By Arash Kamiar of MetroJacksonville.com
It may feel like the extent of Jacksonville’s restaurant offerings revolve around franchise food concepts (I use “concepts” loosely), especially if you’re looking to find a restaurant sitting on one of our city’s main arteries. Franchise restaurants offer one thing: reliability. They provide the assurance that the substance they call food will always be the same. Sometimes that safety is all we need. I understand; but sometimes, it’s enough for me.
But, if you’re in the mood to go on some foodie adventures, you’ll explore neighborhoods where the surrounding commercial space is a little run down (and where the rent isn’t so high) to find Jacksonville’s restaurant treasures. There are incredible places to eat in little pockets all over our city. These places are less about “location, location, location” and banal marketing techniques, and more about creating a place in which the food is all the advertising that’s needed.
This list of “hole in the wall” restaurants is a starting point, a good place to begin exploring some of Jacksonville’s obscure food havens.
4424 Phillips Hwy.
If you’ve driven by Chopstick Charley’s on Philips Highway, you made the very reasonable assumption that this place is not only closed, but it’s been closed for a couple of decades. The place is a bit haunting and it doesn’t get any better when you walk inside, but Chopstick Charley’s is not like the McDonald’s-esque/Chinese restaurants littered throughout our city and that’s why you should check them out. For instance, the sweet and sour chicken comes with a sauce made from strawberries. If you’re in the mood for what must be reminiscent of a Chinese mother’s home-cooked meals, this is the place to go. The owner is a lovely lady who, well, likes you. Meals are under $7 and will easily feed two people.
106 E. Adams St.
By far the most suggested hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Chomp Chomp is the epitome of a trendy, low-budget establishment that serves quality, fresh, affordable food (most meals are $7). They serve banh-mi, pad thai, tacos, and they serve a pretty awesome burger (sometimes with an over-easy egg!). The menu is constantly changing and their freshly made chips, offered as a side, have developed quite a cult following. Need a place to sit? Good luck. There are maybe three tables inside the restaurant and only a few more outside. And, for a town that shuts down after 5 p.m., Chomp Chomp stays open late a few nights out of the week.
1975 Wells Rd.
It’s exciting, and unexpected, to see Jacksonville become such a haven for incredible Vietnamese cuisine. There are more than 20 Vietnamese restaurants open for business and more are coming. One of the best places to order Vietnamese is not from the cult followed Bowl of Pho on Baymeadows Road. Nope, this jewel is in Orange Park and the food comes without the bit of snobbery, albeit well-deserved, that seems to accent Bowl of Pho meals.
Little Saigon’s intimate location has no more than seven tables. The Pho broth is layered with flavor. It’s one “deep” bowl of soup…so many layers. It’s almost emotional.
2527 N. Main St.
Before visiting Island Tropics, I had visited about half a dozen Jamaican restaurants and I always left those restaurants feeling ripped off and disappointed. How else was I going to feel when the food I was eating was reminiscent of something from the frozen section of Sam’s Club, with “100 percent Real Jamaican Flavors?” The owners at Island Tropics have taken a decidedly different approach. They care a lot about their food and about their customers’ satisfaction. Their stews are made fresh daily. The Jerk Chicken is incredible and slow cooked.
Arden’s Kafe & Katering
4555 St. Johns Ave.
As a male with no Southern roots there are very few opportunities to indulge in Southern comfort foods. Every once in awhile my brother-in-law will whip up a dish of cornbread oyster stuffing or sweet potato casserole. This invariably sends me into a few month journey to figure out how to make Southern foods. I have made mac and cheese, unsuccessfully, eight times or so. There’s just something special about the mushiness of Southern fare that I hope to master.
Arden’s is as Southern as they come. Take a trip on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll see about half of our city’s Southern Baptists partaking in the buffet of collard greens, fried chicken, fried chops, ham, fried fish, cheesy grits, black-eye-peas, etc. Arden’s meals are made with fresh ingredients and from scratch. The opinions on Arden’s will vary. Some are going to love it here for others it will be a “meh.” For me, I’m in the middle, but I definitely will go back and I definitely think it’s worth trying.
1024 University Blvd. N.
If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like to see a newborn baby wrapped in a tortilla, Lupita’s “No way, that is way too large” California Burrito might be the meal you should consider when you visit. Otherwise, you’ll do just fine with the tacos (including their very popular fish taco), fajitas or anything else on their menu. Their house-made salsa is refreshing and perfectly salted, and their queso is creamy with just the right amount of spice.
The portions, obviously, are many. The ingredients are incredibly fresh and everything is made in house. A large portion of their menu is dedicated to seafood options.
The Donut Shoppe
1535 University Blvd. N.
Jacksonville, FL 32211
The Donut Shoppe has been open since 1962, is currently owned by David Unkelbach and has 17 varieties of doughnuts. It’s institutional feeling, but clean. Kind of like Unkelback bought a clinic in the 1960s and turned it into a doughnut “shoppe.” But that feel is exactly what makes this place kind of awesome. That and their doughnuts. They won me over after I tried one of their old-fashioned cake doughnuts. It was fresh out of the fryer, not too sugary, my preference. For those who love sugar bomb doughnuts, they have plenty of those to try. Couple of pointers: Try the coconut doughnut and don’t go without cash.
For more Jacksonville dives, search “hole in the wall” on MetroJacksonille.com or submit your own to Arash@MetroJacksonville.com.