Food is where it’s at in Jax

Foodies know Jacksonville is the place for emerging great dishes

Story by Jennifer Merrick, Vacay.ca writer

Jacksonville, or Jax, as this northeastern city in Florida is often called, is off the foodie radar map, but it won’t be for long. Word is getting out. Deemed a top surprising foodie city by Forbes Magazine and one of the top five secretly cool cities by Huffington Post, Jax is making a name for itself as an emerging epicurean destination.

We at Vacay couldn’t agree more, and on a recent visit discovered an unpretentious pride and passion about the city’s culinary prowess among locals. And they have every reason to brag – food is where it’s at in Jax.

Brooklyn is the new Brooklyn

“There’s a sense of excitement,” says Justin Freeman, manager of the newly-opened Hobnob restaurant in Jacksonville’s Brooklyn neighbourhood. He worked in the food industry in Chicago before moving back home to Florida, and says that the Chicago the food scene is already established whereas in Jax, it’s coming into its own.

Brooklyn itself is an example of the changes that are happening. In 2010, there were only 60 people living in dilapidated houses amidst vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Today, the area is home to two modern apartment complexes, a fresh food market, restaurants and Unity Plaza, an outdoor amphitheater that regularly hosts community events.

At Hobnob, we savoured inspired dishes that blended local and international flavours like fried green tomatoes with bacon and sweet onion jam, kaffir crusted seabass and the best banana bread pudding we’ve ever tasted.

Fine dining restaurant Sbraga and Company along with local favourites such as Burrito Gallery, Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops and Brixx Wood Fire Pizza are also in this area located next to the St. Johns River, connecting the downtown urban core to the historic Riverside neighbourhood.

“This neighbourhood has always been called Brooklyn, says Freeman. “It’s now living up to its name.”

At Aardwolf Brewing Company, housed in a circa- 1920s ice house in the San Marco downtown neighbourhood, the sheer number of tempting beers to sample for our tasting flight overwhelmed us. The choices filled the blackboard behind us; and in the end, we based our decision solely on the names.

The blackboard behind us was filled with a dizzying number of brews and in the end, we based our decision solely on the names. We were especially impressed with the distinctive flavours of the Hipster Popsicle and El Mariachi. Wednesdays are particularly busy for the brewery as it’s when they release their pilot batch for testing. Some fiercely loyal patrons pride themselves on their flawless attendance records for these anticipated releases.

Aardwolf Brewing Company is just one of the breweries on the Jax Ale Trail, which visitors can do on their own or with a guided tour. Passports are available at Jacksonville’s visitor centers or at the participating breweries, which include Intuition Ale Works, Bold City Brewery, Green Room Brewing, Engine 15 Brewing Co., Pinglehead Brewing Company, Veterans United Craft Brewery and Zeta Brewing Company.

Chocolate is the answer. Who cares what the question is. This quote hangs on the wall at Sweet Pete’s, a Willie Wonka-styled candy factory/shop/restaurant that is the answer to the dreams of anyone with a sweet tooth. Upon entering the store, a staff member presented us with one of their signature salted caramels and informed us that they make 20,000 pounds of the soft, chewy deliciousness a day. But that’s only the start. The shelves on the first floor are filled with boxes of their made-on-the-premises chocolates and sweets that include Grand Marnier Cherry Cordials, Caramel Pecan Clusters, Coconut Haystacks, and Peanut Butter Meltaways.

On the second floor is even more candy; and though the goodies here aren’t made in-house, they have all been vetted by Mr. Sweet Pete himself. Here you can also take a self-guided tour, where you’ll find out why their candy is so good (quality ingredients is key) and even watch the goodies being crafted in the factory. Warning: The smell is guaranteed to increase your spending in the shop.

After making our purchases, we lunched at the Candy Apple Café. You might think that a restaurant in a candy factory would be packed with kids. But while there are families, you’ll also find couples and friends enjoying this restaurant’s cocktails and French inspired menu.

Sweet Pete’s alone is worth a detour off the Interstate; but when you combine all of Jax’s culinary offerings, you’ll want to stay a little longer. However, I’d do it quickly, because this city won’t be a secret foodie destination for long. Word is getting out.

Other places to try: Maple Street Biscuit Company has some of the best biscuits in the South (and that’s saying a lot!), MShack with a few locations, including the open air shopping village St. Johns Town Centre, is one of the best burger spots in the city. Equally known for their milkshakes, it’s owned by local celebrity chef Matthew Medure. His fine dining restaurant, Mathews, located in the San Marco neighbourhood has won numerous awards. Also in San Marco is Bistro AIX, a pioneer of Jax’s emerging food scene. Whatever restaurant you choose, be sure to try the Mayport Shrimp on the menu. This locally-caught seafood is much-loved among locals for its clean, lightly sweet, fresh taste. Finally, no food story on Jacksonville would be complete without mentioning TacoLu. There wasn’t a local we met who didn’t rave about this little taco shack that could.