Ever wished you could escape to a fish camp but don't live near the water? Step out of the suburbs and into an authentic fish market and casual dining experience. At Sid & Linda's, you'll be greeted by colorful artwork of palm trees, sailboats, scuba divers, herons and various fish in a newly expanded dining room.

Prompted by the fall weather, I started with a bowl of creamy New England clam chowder. An abundance of chewy clams reminded me of the tasty chowdah I'd experienced on a recent Boston trip.

Next I ordered two tacos — one shrimp and one fish ($2.95 each), which I upgraded to snapper for an additional $1.95. Corn tortillas contained seafood atop minced coleslaw, then sprinkled with cheese and a heavy drizzle of datil pepper sauce. Thumbs up.

Dining at a seafood market begs for a basket of comforting fried shrimp, fries and hushpuppies ($10.95). The shrimp were abundant and fresh and accompanied by a trio of sauces — a tangy rémoulade, spicy cocktail and creamy tartar. The ping-pong-sized puppies were fried golden crisp on the outside and sweet on the inside. We also ordered seafood mac — elbow pasta salad with crunchy celery, red bell pepper, red onion and diced shrimp — as an additional side ($2.95).

From the chef's specials, the Hawaiian glazed, wild-caught mahi-mahi ($14.95) is easily enough for two meals: peppery green beans tossed with diced tomatoes and sautéed onions, two hushpuppies, cole slaw and choice of side. Our waitress recommended the spinach cake — a mound of spinach mixed with asiago cheese lightly breaded then fried. It was so good I considered hugging, or perhaps high-fiving, our waitress.

Sid & Linda's serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Open since April, the restaurant expanded into the adjacent space in October, more than doubling its dining area. The fish market is roomy, and the staff is happy to cook your seafood selection before you head out the door. …   More

BITE-SIZED

The "M" in MShack is for Medure — the last name of brothers Matthew and David, who own high-end restaurants Matthews in San Marco and Medure in Ponte Vedra. In 2011, the siblings opened the fast-casual boutique burger spot in Atlantic Beach; a second MShack will open in St. Johns Town Center by the end of the year.

For minimalists there's the simple but tasty M Burger topped with melted American cheese, crisp lettuce, tomato, pickles and Shack Sauce. At $5.50, it is small but fresh — the Black Angus beef is 100 percent all-natural and ground in-house. For the uber-fancy, the specialty Medurable burger boasts savory foie gras and caramelized onions, carrying a hefty $18.95 price tag.

Even if you're not a burger lover, MShack's menu has an assortment of topped hot dogs, a grilled cheese sandwich (add applewood smoked bacon for an extra dollar), a fish sandwich, a marinated chicken breast sandwich and homemade Italian sausage topped with sautéed onions, peppers, mushrooms and melted provolone cheese.

Craving something healthy and pleasantly filling? Try the ginger-sesame dressed Super Kale Salad chock full of crisp diced apples, creamy cubes of avocado, shreds of carrots, onion, pecans and raisins. A fresh roasted beet salad comes with creamy goat cheese and raisins atop peppery arugula.

From the carb column, the house fries, queso-topped fries, sweet potato tots, truffle parmesean fries and even onion rings beg to be paired with your meaty burger or hot dog.

To complete the experience, a thick hand-spun milkshake is an absolute must. Available in small and large sizes, the pecan pie shake with chopped pecans reminded me of fall in a cup. Go simple — strawberry, vanilla or chocolate — or step it up with funky flavors like bananas foster, marshmallow brulee or peanut butter.

The separate relaxed bar area hosts happy hour 3:30-5:30 p.m. weekdays with $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon beers, $2 drafts or $3 glasses of house wine. …   More

BITE-SIZED

Sometimes a casual lunch calls for fine china, dainty doilies, gold-rimmed teacups and floral-print linens.

Located across the street from historic Sun-Ray Cinema, Cozy Tea's family-owned-and-operated tea room feels like it could be your grandmother's parlor: charming, familiar and cozy.

They serve several varieties of tea sandwiches including shrimp salad, smoked turkey, egg salad, cheese spread and cucumber; I enjoy the curried chicken salad on wheat with golden raisins and almonds and the vegetarian sandwich of cheese spread, organic mixed greens, English seedless cucumber, tomato and carrots. Side items are available for an additional charge.

