You know what they say about going to the grocery store on an empty stomach? It works the same when your side hustle is restaurant reviews. It can be expensive, and you never know in advance what will end up in your cart … or on your plate. Or in your photos, or in the newspaper.
That’s what we do, and we do it for you, probably-not-quite-as-hungry-as-us reader. You’re welcome.
From kitschy mom-and-pops to slick national concepts colonizing the Town Center, there’s a litany of new flavors to go around every corner of Northeast Florida. While our top 10 favorite tastes of 2017 are but a drizzle in the sizzling skillet of Northeast Florida’s culinary scene, we hope you’ll take a taste and want some more.
But seriously, eat before you shop. And send us your suggestions for places to visit. We’re always hungry for feedback, too.
Yafa Grill, Southside
Shwarma platter ($9)
A taste of Jerusalem is just a short drive away in Jacksonville. Occupying a former Wendy’s space on St. Johns Bluff, Yafa Grill is a fast-casual spot offering a mix of Middle Eastern staples with friendly, helpful counter service. It’s so tasty that I’ve dined here by myself on more than one occasion. The shwarma platter is where it’s at — juicy, tender seasoned chicken or beef (I’ve had both and enjoy them equally) meets a hefty portion of fluffy, yellow rice topped with creamy white beans and a light sauce. Adjacent is a heap of vibrant, pickled red cabbage, plus pickled radish spears and a chopped salad with diced cucumber and tomatoes. You won’t regret also ordering a side of Yafa’s delightfully creamy hummus and airy, warm puffed pita bread. If I lived closer I would indulge in this colorful, flavor-laden plate of Middle Eastern goodness even more often.
Llama Restaurant, St. Augustine
Ceviche Lima ($12)
If you haven’t been to Llama, make a reservation today. The intimate spot is open six evenings a week (closed Tuesdays) for dinner service only. Serving up Peruvian favorites with a modern twist, the small, husband-and-wife run restaurant just over the Bridge of Lions offers an impressive menu. Everything we had was memorable but the ceviche is a standout. Fresh corvina fish is marinated in a traditional ceviche-style lime juice bath before meeting cilantro leaves, sliced limo peppers, glazed sweet potatoes, thinly sliced red onion and Peruvian giant corn. The dish is bursting with fresh, clean flavors and Llama’s presentation is stunning. A final pink-hued sauce is poured tableside, with the run off collecting in a recessed part of the bowl. Be sure to wash it down with a glass of Llama’s homemade chica — a delicious punch made from purple corn, pineapple, spices and key lime.
5 Points Tavern, 5 Points
Lamb Burger ($19)
Relative newcomer 5 Points Tavern occupies the former O’Brothers Irish Pub space. With two bars, grab a cocktail before beginning with an order of tender mussels swimming in a savory white wine, butter, garlic and pernod bath. Then ready yourself for the star of the show: half a pound of Merguez-spiced lamb that’s formed into a patty and lightly charred then layered with creamy Spanish goat cheese, peperonata — a mix of sautéed red bell peppers and onions — and a slightly spicy harissa aioli. The flavors are bold and rich but they marry perfectly to one another. Served on a soft challah bread bun with a tossed baby arugula salad or French fries, you won’t be able to order anything else.
Matthew’s Restaurant, San Marco
Lemon Poppy Semifreddo ($9)
I adore citrusy desserts, especially living in Florida. Pastry chef Rebecca Reed is one of Jacksonville’s dessert wizards (Michael Bump of Forking Good Restaurants and Erika Weisflog of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails and Town Hall are among my top three), and it shows in her continued line up of creative dessert concoctions. This beautiful citrus treat, from Matthew’s summer tasting menu, begins with an airy lemon poppy semifreddo mousse. Accompanied by tiny lavender elderberries, preserved lemon, a light citrus sabayon sauce and delicate crumbles of olive oil pound cake, it embodies summertime dessert perfection. Food as art, and especially desserts as art, will forever have a place in my heart (and stomach).
Pie95 Pizza, Mobile Food Truck
Neapolitan-style Pizza ($14)
It’s a tie between Pie95 and The Bread & Board for the two spots I frequented most in 2017. I eat 75 percent of my meals out, so that’s saying something. Pie95 is a bright yellow food truck complete with wood-burning oven in tow. Over the past year it has become my second home almost every Saturday at the Riverside Arts Market and Wednesdays once a month at San Marco’s Aardwolf Brewery. It’s also no secret that I love pizza — like really, really love pizza — so after working my way down the menu, my latest love affair is the create-your-own offering. The classic Neapolitan-style pie touts a consistently airy and chewy, yet crisp crust and just enough char. Ladled with homemade San Marzano tomato sauce and quality fresh mozzarella, Pie95’s dough is the perfect base for my creation: salami, pesto, colorful cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts. A quick shake of red pepper flakes and I’m well on my way to pizza bliss. Sharing is optional but unlikely.
