By Jeffrey Spear
When describing the culinary culture in Jacksonville, a typical response would include smokehouse barbeque, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, pimiento cheese, fried green tomatoes, hush puppies, and other such mainstays of southern cuisine. The reality is that, in a region with over 1.5 million residents, more than 40 percent coming from non-European backgrounds, the culinary culture in Northeast Florida also includes dishes with strange and mysterious names such as pad see ew, shumai, queue de boeuf, doro wot, bulgogi, Spam musubi, baba ghanouj, chicharron con arepa, zwiebel schnitzel, mutton keema biryani, kimchi jeyuk bokkeum, and papa a la Huancaina.
According to recent surveys, the largest ancestry groups in Jacksonville include German, English, and Italian. The city is also home to the tenth-largest Middle Eastern population in America which includes individuals from Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine and has the largest concentration of Filipinos in all of Florida. There are also significant immigrant populations from North African countries including Ethiopia and Nigeria as well as Caribbean points of origin including Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica. Additionally, we have locals hailing from Russia and Eastern European countries including Albania, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary and others with southeast Asian origins including China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia, and India.
With so many ethnic populations taking up residency across Jacksonville’s 875 square miles, it’s easy to understand why there are so many exotic restaurants in our communities.
Of course, ethnic restaurants vary significantly in size, quality, and overall appeal. From food trucks and hole-in-the-wall operations that require little in the way of infrastructure or operating capital to considerably larger, fully designed, and aesthetically engaging venues that have relied upon serious investment to get their doors open, there are culinary experiences that will provoke the gamut of emotions—from intimidating and unimpressive to delightful and delectable.
While undeniably ethnic in origin, Italian, Mexican, and Japanese (sushi) cuisine have become long-standing culinary mainstays in American diets. In order to introduce foods that have not yet gained recognition or footholds in Jacksonville’s culinary consciousness, these familiar cuisines have been purposefully omitted.
The cuisines featured are those typically patronized by the ethnic diaspora living and working in the region. They also require a sense of adventure and a willingness to take risks. If you crave excitement and are willing to overlook aesthetically challenged environments in pursuit of exciting ingredients, flavors, and preparations, you’ll enjoy the places we’ve uncovered.
Starting at the smaller end of the food service spectrum, check out Jacksonville’s food trucks. There are exceptionally talented chefs who embrace the food truck culture as a way of developing their craft. Aside from standards including burgers, BBQ, and pizza, many food truck chefs are producing authentic culinary delights from Argentina (Mama’s Food), Venezuela (El Chamo Criollo), Germany (Wurstbusters), Hawaii (Big Island Bowls), and Peru (Rinconcito de Lima).
When it comes to brick-and-mortar operations, the variety is even greater. This being said, it helps to check out online reviews and prepare for the worst. Some of these places, in spite of abundant praise online, can be a little off-putting. Between run-down strip mall locations, dim lighting, questionable hygiene, unappealing aesthetics, and poorly maintained facilities, they do not have the same level of polish and sparkle of larger, better-staffed, and better-equipped enterprises.
The good news is that there are plenty of operators who understand what it means to run an appealing and sustainable ethnic restaurant and there are wonderful treasures to discover.
At the smaller-size end of the spectrum, Apna (Indian & Pakistani), Marianas Grinds (Pacific Islander), Hala’s Mideast Eatery and Market (Middle Eastern) and Beignets Caribbean Cafe (Haitian) all represent opportunities for new and interesting culinary experiences.