Think about how many ethnic restaurants you drive past every week in this town. The First Coast has a rich ethnic dining scene, but a lot of these places are off the radar; tucked away in little strip malls or hiding out in neighborhoods less traveled.
For our Bucket List issue, we asked a group of local chef/restauranteurs to share with us their favorite dish at an ethnic restaurant off the beaten path. Through the process of building this feature, we talked about how tacos may have been named after the 18th century explosives wrapped in paper that Mexican miners used to blow up ore, and why that name stuck (we concluded that heavy doses of hot sauce were involved). We discussed how dishes like Peking Duck made their way from ancient Imperial menus down to the working man’s restaurants, even inspiring the invention of an oven designed specifically for roasting ducks. We hypothesized how food may tell a more authentic story of colonization than any other art form, citing pho and its likely connection to the French soup pot au feu. But most of all, we recognized that comfort foods, foods like mofongo, are the dishes that bring people together from all walks of life worldwide.
Small ethnic restaurants are a key ingredient in the melting pot culture that makes America unique. We hope you do more than just read the following profiles, but actually go out and try these incredible dishes. Not only will it open your palate to authentic new tastes, but it will also provide a glimpse into some of the fantastic diversity in our region. People from all over the world move to the First Coast to start new lives and by exploring the ethnic dining scene, you may garner some new perspectives as to why this is such a wonderful place to live.
If you do take up the challenge, let us know if you find any hidden gems out there!
Pho Ga, Bowl of Pho
chef Sam and Kiley Efron
K: We moved here in 2007 from California, but it took us about two years to find this place. When we first moved here, I was really looking for good Vietnamese food. When we lived in San Francisco, we lived in a neighborhood that was known as Little Vietnam. It had a large concentration of Vietnamese restaurants. When we moved here I was disappointed to find so few Vietnamese restaurants, because it was such a staple for me.
S: We googled Pho and looked it up on Yelp, and started eating around town. We pretty much hit all the restaurants on the list online, and when we found Bowl of Pho, we knew it was the place. The pho had a clean, bright taste with great depth of flavor.
K: It was really a combination of online research and word of mouth that brought us here. I eat here a lot. I eat in the restaurant once a month, and we get take out at least twice. Whenever we get sick, we come for the soup. We eat here probably more often than any other restaurant in town.
S: The pho here is clean and really flavorful, like a good consommé. A lot of places have cloudy broth with too many spices. I love Vietnamese food. It really speaks to my own style of cooking, like what we do at Taverna. I just love food that has a lot of flavor, but doesn’t make you feel really heavy after you eat it. Vietnamese food is clean and delicious, and it fills you up, but it doesn’t weigh you down with fats and oils. With Pho Ga, first you get your hot bowl of soup. You have this great broth with sliced chicken, vermicelli noodles, some shaved onion and scallion. Then you have a dish with all sorts of add-ons. For sourness, you can add lime. For spiciness, you have fresh jalapeños. Then you have your fresh herbs, Thai basil, cilantro, or culantro, and then for texture and crunchiness, you have bean sprouts. All the flavors are there: umami, sweet, spicy, sour…essentially it is the perfect comfort food.
K: I always say this would be my last meal on earth. Like Sam says, it has everything you would want.
S: As a chef, and just me as a person that loves food, I am always looking for authentic food. When you live in a big city like San Francisco or New York, you have so much diversity of food and culture in concentrated areas. These cities are walking cities and often you can find a couple of great spots just a short walk from your doorstep. And then there are neighborhoods that become the cultural centers for different ethnic groups, like a Chinatown, or Little Vietnam, which have many choices and places that specialize on a particular item. In a city like Jacksonville, everything is more spread out. You have little pockets of ethnic places here and there, and when you find someone that does ethnic food well, it is exciting.