The Bread & Board, 5 Points
Butterscotch Sticky Bun ($6)
Like Pie95, I’ve worked my way through the B&B menu. But when Sunday brunch rolls around, I know there’s going to be an oversized, warm, gooey butterscotch sticky bun involved. The homemade, doughy bun itself is huge — bring at least two to four friends to share — and surrounded by a thick, decadent butterscotch sauce. Topped with a thick drizzle of buttermilk cream cheese and copious toasted pecans, each bite is total happiness. Paired with a cup of B&B’s special Martin Coffee blend, this is easily my my most craved breakfast item of the year.
Biggie’s Pizza, Jacksonville Beach
Fried Cheese Cake Bites ($6.99)
It’s hard to beat an authentic thin-and-crispy slice of New York’s finest street pies. It’s also hard to find it in Jacksonville, unless you head to north Jacksonville Beach and the muraled shoebox that is Biggie’s Pizza. The space may be small but the individual slices, available for grab-and-go until 2 a.m. on weekends, are massive in all the ways that matter and start at just $3.50. Most pies pay homage to the homeland — “Benny Blanco from the Bronx” and “The Gentle Don Steak Pie,” to name just two — and are available from $17.50 to $24 for an 18-inch round. The best at Biggie’s lives on the appetizers menu, though. The Fried Cheese Cake Bites are can’t-miss crispy bite-size cubes of beyond-creamy-inside banana cheesecake decadence, dressed liberally in powdered sugar. Worth. Every. Calorie.
Volcano Modern Japanese Cuisine
Sushi Taco ($11.99)
Appearances matter at this suburban sushi outpost at the Windsor Commons shopping center on Hodges near JTB. From its sleek, dark and modern dining room to the creative novelty injected into its signature plates, Volcano is dressed to impress and offers plenty of innovation on its menu. You might have heard of the sushi burrito. Volcano offers the Sushi Taco, a cold appetizer of four light, tempura-batter shells stuffed with a buttery, creamy blend of Maine lobster, crab, avocado, mango and fish egg. Forget these as handhelds; this starter is squarely in the fork-and-knife zone. Approach with caution and savor the cleanup duty.
Vito’s Italian Restaurant
Chicken Saltimbocca ($20)
After nearly 30 years as a Baymeadows Road institution, Chef Giulio Teresi and family pulled up their stakes and moved their beloved Vito’s Italian Restaurant to Fruit Cove’s bustling Shops of Bartram Walk in St. Johns County. While the cavernous former Turkish restaurant they inherited feels more like a ski lodge or art gallery, an ambling Chef Giulio warms the dining room with his penchant for table-by-table customer service and old-school comfort food for his bedroom-community clientele. Speaking of comfort food, the piece de resistance during my June visit was the Chicken Saltimbocca ($20). You get large, tender breasts of chicken with a Prosciutto glazed in a wine cheese sauce with Mozzarella over a perfectly plump bed of spinach with a sidecar of spaghetti. I’m a pushover for melty anything and the Saltimbocca delivered beautifully.
Comfort. a Southern Bistro
Banana Pudding ($7)
This brother-and-sister-operated Lakewood upstart is a tidy, whitewashed wonderland of country tunes and downhome classic fare straight from a Southern picnic basket, complete with a plethora of homemade sides and sweet treats scrawled on a countertop blackboard. If you’re a card-carrying member of the “eat dessert first” crowd, you’d do well to call up the Banana Pudding as your “starter.” Instead of vanilla wafers, Comfort uses Chessman shortbread cookies, whipped with ripe banana slices, condensed milk, cream cheese and vanilla pudding. The end result is a thick-and-rich dream and a seemingly bottomless bowl that you can easily share with a foursome (but you won’t want to).
Treemendous BBQ and Catering
Pork Sandwich ($8)
Your nose will pick up on this roadside meat palace a ways off from its Herlong Road perch, well before you come across the signature polka-dotted pig out front. Treemendous trades in old-school Southern barbecue with a single page of standards you’ll know by heart. For simple, bold flavor, grab the Pork Sandwich, a tall stack of juicy, delicious pork chunks wedged between two slices of garlic bread. Great on its own without saucy embellishment, you can still go there with five varieties, including sweet and tangy, mustard and hot variations. For honorable mention, snag the homemade mac and cheese as your side selection. The creamy “made-by-Grandma” flavor is golden … and in my case, gone.
Caron Streibich is an avid food-lover who reviews restaurants every other week in the Dining section. Follow her dining adventures at facebook.com/caroneats and #caroneats on Instagram.
Jay Magee is a regular guy who needs a little balance in his life. That means spending as much time in the gym as he does in new restaurants. Find out how that’s working out for him at jaymagee.yelp.com or read one of his intermittent blog posts at jaymagee.com.