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BITE-SIZED

Stop at 5th Element (9485 Baymeadows Road, 448-8265) or India’s Restaurant (9802 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 8, 620-0777) for a bountiful Indian buffet lunch. With items ranging from vegetarian dishes to lamb and goat, and mild to extremely spicy, experiment with a small helping of everything. Scoop up your sag paneer or channa masala with a few wedges of warm Indian flatbread called naan. It’s cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). India’s, voted best Indian food in Jacksonville by Folio Weekly readers, has a more open, light, modern atmosphere than 5th Element (a former Village Inn), but the 5th's buffet is easily three, if not four, times larger and more diverse than India’s. Load up on India’s crispy vegetable pakora fritters if they have them. Delicious!

Authentic Vietnamese noodle house Bowl of Pho (9902 Old Baymeadows Road, 646-4455) is immaculate and cozy, and there’s always a good crowd, especially during the lunch hour. The portions are as large as the menu is long. Try the mi hoanh than, or BBQ pork and wonton egg noodle soup; add in a fistful of items served alongside it, like raw jalapeno slices, saw-leaf herb (flavor similar to cilantro but stronger), fragrant Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, chopped green onion and cilantro. Pronounced “fuh,” not “foe,” pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup that traditionally contains beef broth and rice noodles along with varieties of meat including rare beef, beef flank, brisket, tendon (connective tissue that’s cooked for a long time at a slow temperature, which becomes pliable and gelatinous like beef fat), tripe (stomach of a domesticated animal) and meatballs. If you’ve never had Vietnamese cuisine, try a boba milk smoothie, which has chewy black tapioca pearls in the bottom, to be slurped up in a thick, colorful straw. Taro, avocado and honeydew are popular flavors.

Less than a mile apart, Thai spots Pattaya Thai (9551 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 1, …   More

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A Beaches-must, Cinotti’s Bakery (1523 Penman Road, Jax Beach, 246-1728) is a fifth-generation bakery, dating back more than 65 years, arriving in Northeast Florida in 1964. Old-timers can recall its First Avenue North location, steps from the ocean. With über-popular seasonal pumpkin, maple bacon, coffee and key lime donuts, the "new" Penman Road spot serves other bakery confections and deli sandwiches on freshly baked bread. Cinotti’s cases are overflowing with trays of cookies, pastries, cupcakes and chocolate truffles. Grab a decadent donut or two and a cup of coffee — and a box of assorted goodies to keep your home team happy.

Minutes from the beach is the wildly popular TacoLu (1712 Beach Blvd., Jax Beach, 249-8226), which locals quickly dubbed “NuLu” after a recent relocation. The larger ’Lu, with additional parking and valet service, has an expanded bar area and an outdoor patio with seating for 40, complete with a colorful mural on the building's side, painted by local artist Jessica Becker. You can feel full after just looking at the menu of quesadillas, enchiladas, salads and tacos. The bangin’ shrimp taco is most popular, but the carne royale — carne asada with melted brie and grape salsa — is uniquely delicious. A relatively new weekend brunch service helps fans forgive that the ’Lu is closed on Mondays. Well, that and the impressive 120-plus choices of tequila. Even the sour mix is made in-house, with fresh-squeezed citrus and homemade simple syrup. Margarita, anyone?

For a healthful breakfast or lunch, look for the bee. At Delicomb (1131 Third St. N., Jax Beach, 372-4192), within walking distance from the beach, you’ll find menu standouts like strong iced coffee, antioxidant-packed acai bowls, vegan tempeh Reubens and spicy kim chi.

Often crowded with seafood lovers, Sliders Seafood Grille (218 First St., Neptune Beach, 246-0881) provides a relaxed atmosphere that's …   More

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Hold the steak, please — and the pulled pork sliders. And those spare ribs. Put down your forks and knives.

While not eating meat may sound borderline traumatic to many, some local carnivores have taken a pledge to say goodbye to meat for 31 days. Sponsored by The Girls Gone Green, No Meat March is celebrating its third year in Northeast Florida.

Start your day with a freshly roasted coffee from Sipper’s Coffeehouse (7643 Gate Parkway, Southside), which serves dairy-free alternatives to add to your java. The homemade chai and sugar-free chai are heavenly blended with creamy soy.

A drool-worthy brunch can be found at any of the area FirstWatch The Daytime Café locations (13470 Beach Blvd., at Hodges Boulevard; 11111 San Jose Blvd., Ste. 14, Mandarin; 5444 Marsh Landing Parkway, Ste. 4, Jacksonville Beach). Try the fresh fruit crêpes topped with low-fat organic strawberry yogurt and a dash of cinnamon and sugar. They’re served with homemade granola and the baked muffin of the day. FirstWatch’s omelets are made with cage-free eggs. The C’est la vie with roasted zucchini, onions, tomatoes and herbed goat cheese is a favorite.

