Despite the explosion of specialty supermarkets, third-party delivery services and meal kits vying for our catering dollars, eating at home can be a lot of work.
Your Times-Union restaurant critics know this well. So we work… to eat a lot in restaurants.
It’s not that we don’t like to cook. We prefer to just cut to the chase or move on to the next dish, then savor the flavors and pay for the next so you can feast with confidence throughout Northeast Florida.
Pot hands are not our thing. The finger-licking flavors are. Here is our top 10 of the most recent discoveries of the coming year.
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• Catullo’s, 1650-2 San Pablo Road S., Intracoastal, (904) 240-1252
Pear Fiocchi ($18.90)
Brothers Carl and Dave Catullo have been queuing up at their cozy Intracoastal restaurant since it opened in early 2019. The food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar venue has been pushing pasta lovers from all over town to experience classic Italian dishes. appetizing brothers. Catullo’s pasta is homemade, with lots of love and homage to handed down family recipes. Take the delicate little purse-shaped pasta pockets stuffed with pear and a trio of cheeses – grana padano, taleggio and robiola – called pear fiocchi. The pouches are triumphantly perched on a dreamlike sauce of caramelized pears, gorgonzola and goat cheese. Topped with crispy chunks of fried prosciutto, this is easily one of the best dishes I’ve had in Jacksonville.
• Bellwether, 100 N. Laura St., Downtown, (904) 802-7745
Crispy Skin Salmon with Job’s Tears ($28)
The first time I saw the description of this dish on the menu, I asked our waiter, “Job’s tears? Is this a typo? And that’s exactly when I discovered the teardrop-shaped fluffy Asian grain (it’s also gluten-free, for the sensitive) that I would soon fall in love with. With an earthy, slightly sweet flavor, these barley-like gems would cushion the most expertly cooked piece of crispy-skinned salmon I’ve had in Jacksonville. Tender snow peas, dollops of mashed corn, sliced radishes and pickled beech mushrooms complete Chef Kerri Rogers’ remarkable dish. The thoughtful plating reminded me of a gorgeous piece of (edible) modern art.
• Strings Sports Brewery, 1850 N. Main St., Springfield, (904) 475-2970
Fried chicken thigh and pea sandwich ($14)
With Popeye’s and Chick-Fil-A fueling a fast food fried chicken sandwich frenzy this year, I saved my time waiting in line and spent my money at a local spot instead – Springfield’s Strings. Chefs Pat Dillon and Kevin Roberts upped the ante with their take on the fried chicken sandwich. First brined in a glorious blend of buttermilk and hot sauce, then deep-fried until golden brown, the juicy leg is then given a nice house-made chili cheese spread and lots of tangy pickles. Placed between slices of toasted local sourdough from the Village Bread Company, Strings’ creation earns my vote for sandwich of the year. Field peas and rice are my go-to side, and don’t forget the hot sauce or cold craft beer.
• The Donut Shoppe, 1535 University Boulevard N., Arlington, (904) 743-1844
“Ugly” Apple Donut ($2.35)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m happiest when I’m holding one of The Donut Shoppe’s “ugly” apple donuts in my hand. Magically crispy on the outside, the inside of ugly’s makes for a delicious warm, fluffy donut that’s bursting with sweet apple bits and subtle hints of cinnamon. Overall, the final product is balanced in texture and flavor, without being sweet. Bring your cash as The Donut Shoppe only accepts paper documents (or company check), and your patience as there might be a line. And know that when they run out of something, that’s it for the day: freshness is guaranteed!
• 1748 Bakery, 1748 N. Main St., Springfield, (904) 374-2541
Homemade English muffin breakfast sandwich ($9)
Imagine waking up to a homemade English muffin topped with a perfectly cooked runny egg and crispy bacon strips. Melted local Wainwright Dairy brick cheese, greens and smoked mayonnaise are added. Despite its messiness, this sandwich has my heart (and my napkins!) because it’s so satisfying—it’s easy to see why 1748 is on my brunch circuit. I’ve eaten so many overcooked eggs for breakfast across town and 1748 gets their eggs right, every time. The 34-seat Springfield Bakery is run by power duo Kurt D’Aurizo and his wife, Allison. No stranger to the kitchen, Kurt has won numerous culinary awards and even cooked at the James Beard House. D’Aurizo’s homemade provisions, as well as baked goods and breads, are a treat any day of the week.
Caron Streibich is a cooking enthusiast who reviews restaurants every two weeks in the Restaurants section. Follow her culinary adventures on Instagram.com/caroneats.
