While Miami gets the lion's share of food-centric kudos, we think it's time to share the culinary TLC with Florida's historic coast, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, and Jacksonville. All within a Frisbee toss of each other, this tasty trifecta offers a spate of delicious, Latin-inflected bites for the traveler who chooses his travel destinations based on his belly's desire. Here are some of our favorites. (Oh, and bonus points to the region for offering great eats at a fraction of the price paid in the neighboring south!)
Corner Taco, Jacksonville
In the city's funky Five Points neighbourhood, you'll find the slow food, snail of approval-stamped Corner Taco. The former food truck turned bricks-and-mortar location draws healthy crowds for chef Chris Dickerson's "classically trained, street refined" take on tacos and Latin inspired snacks. Grab some of the seared Florida grouper tacos topped with shredded cabbage, cilantro, and lime on fresh corn tortillas for a bite of local flavor. The house made chorizo taco is also a winner, with its spicy, smoky meatiness. Don't skip the yucca fries (or the guacamole) and if you're up for it, the frosty goodness of a dulce de leche milkshake. Si señor!
Sweet Pete's, Jacksonville
Gourmet, handmade candy and chocolate is the name of the game at this Jacksonville version of a wildly colorful Willy Wonka-style candy shop. From Southern specialties like the summertime favorite, Grandma Bomb's Southern Pecan Divinity (a nougat and meringue like confection dating back to the 1930s), to the delicious duo of rum and organic, toasted coconut haystack chocolates, Sweet Pete's has every sweet tooth covered. P.S.: They offer fun, hands-on candy making classes if you're a DIY'er.
Maple Street Biscuits, Jacksonville
Nothing says southern goodness like a freshly baked biscuit. For a decadent example, nab an order of The Garden Bird with the enduring southern and Caribbean favorite: fried chicken draped over a flaky biscuit, topped with a fried egg and accompanied by collard greens and a good dash of hot sauce. Wash it all down with a hot cup of Red Leaf Roaster's Dark Bark, single origin café from Colombia, with its earthy and smoky notes. Still hungry? Don't miss the sweet cinnamon bun-like biscuit to book end your meal.
The Hyppo, St. Augustine
Stephen DiMare was going to open another coffee shop in the country's most historic town, but a chance meeting with a woman on an airplane steered him onto another path. She suggested he sell ice pops in his coffee shop, of the Mexican, paleta variety, and the rest is ice pop history. Made with local, tropical fruit, hormone free dairy (in some flavors), evaporated cane sugar, and fresh herbs, the results are refreshingly delicious. The mango habanero, made with fresh mango and habanero peppers, is a sweet hot treat. You might prefer the tropical freshness of pineapple and fresh cilantro, or the comforting flavor of house-made horchata ice pops made with rice and cinnamon sticks, condensed milk, and a dash of espresso to get you moving through the historic city center.
Columbia Restaurant, St. Augustine
The Gonzmart family, originally from Cuba, started with a humble eatery in Tampa's Ybor City 110 years ago. Five generations later, they're still serving up Spanish and Cuban comida to the hungry crowds that descend at their St. Augustine location in the city's historic district. For a tasty, tableside "show," order the tossed salad throwback, the "1905 salad," with crisp iceberg lettuce, julienned baked ham, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, olives, grated Romano cheese and the eatery's famous garlic dressing. There are picadillo empanadas, crab cakes, and gambas al ajillo, if you feel like tapas. But when in Florida, it's all about the locally caught, fresh seafood, so we ordered the grilled fillet of Mahi Mahi crusted with ground, crisp plantain chips, and crowned with citrus butter sauce and fresh lump blue crabmeat. The house sangria goes down muy bien.
Palm Valley Fish Camp, Ponte Vedra
Not all fish camps are created equal. Trust us. This one, however, is definitely worth seeking out. Located on Marker 32 on the Intracoastal by Ponte Vedra Beach, the Groshell family welcomes locals and out-of-towners with fresh seafood in a friendly, casual eatery with a great view of the water. Start with a fresh fish ceviche featuring the catch of the day or Abaco conch fritters with lemon aioli. There's fresh Baja style cod fish tacos topped with salsa fresca and adobe sour cream on the menu, alongside a southern fish camp shrimp with the gooiest, cheesiest grits south of Mason Dixie line.
Seahorse Grille, Ponte Vedra
The Seahorse Grille at chic Ponte Vedra Inn & Club (a golfer's paradise!), overlooking the beautiful beaches of Ponte Vedra, recently launched a new menu, with a new chef at the helm. Play a round, stay the night, and dress up for a night out. Can't-be-beat options include the juicy, local Mayport shrimp prepared with local, St. Augustine Distillery Rum over an orange and carrot puree, hit with red Fresno jalapeños for heat. Or try the Caribbean snapper with chard and potatoes, and wrap the night up with a coconut trés leches slice served with a strawberry pineapple "salsa" and a rum-perfumed mascarpone mousse.