K: I grew up in San Francisco and ethnic food was an everyday part of my diet. When you move to a smaller city, it is hard to find good ethnic food because people tend to cook more to an American palate. Also, here everything is more spread out. Don’t be afraid to drive in Jacksonville. That’s the biggest thing. Sometimes you have to go out to the beach to get great tacos, or Mandarin for Thai. It really isn’t that far of a drive, and it is so worth it.
Bowl of Pho is located at 9902 Old Baymeadows Road in Jacksonville.
Trifongo, Las Antillas
chef dennis chan
I have been eating at Las Antillas for 8 years now. It’s right across the street from Blue Bamboo, which makes it convenient and easy for me to visit often. Sometimes, I will even risk my life and just walk across Southside Boulevard instead of driving over. The owners of Las Antillas have suggested building a bridge from their restaurant to mine, just so we can cross back and forth! There are 3 generations of family that work in this restaurant. Grandma, Lydia Ramirez, comes in at 5 a.m. with her daughter Myrna and starts cooking six days a week. She fills up the “meat and 3” style offerings, and then her kitchen assistant, Zuleyka, comes in around 9, sometimes with supplies, and sometimes just her great willingness to help. Grandpa, Gabriel Gonzalez typically arrives mid-morning, just to make sure everything is up to standards. Occasionally, you might catch him sneaking in a nap in the office, after he makes sure all is OK. In the early afternoon, son Ricardo is unofficial “security,” and he runs the register in the afternoon and evening. Grandson Edgar works throughout the day maintaining tables and just making sure all is just how the family wants their restaurant presented.
The family came to Jacksonville and worked at a manufacturing plant called DURA, which my cousin also worked at. The plant was moved out of Jacksonville, and the family took over Las Antillas. I am told that my cousin Laura is one of their favorite people, and she feels the same about them, also. What I love about this place is the way they welcome you when you come in. When I sit here and watch customers try the food, it’s not unusual to hear them say, “Oh, my god! I am transported home.”
Mofongo is the ultimate comfort food for Puerto Ricans. It is made with green plantains, mashed with garlic, and broth. They started serving mofongo here on the weekends a little over a year ago, and the popularity has grown so that now, they serve it all the time. One day, they asked if I wanted to try some trifongo. It is the grandpa’s recipe, but Zuleyka has become the designated trifongo chef. It is made of green plantains, sweet plantains and yucca. They mash them together and make a huge cake that is about the size of your hand. They make a dent in the top of the cake, fry it, and then top with a garlic olive oil. The garlicky flavor seeps down into the cake as you eat it. The texture is that of comforting chunky mashed potatoes. Traditionally it is served with sliced pork or shrimp, but at Las Antillas, they also offer you the choice of chicken, ribs, codfish, tripe, or even goat.
Anytime a chef tastes something, they can tell if the person who made the dish was happy when they made it. You can taste the happy in this food. You can taste the love in every bite of what they do.
Las Antillas is located at 3807-B Southside Boulevard in Jacksonville.
Peking Duck, Peony Asian Bistro
chef jon insetta
I found this place on Yelp years ago. I was straight up looking for Peking duck. One of the best memories of my life was spending summers in Brooklyn, New York and going to China Town and eating duck. I had this hankering for duck, and it took me three or four weeks to get to this place after finding it online. The first time I came here they were out of the duck.
My dad also loves Peking duck. Literally, whenever my parents get duck at my restaurant, they are never happy with it, because they associate all well-cooked duck with this dish. It doesn’t matter if it is perfectly prepared; they just relate all good duck to this.
Peking duck is traditionally served with pancakes, but here they use lotus buns. It reminds me of the steam buns at Momofuko in New York. Here at Peony, it is also served with hoisin sauce, which is sweet. There is no fish in it. A lot of people think there is fish in hoisin. I like a fair amount of sauce on mine. You have a great glaze on the crunchy skin, and then a fatty layer and moist meat. You have savory and sweet with the duck and hoisin and then some brightness with the cucumber. It is pretty rad. When you really break it down, it is just a couple of ingredients. Duck, sauce, bun, vegetable. I like to take a piece of fatty meat, a piece of crispy skin, and put them together in the bun.
