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A visit to Doro in Neptune Beach was Alphabet Challenge taker Rachel Monaco's 'D' pick | Rachel Monaco

‘X’ marks the spot where the Alphabet Challenge can go awry for Jacksonville diners

Published on February 19, 2024 at 11:30 am

A self-imposed test that gained traction across the country in 2023, the Alphabet Challenge entails dining at 26 local restaurants in alphabetical order. In greater Jacksonville, that can mean noshing one’s way from Alma Fusion, Aroma Corner, or Abstrakt Filipino Essence all the way through Zen & Ginger, Zbest Tunis, or Zaxby’s—at least for those players who don’t restrict their adventuring to independent restaurants.

Which is to say: There are no set rules for the Alphabet Challenge, except that players can’t skip a letter. And in the Jacksonville area, the only full-service restaurant that would have appeared in the ‘X’ section of a telephone directory is Xtreme Wings, a sports bar with four locations.

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“It looks like letter X is not going to be easy,” said Rachel Monaco, a 42-year-old business analyst originally from St. Clair Shores, a Detroit suburb. Monaco has lived in Jacksonville for a decade, but it took the Alphabet Challenge to get her into Athenian Owl, a Greek restaurant just down the street from her house.

“Gosh, we enjoyed letter ‘A’,” said Monaco, whose partner in the challenge is a friend she describes as “a huge foodie.”

Like many challenge participants, Monaco first encountered the grassroots game on Facebook. The Scoop with Jax Restaurant Reviews, a public group with more than 100,000 members, is the primary clearinghouse for challenge information. Most cities with sizable dining scenes have a similar online hub. Administrators of The Scoop have developed directories, but the group is also where diners trade intel about the most delicious ‘D’ stop and encourage other challenge-takers not to fret because they’re getting close to ‘Q.’ (Q-Cup Boba Tea is a popular pick.)

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Monaco tries to post in the group about every Alphabet Challenge visit. Nowadays, without professional critics on newsroom payrolls making obligatory visits to restaurants that don’t have PR budgets or social media buzz, challenge takers have emerged as an essential source of information about small and often overlooked places.

Rachel Monaco’s ‘I’ pick for the Alphabet Challenge was Istanbul Grill and Bakery on the Southside | Rachel Monaco

“The first thing is we really try to find somewhere we haven’t been to; the kind of food doesn’t really matter,” Monaco says of their latest Alphabet Challenge meal. Because the pair put their project on summer hiatus in 2023, they’ve just worked their way up to ‘J,’ a letter which took them to JaxSpice. As Monaco wrote in her online review, “The food was fantastic, but service was not great.”

Next up is Kyuramen, according to a list that Monaco has saved to her phone. At this rate, she hopes to reach ‘X’ around the holidays.

I was curious whether Xtreme Wings saw a crush of customers toward the end of the year, with Challengers intent on finishing the alphabet. But the restaurant’s owners didn’t return multiple email or phone messages, and a manager who answered one of my calls to the Kernan location said she wasn’t allowed to speak to the press.

It’s possible that the Xtreme team isn’t aware of the challenge, even though the only other ‘X’ restaurant in Jacksonville is the X Lounge nightclub. The consensus on The Scoop is that Bistro AIX fulfills the spirit of the assignment (at least for those diners with decent French accents.)

As for Monaco, she has her eye on Sushi X. 

author image Contributor Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South. Raskin previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

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