• Haley Sushi & Grill, 10920 Baymeadows Road, Suite 30, Baymeadows, (904) 363-8888
Chicken and scallop combination platter ($17.95)
A reader suggestion led me to Haley’s, an unassuming Asian restaurant in the Reedy Branch Commons mall at 295 and Baymeadows that used to be called Fuji Sushi. Owner Hanh Pham has hung up his hibachi hat to run a restaurant he named after his daughter. Its chefs prepare an extensive collection of nigiri, standard rolls and hand rolls, as well as more intricate signature sushi rolls – nearly 75 sushi bar offerings in all, raw and cooked. A standard menu also offers appetizers, noodle soups and rice dishes, bento boxes, tempura platters, and grilled hibachi entrees. Speaking of which, only the most sumo appetites have to apply to the chicken and scallop combo plate, a colossal serving of tender grilled chicken pieces with heavenly fried rice, beautifully bronzed halved sea scallops and a mountain of sliced fresh vegetables. The freshness was palpable in all of our dishes, including dessert, a decadent tempura fried cheesecake, which I reluctantly saved room for.
• Grub Burger Bar, 4906 Town Center Parkway, Unit 408, St. Johns Town Center, (904) 562-2828
Milkshakes (15+ varieties, $4.79 and up)
Since my last visit, the Grub Burger Bar has been renamed Grub. I give them credit for this wise strategy, especially since it’s the milkshakes that make my lips tingle whenever I’m remotely near downtown. Choose from over a dozen varieties, from one-trick flavors to chunky darlings and spiked numbers, then dig in for a while with your crazy straw. My pick, the ET (as in the 1982 movie, $5.59), included crushed Reese’s Chunks, peanut butter, a ribbon of chocolate syrup, and a full-size peanut butter cookie on top . If you must have calories, at least have fun with them. There’s even a Kitchen Sink version brimming with potato chips and coffee grounds.
• Tequila’s Town, 13475 Atlantic Blvd., Unit 1, Intracoastal West, (904) 513-4194
Enchiladas, Bandera style ($11)
Founded in Savannah a few years ago, Tequila’s Town expanded to the Intracoastal West region in August with a modern vibe and an upscale take on Tex-Mex, not to mention a lively dining room at each of my subsequent visits. In an endless quest for volume and value, Enchiladas are hard to beat, with three large corn tortillas concealing shredded chicken, grilled vegetables and shrimp and your choice of sauces – Suizas, Mole and Ranchero. Or do like the Mexican flag and go bandera style with all three. Most mortal appetites will make two meals out of this plate. But if you prefer a liquid diet, Tequila’s 80+ tequilas are worth it (lime and lick salt optional).
• Wafaa & Mike’s Cafe, 1544 North Main St, Springfield, (904) 683-8313
Wafaa Shawarma Platter ($13.50)
With many new and rebooted eateries and eateries on Springfield’s Main Street slice, it’s heartwarming to visit Wafaa & Mike’s, a decade-old staple that shares its building with an auto repair shop. For fresh, classic Mediterranean staples in the urban core, it’s hard to beat their offerings, especially the Wafaa Shawarma Platter ($13.50), a conflagration of mixed flavors on a colorful plate with seasoned chicken shawarma over a salad of rice, nuts and goat cheese, so-called-but-not-really basic fries and thin, seasoned pita bread. Shawarma, an incredibly tender mixture of thinly sliced and chunked chicken tossed with mixed vegetables, is healthy and very satisfying. For my lunch dollar, avoid the shiny new items and head to Sixth and Main.
• Jazzy’s Restaurant and Lounge, 901 King Street, Riverside, (904) 813-7178
Hot-Sprinkled Fried Chicken (4-Piece Plate for $13)
Chef Celestia Mobley, a soul food veteran with hearty Potter’s House chops and her own Dunn Avenue seafood shop, brought sweet sounds and milder Southern comfort food to the King and College corner of Riverside in March. Its chicken plates deserve praise, especially the Hot Dusted, with plenty of juicy meat and just enough spice to leave you slack-jawed but not sprinting towards a fire hydrant. Old fashioned mac and cheese deserves an honorable mention for its baked creaminess without the need for glamorous embellishment. And then there’s the music, with a stage hosting live performers five nights a week and keeping that Riverside flair going. More of that, please.
Jay Magee is an ordinary guy with abnormally large eyes, at least compared to his stomach. Since 2013, he has been eating, writing and rehearsing for Times-Union readers. From glamorous farmhouse tables to abandoned mall buffets, it moves. Visit jaymagee.yelp.com to browse his review archive and follow him, so he doesn’t get lost.