The menu here is really far reaching, from the great appetizers and soups to more traditional items, but I really just come here specifically for the duck. I really just need to have it. It is the only place in Jacksonville that I have been to that has it and does it at a pretty damn good level. Peking duck is an old dish in China, and now it has become more Americana. It is a dated menu item, but there is a reason it has stood the test of time. It is awesome.
I think this is the soul of food. At Orsay, we have a pretty traditional banh mi, and at Black Sheep we have pig ears on the menu. Rustic food speaks to our generation of chefs. We are inspired by food that has soul to it; that is prepared with love, care, heritage and tradition. Food that speaks to everybody’s childhood memories and experiences.
I grew up going to Mongolian BBQ in Mandarin, which is a sit down Chinese/Asian place, and that type of restaurant in Jacksonville is virtually gone. Chinese is all take out and delivery now. For me, going to small ethnic restaurants is less about working on menu items, but experiencing really good ethnic foods. In New York, it is a big part of the culture up there. Down here, up until the past 15 years, we haven’t had a big population of ethnic restaurants or markets. These restaurants are like a beacon of culture. One of the cool things about Jacksonville is that we are a city that is still defining itself. It is rare.
Peony Asian Bistro is located at 10586 Old St. Augustine Road in Jacksonville.
Tacos, Mi Tierra
chef tom gray
Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails
I first found Mi Tierra, which is a Latin market, because I was looking for cooking ingredients. We (my culinary team and I) were in menu development for Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, and we were looking for specific ingredients like good, dry chilies and masa, which we found. We coincidentally found the large white corn we had been looking for to make our house-made corn nuts. We walked into this grocer and noticed the little restaurant in the back. It reminded me of one of my favorite markets in California, La Luna, in Napa Valley. When we saw the tripe and cow head tacos on the menu, we knew we had to try them. They were incredible. It was a pure stumble-upon experience. I honestly don’t even know how we heard about the market.
What you get here is authentic, simple, well-made foods like the kind that someone would cook on their home stoves. If you think of grandma’s kitchen, she is not going to slice a filet and sear it. She is going to have meat that can simmer on a back burner all day and feed a crowd. That’s the type of flavors you get in these tacos…savory, rich, and full of flavor. The three tacos I like to order are the tongue (lengua), cow head (cabeza), and the pork (al pastor).
These tacos are an exciting palate-awakening experience. The cow head taco here is flavorful, and you would be hard-pressed to find it in a less authentic Mexican restaurant. The jowls make for a delicious, rich meaty filling. The tongue taco is also full of flavor and is cooked perfectly, always tender. I am sure it is braised for hours, if not pressure-cooked. It is so good. The al pastor tastes like there are some really nice red chilies in it, and some smoke. It tastes spicy, but doesn’t have too much heat and is very balanced. All of these tacos are unique in flavor and also completely unpretentious.
The tacos are served in small, warm corn tortilla (doubled up in the classic taqueria style). The tortillas bring chewy texture and a nutty flavor to the dish. By doubling up, it also helps to prevent the tacos from splitting open when you eat them. They are all topped with fresh cilantro, raw onions, and a squeeze of lime, which lightens everything up. By taking these bright components and adding them to the meat in these tacos, the richness doesn’t weigh you down. While very filling, you don’t feel heavy after you eat them. You don’t need any cheese, sour cream or other condiments (other than maybe a bit of the green or red salsa they provide on the tables in plastic squeeze bottles), as the cooked meats are the real stars of the plate.
When you have a meal like this, you learn that this style of simple, authentic Mexican food is really delicious and so rewarding. Experience it! Be adventurous! Bring a friend. You can always go back to American Mexican, but you may not want to.
Mi Tierra Mexican Grocery is located at 5761 Beney Road in Jacksonville.