For a lunch less than $10 and several veg options daily, head to Chomp Chomp (106 E. Adams St., Downtown). The tofu and pickled veggie bahn mi with a side of salad or thin-cut crispy curry potato chips are just what the doctor ordered. Or try the TMB — no bacon here — TMB stands for tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil. You can swap tofu for chicken or pork when you choose the curry of the day. One caveat – Chomp Chomp is closed Saturday through Monday for lunch.

Chamblin’s Uptown (215 N. Laura St., Downtown) offers delicious veg hot soups and wrapped specialties. They have two veggie wraps, a curry tempeh wrap and other specials that grace the chalkboard menu from time to time like vegan chili, Tofurkey and Swiss on a tomato basil wrap and VGBLT (lettuce and tomato …   More

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A plane trip to France may be too far away for lunch or dinner, but JJ’s Bistro, with two area locations, is a good way to get your French fix.

Upon entering the Gate Parkway location, JJ’s Bistro de Paris, my eyes grew wide as I noticed the huge dessert case. These tempting goodies, which include pastries, tarts, tortes, éclairs, cheesecakes and other sweets, are all created fresh. Breads are also baked in-house.

We were quickly greeted and seated, passing by a tall metal replica of Paris’ famous landmark Eiffel Tower. I’ve been in the real tower twice, so this was nostalgic for me. Despite being located in a strip mall, JJ’s puts great detail in its mood-setting décor: A large painted mural of a Paris city street scene spans the main wall, and high ceilings and striped awnings over the doorways further enhance the Parisian feel.

I started my lunch with a cup of JJ’s French onion soup, which didn't disappoint. Peeling back the melted cheese layer unveiled piping hot soup with thin caramelized onions and pieces of cheese-covered soaked baguette.

The menu boasts several French favorites like salad niçoise, croque-monsieur, bouillabaisse, escargot and moules provencales et frites (mussels and fries), so there’s truly something for your inner-Parisian.

Several daily specials are listed on a small chalkboard at the table. We went with two from the list: a warm turkey, brie and green apple sandwich on brioche with raspberry aioli and chicken Florentine crêpes tarragon, topped with sun-dried tomato cream sauce and almonds. Each comes with a side, so when our waiter explained that the French fries are hand-cut and made fresh, we ordered those and a side salad. The fries were thin and crispy, and we gobbled them up quickly.

The sandwich won us over: creamy brie melting over tart green apple slices on bread topped with sesame seeds and aromatic garlic. The two thinly rolled crêpes were good, but the almonds were inside (not outside as …   More

Bite-Sized

I’m a pizza snob. I’ve inhaled piping-hot slices of Grimaldi’s pizza from its coal-fired brick oven beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’ve worked my way through the better part of deep-dish pies from both Giordano's and Lou Malnati’s in Chicago. I’ve polished off wedges from Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Denver.

Tommy’s Brick Oven Pizza earns a top-five spot in my Northeast Florida list, which includes Brewer’s Pizza, Mellow Mushroom, Pele’s Wood Fire and Perard’s.

In 2006, Tommy d’Esterhazy opened the unassuming spot in a small strip mall on Southside Boulevard. The small, casual restaurant seats about 20, including a few barstools where you can gaze at your pizza being made in the central brick oven. You can catch a glimpse of d’Esterhazy (complete with an authentic New York attitude) hand-tossing the dough.

Tommy’s New York-style pizzas are available in 12, 14 or 16 inches. Quattro Stagione is my choice: The slightly crisp prosciutto’s saltiness complements the tender artichokes and creamy goat cheese along with roasted red peppers and tomato sauce. They’re meant to be together. Hand-tossed dough cooked in the brick oven results in a crust that’s not overly thick, keeping its shape and staying crisp at the edges.

Treat your taste buds with delicious toppings like pepperoni, sausage, bacon, pineapple, salami, rock shrimp, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

Salads are made-to-order. The caprese is traditional: Soft, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, shreds of basil and a tangy balsamic reduction top a spring lettuce mix. The summery strawberry spinach salad with chevre or goat cheese is tossed with Tommy’s secret strawberry vinaigrette dressing. Tommy’s Caesar, with romaine and crunchy croutons, is also good. You can’t go wrong with any of these leafy concoctions.

