From authentic Cuban coffee to Peruvian fried yuca, the Jacksonville International Food Trail will take residents’ taste buds around the world—without ever having to leave town.
The International Food Trail is a list of local restaurants that have cultural connections from around the world.
“Some of these places become frequent travelers for me because they’re so amazing and the people are so kind and generous,” said Anthony Prinz, director of Jacksonville Transportation Services. “Their mission is to provide you with an enjoyable experience and help you learn about their culture through their food.”
Tourism Development Authority tourism marketing expert Susan Dosier came up with the idea for the food trail after discovering a slew of independent restaurants in Jacksonville.
“I got hit when I was in Jacksonville,” Dosier said. “I kept coming across these small restaurants, independents, no flashing neon lights, kind of businesses. Humble, not there in terms of marketing presence, restaurants that really had amazing food.”
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Dosier said she knew some of her co-workers in the hardcore kitchen would be interested in diving into some of these places, so she started creating a list. She enlisted Charlotte-based food and travel writer Heidi Billotto to be an objective second eye and help vet and select which restaurants to put on the official international trail of food.
“I knew I had strong feelings about some of the places I saw, but I needed an objective eye because I drank the Jacksonville Kool-Aid before,” Dosier said. “So, I said, let’s have a second opinion. She helped identify and find some of these places.”
Dosier said the food trail will have at least two phases as they identify more restaurants.
“Once we started peeling the onion, we realized we really had a lot of inventory here, and especially in a city this size,” Dosier said. “As we started talking to people, we realized that some people had moved here because the cost of admission and our rent was affordable for independent restaurants.
While Dosier and Billotto selected restaurants offering authentic, well-prepared international cuisine, Prinz ensured that each was in good standing with the city.
“These days we’re seeing post-COVID that one of the big trends in travel is people tracking food and drink,” Prinz said. “While before there were a lot of other reasons people traveled. When people were stuck at home, they became foodies in many cases. They take that passion out of their homes and project it into the world now to explore it more. and that’s really why I think our timing is what’s good and why we’re getting such a great response.”
Who’s on the trail?
Despite a slew of chain restaurants in Jacksonville, there are also plenty of independent international spots, many of which even longtime residents like Prinz were unaware of.
Agave Azul Modern Mex & Cantina, located at Sneads Ferry, serves up a modern twist on classic Mexican flavors, while Elsa’s Place on Court Street offers authentic Caribbean cuisine, like “melting” oxtail.
Filipino cuisine serves up everything from lumpia to grilled sausages, Colombian restaurant and bakery Liliana offer freshly baked arepas, Marrakech Mediterranean cuisine drives visitors crazy with their stuffed grape leaves and Mi Cabana offers traditional Mexican cuisine.
Also on the list are The Milk Road, with their Liège Belgium Waffles; The Old Siam, which serves authentic Thai cuisine; Olea Mediterranean Kitchen, with casual Mediterranean and Greek-inspired dishes; Ice Cream Shop Paleteria Deya, with homemade Mexican-style ice cream; Pho 7, offering pho and bubble teas; Havana 58 Cafe, serving Cuban coffee; and Pollos Tete, a South American restaurant with authentic Peruvian cuisine.
El Cerro Panaderia, Jacksonville’s only panaderia or bakery, closed Sunday but was also on the list.
Alejandra Medina from Paleteria Deya said the International Food Trail is a great opportunity.
“I really want to stress that everything is fresh, it’s homemade and we use natural fruits and vegetables,” Medina said. “We really want to emphasize that too, we also have the normal, like milkshakes and banana splits, so we have everything for everyone.”
Havana 58 Cafe owner Joaquin Molina Uscanga also enjoys the trail, saying it has brought him new customers. Havana 58 offers authentic Cuban coffee, which it considers the best coffee on the market.
“The International Food Trail is very important because my menu is different,” Uscanga said, adding that there was no cafe like his in Onslow. “Every day since I arrived, I have had new customers who have been surprised by my coffee, they have loved it and they keep coming back.”
Havana 58 offers everything from coffee to smoothies, Italian sodas, cakes and a Cuban hot dog sandwich that Dosier says is “good addiction.”
For more information on each restaurant on the International Food Trail, as well as what they offer and where you can find them, go to visitjacksonvillenc.com.
Dosier said she thinks Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune’s coastal location makes a big difference in the types and variety of people the area has attracted. She said the response to the food track so far has been great.
“Tourism is really about small business,” Dosier said. “We enjoy our channels, don’t get me wrong, it’s so important to our region, people like to have a lot of choice. But what sets you apart when a visitor decides to come is often your small businesses and things that are unique and different, like Lejeune Memorial Gardens, like Mike’s Farm, the fact that we’re 30 minutes from Swansboro.”
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Dosier said small towns are all the rage in the world of travel coverage right now, and the purpose of the food trail is to shine a light on some of these restaurants.
“They’re still recovering from the impact of COVID, so it’s important for us to support them and give them some noise,” Dosier said. “This group won’t necessarily have the marketing budget of McDonalds.”
Prinz said many of those business owners are also veterans, which gives the track a dual benefit: showcasing Jacksonville’s variety of cuisine and talent, as well as supporting local veteran-owned businesses.
He added that the city has yet to fully explore the food trail, so it’s unclear what that might mean in the future.
“By partnering with local businesses like these, we hope to promote them as a great opportunity for people to come visit and enjoy what we have to offer,” Prinz said. “But this is just the beginning so we don’t know what the future will look like and as we move forward with the things we want to do we will probably look to them to help us and join. our efforts to celebrate these things as well.
The International Food Trail truly has something for everyone, and Dosier and Prinz are encouraging people to post their adventures on social media with the hashtag, #InternationalFoodTrailJNC. Your post could be shared on their own feeds.
Those interested can also check out the Instagram of Raleigh-based influencer Taylor Hope Mclean, who has partnered with the Tourism Authority to promote the food trail.
Journalist Morgan Starling can be reached at [email protected]