Other lunch offerings include warm quiches, a savory lentil and vegetable pie, vegetable samosas (an Indian pastry stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas), salads and an assortment of soups — tomato herb, roasted corn with butternut squash, sour cream baked potato and spring vegetable with fresh ginger. A hot cup of soup pairs nicely with a salad or sandwich.

Portions are relatively small yet satisfying and reasonably priced. Everything is made in-house, down to the handmade gourmet truffles. Peruse the case dedicated solely to truffles, scones and dessert offerings like fluffy vanilla cake over a creamy English custard with berry compote, bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream, carrot cake with caramelized pineapple and white chocolate frosting — and several other drool-worthy choices.

The warm lemon-glazed cookie, with pieces of white chocolate and almonds, drizzled with the most perfectly citrusy lemon sauce, is sure to please. Craving something more? Try sour cream blueberry butter cake studded with blueberries throughout and dusted with powdered sugar.

Scone varieties include blueberry, pineapple lemon, cherry coconut, apricot cream, vanilla sugar and cranberry orange. Heighten your experience by asking for sides of freshly whipped cream and jam.

If you're into tea, study the …   More

BITE-SIZED

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

BITE-SIZED

Pining for a sense of nostalgia coupled with simple diner food that satisfies? Head to the Shoppes of Avondale and straight to The Fox Restaurant, a diner that exudes 1950s charm coupled with a modern hipster twist. The interior is plastered with photos, art and figurines — my favorite is a Steve Urkel doll (queue the "Did I do thaaaaat?").

Though table seating is fairly limited at The Fox, there are plenty of swivel seats at the counter with a view of the open kitchen. Watch as your eggs are scrambled or your bacon is crisped. The entire right side of the restaurant is lined with comfortable booths, but keep in mind that that no one table can seat a party larger than five.

I'm a Southern girl raised on diner-style comfort food, so the corned beef hash with egg (cooked any way you like it), homefries (or grits, or fresh fruit) and biscuit or buttered toast were calling my name. The homemade hash was flavorful and crispy — perfect for sopping up my runny egg yolk. I drizzled honey and a bit of butter on the light and fluffy biscuit that came with the dish.

Another option guaranteed to warrant a late afternoon nap is an order of biscuits and gravy, with a side of fluffy pancakes. The gravy was thick, with plenty of sausage bits throughout.

The menu touts traditional breakfast items, like pancakes, waffles, French toast and an array of omelets, along with an assortment of lunch items including salads, sandwiches and cooked-to-order burgers. The aptly named Pittsburgher comes piled high with French fries and a mound of creamy cole slaw on top. Pair it with your choice of side item for a reasonably priced and filling lunch.

The diner is open daily, but if you're headed to The Fox on a weekend, prepare to wait — parking can be tricky and the line is often out the door. There's free coffee to pacify hungry guests as they wait, so sip some Joe and strike up a conversation with a potential new friend or two.   More

BITE-SIZED

Tired of yearning for some of their favorite foods from their hometown of St. Louis, Chris Evans and Don Brindley created Picasso's to offer specialties from the Gateway to the West, like warm, toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake and square-cut, thin-crust
St. Louis-style pizza.

Chef Evans grew up in St. Louis and brings his favorite hard-to-find items to Jacksonville while his pastry-chef mother whips up the post-meal treats. (Don't miss the orange crunch cake available Tuesdays and Thursdays or the sinfully good gooey butter cake.)

To start, I ordered the hearts of palm frites and the meat-filled St. Louis toasted ravioli with homemade marinara. The fry-shaped hearts of palm were served with a thick roasted garlic aioli and sprinkle of parsley — yum! The pile of warm ravioli was perfectly toasted and seasoned, then covered in freshly grated parmesan cheese. The accompanying marinara was pleasantly simple and
fresh-tasting.

Although St. Louis and New York style pizzas are on the menu, the St. Louis, with cracker-thin crust and crisp edges, is a must. After devouring my first few bites topped with pancetta bacon and pepperoni discs, I put Picasso's pie on my coveted "best pizzas in town" list.

While the menu is expansive, I'd heard that the ramen noodle bowls are legit. I know what you're thinking: ramen — at a pizza place? Trust me; Picasso's has much more than pizza. The korubuta pork belly ramen bowl overflowed with color, flavor and texture: tangled noodles, savory broth, flavorful cooked mushrooms and broccoli, soft-boiled egg and crisp pickled cabbage in one bowl.