I’ve yet to try one of the cold subs or hot sandwiches, but the warm roasted rosemary chicken with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes is right up my …   More

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For the past 74 years, locals have flocked (no pun intended) to this no-frills St. Nicholas hot spot. Comfortably nesting in the same location since 1939, when Atlantic Boulevard was the only road to the beach, Beach Road Chicken Dinners is truly a Southerner’s dream. (On the flip side, it is not a vegetarian’s dream.)

We kicked off our feast by devouring bite-sized fried okra and sweet corn nuggets, served with a creamy homemade ranch sauce that had a slight jalapeño kick. The breading was light, and the okra was both fresh and crisp, as if it were picked yesterday. The sweet corn nuggets were piping hot.

How could I resist ordering fried chicken? Three of my tablemates also opted for it, so I'm not exaggerating when I say a platter of strategically piled pieces of crispy, golden-brown chicken arrived at our table. The need for multiple napkins aside, the chicken was the perfect trifecta: crisp, juicy and flavorful. I also managed a bite of country-fried steak and topped it with some of the gravy from the mashed potatoes; it too was delicious. If you’re from the South like I am, you’ll certainly appreciate the authenticity. And to make Grandma proud, yes, there are gizzards and chicken livers. But that’s where I draw the line.

Served family-style, the fixins are all-you-can-eat. If you're scooping out the last heap of mashed potatoes, don't fret, y'all — just order another bowl. The table quickly became crowded with creamed peas, mini-biscuits (with butter and honey), mashed potatoes, gravy, crinkle-cut crisp French fries, white rice and creamy cole slaw. The biscuits, slaw and mashed potatoes with gravy had the most flavor; the four of us left the creamed peas practically untouched. I longed for mac ‘n’ cheese and collard greens, but they were nowhere to be found on the menu.

Eyeing the table next to us, I spotted fruit cobbler. Stuffed to the brim, I knew I couldn't hold another bite. Judging from our neighbors’ quickly …   More

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In an unassuming spot on South Third Street in Jax Beach sits Eva’s Grill & Bar. Home to several restaurants over the years, the building's interior feels dated and plain, but small windows lend a few rays of natural sunlight. It’s spacious and kid-friendly, and would work well for larger parties.

Owner Chris Wright, along with his father William, opened Eva’s in early 2012. Many of the recipes are passed down from Chris’ mother, Eva. (He also has a daughter named Eva.) The menu includes Greek, Italian and Cajun dishes, but Eva’s is traditional in its approach, not a fusion of cuisines or flavors. Everything is homemade-style, except the hamburger buns and soda rolls.

My items were plated nicely, and I noticed the portions are quite generous and prices are fair. I see many take-out boxes in my future.

I started with an Italian panzanella salad: a bountiful plate of arugula, mixed greens, tomatoes, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, red onion and herbed croutons, tossed with a flavorful housemade white balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was fresh and the flavors blended nicely.

Several small plates are available, including a Greek meze platter with spinach and feta pastries (spanakopita), fresh mint and feta pastries (tiropita), Greek salad and stuffed grape leaves (dolmades). The table next to ours had one, and my stomach growled with envy.

Feeling adventurous, I tried the beef short rib lasagna. Warm gooey mozzarella generously covered a tower of alternating lasagna noodles, ricotta, spinach, fontina and braised beef, surrounded by a mote of homemade marina sauce. I expected the dish to be heavy, but it wasn't. The sauce had a lot of flavor. I’m eager to try the calzones and pizzas next time.

Wanting to sample each culture represented on the menu, I ordered the cochon de lait, a French-sounding term with Cajun roots. The slow-roasted, seasoned pork was accompanied by buttery housemade …   More

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When I need to quiet my growling stomach, I head to a restaurant that has “Mex” as a prefix or suffix. Hightide Burrito Co. touts its “Beach Mex,” a vibe and flavors that lend themselves to Jacksonville’s ethnic and geographic diversity. The menu is inspired by owner Alejandro Juarez’s family recipes from Central Mexico.

This family-friendly, seat-yourself, two-room spot is clean and modern with an abundance of seating. The staff is friendly and helpful, and the menu's straightforward and easy to read. Your toughest choice? Whether you’re up for a burrito (flour or wheat tortilla), burrito bowl, nachos, tacos (corn or flour), tortas or salad. Then determine if you’re in the mood for steak, ground beef, barbacoa, chicken, carnitas, fish, shrimp, roasted vegetables or beans and cheese.

