The ubiquitous cogitators of all things culinary over at Eat Drink Jax take an indepth look at The Secret Garden Cafe! Join us after the jump for details and seriously Southern food!
Tell us about Secret Garden Cafe.
We're a small, family owned cafe with sandwiches, soups, and Southern food. We serve both breakfast and lunch.
What makes Secret Garden special?
People are telling us all the time that we're really unique, that we're not like any other restaurant. One of the reasons for this is that our sandwiches are a little bit different. For example we do an Italian grilled cheese with tomato, basil, roasted red peppers, and mozzarella cheese on our gourmet grain bread - so it's not your regular grilled cheese. We do shrimp and grits but not in the typical Southern style - we use a tomato broth and we fry our grit cakes to give them our own twist.
Who's the audience for Secret Garden?
We have a pretty good variety of everybody. We also do big parties. We have three different semi-private rooms that can be reserved - one that seats up to 8, another up to 17 and another up to 24. And the whole restaurant is open to anyone after hours. We do a lot of bridal lunches, birthdays, and baby showers. The Red Hatters meet here; people hold business meetings … everybody comes. We have a lot of monthly groups that come and visit.
Who makes up your menu?
The previous owners designed the menu long ago and we've kept to that so far. We've added specials, which I make up. So, once a week we have a new burger special, a sandwich special, and usually a breakfast special and a sandwich special. The burger special is the most fun to do.
Can you tell us about some of the burger specials?
We did a mashed potato burger, which I dreamed up. It's an open-faced burger on Texas toast. It's our sirloin burger and comes with onions, cheddar cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy. I asked my husband if he thought people would like mashed potatoes on a burger. He said, "I like mashed potatoes on anything." So we tried it. People couldn't believe it. It was really fun - and popular. I didn't think it would be, but it was really successful.
We'll also do other burger specials like a black and bleu burger, and a fried green tomato burger. Next week we're doing a special burger with roasted red pepper mayo on it. Typically we run a special for one week, or maybe two.
Will you be adding more of your own twists to the menu?
We're working on some new menu items now. We'll be adding more appetizers - things like crab dip with toasted naan bread and in-house mozzarella sticks. We're going to add crab cakes as an appetizer too. We've started doing kettle chips in house so we'll be doing those with a blue cheese dip. We're keeping all the salads the same. We're adding to the burgers. We only have one now, but we'll have three plus a make-your-own-burger. We're also adding chicken and biscuits to the menu, and new sandwiches. The sandwiches we're adding are ones that have been popular as specials and those we want to make more permanent on the menu.
Hamburger with Fried Green Tomatoes
Hot Mess Breakfast
Shrimp and Grits
Is it true that you prepare most of the food in-house?
Yes, just about everything. We may do a few things semi-home made, mixing in something prepared with our own items to make a recipe. But we still do everything made-to-order. It's one of the reasons it takes us a little longer to get orders out.
We go the extra step to do things. For example, our waffle mix isn't something we buy from a vendor in a package. It's something we have to make 24 hours in advance because it's a yeast based waffle mix. All our dressings are made in-house. Sweet potato chips - we peel them, cut them, and fry them here.
Can you make some recommendations for a first time visitor to help them understand what Secret Garden is all about?
One of my favorites is the crab stack. It's a seasoned grit cake with a crab cake on top. It also has shrimp, Andouille sausage and a mixed pepper sauté with a tomato broth on top. It's really good. It's one of my favorites. Our crab cakes are done here. We serve a lot of crab cakes.
One of my favorite salads is the Secret Garden Salad, which is a mixture of our field greens - 16 different kinds all mixed together. And it's got broccoli, red pepper, cheese, cucumber and tomato with a chicken breast on top. We make these sugared pecans that we put on top. And it comes with an in-house honey Dijon dressing.
One of my favorite sandwiches is the turkey apple cheddar, which is a grilled sandwich on gourmet wheat bread with turkey, apple, honey Dijon, and lettuce. It's grilled and it's yummy. People have been asking for it with goat cheese, so we're adding that to our new menu. The goat cheese and apple go really well together.
Can you recommend something a little different?
Our Monte Cristo is different. It's deep fried Italian bread, topped with black forest ham, melted provolone cheese, strawberry jam and powdered sugar. It's really good but people tend to love it or hate it…it can be too sweet for some people.
For our fried bologna sandwich we cut the bologna in-house, so it's a thicker cut that we fry and then add provolone cheese, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise. It's an old school favorite that a lot of people like and some people may not have tried before.
Fried Green Tomatoes
What's your most popular item?
Our fried green tomatoes, for sure.
… why is that?
A lot of people know of them because of the South and they just like them. We make all ours fresh to order, which isn't always done. We also have two really popular dipping sauces that go with them. We have a roasted red pepper mayo and an onion marmalade that we make in-house. It just all goes together really well.
Who does the cooking?
My husband and I both cook. We also have four other cooks who rotate through.
Where did you learn to cook?
I've cooked all my life. My mom was a Home Ec teacher so I've cooked for as long as I can remember.
Can you tell us a little more about your background?
I was in health care for years. My husband recently retired after almost 28 years of military service with the Navy. After he retired we took a year off and went to Costa Rica. We came back to the States and decided we wanted to work for ourselves. We wanted our own business. My husband has had businesses in the past. We looked at several ideas while we were in Costa Rica. We thought about owning a restaurant.
…what attracted you to Secret Garden?
When we were in Costa Rica we were thinking about a restaurant and playing around with our ideas for a menu. When we looked at Secret Garden Cafe it was weird. It had so many ideas I was already thinking of for a restaurant already on their menu. It just worked out that way … and here we are.
…when did you take over Secret Garden?
We bought the restaurant in January (2012). We've had it for nearly a year. At first we were ducks out of the water. We're finally swimming. There's a lot we've been learning. We love it.
…had you ever owned a food business before?
…have there been any surprises since you've taken over?
It's definitely different. Things are up and down, changing all the time. But I'm working for myself and not someone else and I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake
Were you involved when Restaurant Impossible did the make-over of The Secret Garden?
No. It was two years ago and was previous to us buying the business. We've heard all about it though. We've seen the show and heard what happened. It's a show and a lot of stuff is done for TV. The previous owners did it for publicity.
Do you still see the impact of that?
Oh yeah. We still have people come in because of it. They repeat the shows and it still helps business.
What do you think of the changes made during the show?
It wasn't your typical Restaurant Impossible show. The show usually changes the menu. They didn't really do that. People liked the menu. I do like what they did with the decor.
No, just come and eat!
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About the writer
EatDrinkJax.com interviews are conducted by Jacksonville Beach resident Gerry Glynn. When Gerry isn't talking with restauranteurs he is working for a local software company, training for his next road race, and hanging out with his wife and dog.