Stuffed but not stopping, I managed a few forkfuls (breakfast tomorrow?) of orange crunch cake. Again, points for uniqueness: Layers of moist, rich cake met thick swirls of orange icing and thin layers of crushed, crunchy wafers for a winning dessert experience.

The interior is open and clear, with replicas of bright Pablo Picasso paintings on the walls. In its …   More

BITE-SIZED

Just off bustling Beach and St. Johns Bluff boulevards lies a new Vietnamese restaurant, Q-Cup Boba Tea. Upon entering the Southside spot, which formerly housed a Mexican restaurant, you'll notice a tidy interior with bright pastels, natural lighting and friendly staff. The owner is no stranger to the restaurant business — he owned nearby Vietnamese restaurant P.K. Noodles for seven years before opening Q-Cup earlier this year.

The menu is broken into specials, bahn mi sandwiches, snacks, desserts and a lengthy selection of beverages — flavored milk teas, smoothies, slushies, specialty drinks, mocha blasts and flavored teas. Color photographs help guide you through the various options.

We started with the simple shrimp and pork spring rolls, which were perfect for sharing. Accompanied by a hoisin dipping sauce, peanuts and shredded carrots, four pliable rice wrapper rolls were carefully filled with shrimp, pork, crisp lettuce, rice vermicelli noodles, cilantro and crunchy bean sprouts.

From the specials, a photo of the com thit xa xiu caught my eye: grilled red barbecue-charred pork with a fried egg, steamed white rice, crisp pickled vegetables and a slightly salty dipping sauce. Upon arriving at our table, the owner politely explained that the egg was to be broken on top of the rice, then the sauce poured over the egg-and-rice mixture. The bite-sized grilled pork pieces were tender, and the overall portion size was generous.

From the 15 different bahn mi sandwiches, I selected the bo xao cay (stir-fried spicy beef). A good bahn mi is measured by the quality of the French bread. After carefully unwrapping the paper from my sandwich, I bit into a perfect light, golden, crackly crust — and was immediately impressed. Inside the warm, fresh baguette, which was not too dense but didn't get soggy from the fillings, were pieces of spicy stir-fried beef, raw jalapeños, pickled vegetables and several sprigs of cilantro. To turn up the …   More

BITE-SIZED

You can get dinner and a movie in one stop at the eclectic Five Points theater Sun-Ray Cinema. Two years ago, Tim Massett and his wife, Shana, reopened the historic 1927 theater and ramped up the menu.

For movie theater food, Sun-Ray's snack bar earns top-notch ratings. There's an emphasis on local ingredients, such as the use of freshly baked bread and hot dog buns from Bakery Moderne, beers from Bold City Brewing on tap, Bold Bean Coffee Roasters coffee, Twinn Bridges kombucha on draft and popcorn toppings from Blue Buddha Exotic Foods in Riverside.

The popcorn bar is a moviegoer's dream: more than a dozen mix-and-match, shake-it-yourself toppings like thyme, dill, hot Chinese mustard, cinnamon, nutritional yeast, zhatar and a truffle oil mist. Shana Massett stresses that you won't find any artificial ingredients. All the popcorn is popped with Himalayan sea salt, black pepper, garlic powder and annatto (for color).

The 9-inch pizzas and specialty pies are a must. Craving something sweet and spicy? Go for the Pagan Love Song: housemade crust topped with mozzarella or rinotta (vegan dairy-free cheese: instead of "ricotta," ), ham, pineapple, jalapeños and spicy sriracha. The Zaat, with salty and crunchy Korean-style kimchi and a fried egg, is equally delicious. And Shana Massett swears that the Bold New Pizza of the South — rinotta, roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, mushrooms, hummus and olives — is so good that non-vegans order it regularly. For meat lovers, there's the aptly named Uncle Meat with salami, pepperoni, ham and sausage.

In addition, Sun-Ray offers hot dogs with your choice of toppings, nachos, hummus, breadsticks and a handful of sandwiches. The Wildly Inauthentic Cuban caught my eye: pulled pork, ham, sweet pickles and Swiss cheese on fresh-pressed bread. It's tasty, but I'm still a pizza girl at heart.

Come thirsty. In addition to pitchers of soda and beer, you can order wine by the glass or bottle, bottled natural …   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

 
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