Salsas are made in-house, and everything tastes fresh. Queso seemed like a must to kick off our lunch. We found it to be full of flavor, thick and creamy, which nicely coated our bags of homemade tortilla chips. There are few things worse than runny queso. Beware: These triangular gems are beyond addicting — super-crunchy, warm and lightly salted. Perfection.

I eyed the best-seller claim next to Lupe’s famous Baja fish tacos, and I knew what I’d be ordering. Best-seller? They must be delicious. And they were! Panko-breaded, lightly fried tilapia is generously topped with shreds of crunchy cabbage, then drizzled with a tangy white sauce and accompanied by a wedge of lime. I concurred with the claim. The fish was moist and cooked to perfection — each bite gave way to the perfect amount of crunch from the breading. I added a few generous dashes of the Peruvian sauce there on the table and some of the pico de gallo that came with my chips. I caught my boyfriend sneaking a bite on more than one occasion.

Also intriguing were the made-to-order acai bowls. I opted for the beet bowl with a blend of frozen acai …   More

BITE-SIZED

Crisp. Crunchy. Chewy. Creamy. The possibilities are endless. You’ll never think of salad the same way again. Tossgreen takes healthy to a new level by offering fresh and sustainable made-to-order salads and burritos.

Simple instruction signage guides the ordering process. The toughest part is deciding if you’re hungry for a burrito (or tortilla-less burrito bowl) or salad.

Salads begin with a leafy green base: iceberg, romaine, mixed greens or spinach. I opted for half-spinach and half-mixed greens. For $5.99, you select five toppings. There are more than 50 vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, “crunch” items and various cheeses. Want more than five? Pony up 49 cents each. I enjoy a mingling of flavors and textures, so my creation included hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, crisp pita chips, julienned carrots, sun-dried tomatoes, chickpeas and herb-roasted chicken, which was moist and flavorful.

Tossgreen also offers items you may not typically find on the average bed of lettuce, like jicama (a crunchy, slightly sweet root), red grapes, wasabi peas, toasted coconut, goat cheese and white cheddar.

Adding proteins is only 99 cents to $1.99. Options include herb-roasted chicken, steak, roasted shrimp, roasted tofu, bacon, boiled eggs and avocado — we know, it's a fruit — but it has about 7 grams of protein.

Ingredients are placed in a large bowl with your choice of salad dressing, then tossed and chopped, ensuring an even distribution of dressing. With 18 choices, there’s something for the pickiest diner, including ones with food allergies (dairy, gluten, oil). There’s even a simple lime or lemon squeeze, which adds a surprising amount of flavor and minimal calories.

I sampled the carrot ginger, but found it too sweet and opted for the lemon shallot vinaigrette. A bit bland; I wouldn’t order it again. I made a mental note to try the chipotle ancho vinaigrette.

Feeling uninspired? Order a chef-designed salad. Prices vary, but these …   More

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The diversity of ingredients and preparations in ethnic cuisines can transport you around the world with their unique flavors. And the décor can enhance the journey. That’s where Bowl of Pho comes in.

Pho is a staple in Vietnamese diets. Along with rice noodles and beef broth, traditional pho contains varieties of meat including rare beef, beef flank, brisket, tendon (connective tissue that’s cooked for a long time at a slow temperature, becoming pliable and gelatinous like beef fat), tripe (stomach of a domesticated animal) and meatballs. A large, colorful plate of garnishes is served alongside the oversized bowl. Toss in as much as you’d like of raw jalapeño slices, saw-leaf herb (leaf-like, with a flavor similar to cilantro but stronger), fragrant Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, chopped green onion and cilantro. Add some hot chili sauce and a squeeze of lime wedge and you’re ready to roll up your sleeves. A bib is recommended but not necessary — for some.

Warning: Bowl of Pho’s menu is expansive. I mix up my order each time I visit. At my rate, I’ll be 87 by the time I’ve worked my way through the menu.

With plenty of appetizers from which to choose, start with the light spring rolls: Shrimp and pork meet vermicelli (thin rice noodles served in many Asian cuisines, from Chinese Cantonese noodles to Filipino pancit), lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber and cilantro. Everything is carefully tucked into pliable rice paper and rolled. It’s proper form to dip these beauties into the side of hoisin-peanut sauce. For pep, add a dash of siracha.

On a recent trip, I diverged from the pho column and ordered from the “egg/rice noodle soup” list. Unlike the beef broth in the pho varieties, these selections offer chicken and pork broth. The barbecue pork with wonton egg noodles (mi hoanh thanh, if you prefer to order in Vietnamese) was a winner: For $7.50, I counted six oversized pork wontons swimming peacefully with tender slices of …   More

 
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