Just a few years after coming to the United States from the Philipines as a 17-year-old in 1995, Jojo Hernandez was at a crossroads.
Hernandez came to the country with dreams of being a pilot, but he soon started working as a dishwasher at Naval Station Mayport. He later got a job at Burger King.
During those first few years, he fell in love with the kitchen.
But like many other Filipino-Americans in the greater Jacksonville community, he felt a pull toward the medical field. Hernandez’s father was a nurse and encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps.
So Hernandez went to school to become a medical assistant and after he was done started an internship at St. Vincent’s hospital.
But that was short-lived.
“I got there for one day, they trained me and all that stuff. And then after that, like, you know, they were like tomorrow you’re on your own. I was like, no, I’m not,” Hernandez said.
He never showed up for his second day of work.
“They called my house all the time. I didn’t answer the phone. So then cooking really is my thing. Like it is my passion,” he said.
The decision sent Hernandez on a difficult yet rewarding 20-plus year journey through kitchens at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club and Florida Yacht Club in Ortega where he honed his craft and was introduced to fine dining and cooking techniques from around the world.
Hernandez eventually opened Abstrakt Filipino Essence in Jacksonville Beach last year.
Now, it’s the only restaurant in Northeast Florida to make Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in 2024.
The unexpected honor helped put Hernandez and Jacksonville’s growing Filipino food scene in the spotlight.
Journey To The Top 100
Hernandez’s small restaurant in a shopping center between Angie’s Subs and Taco Lu, two Jacksonville staples, was packed on Saturday night.
Hernandez, as he always is, was hard at work with his crew in the open kitchen that looks out over the dining room.
Hernandez said he’s been busier than ever since the Yelp 100 list was released in January. People who were there enjoying the food Saturday could be heard talking about how the list brought them in to try popular dishes like the Chicken Tocino Bowl and the Pork Belly Sisig.
But when Hernandez first got an email from a Yelp representative in November congratulating him on making the list, he and his wife Desiree ignored it, thinking the company that allows customers to give restaurants ratings and reviews was just asking for money.
But after some Googling, they both realized what a big deal it was.
“I got so excited when I found out like, you know, this is cool,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t know that it’s just me here in Northeast Florida. So I was expecting like, you know, there’s probably more in here because there are a lot of nice restaurants in Jacksonville.”
“I grew up eating this food so I want to introduce it to the community. It’s really a blessing.”
Yelp has been compiling its Top 100 list for 11 years.
Restaurants are nominated and then Yelp’s data science team starts by using the data generated from community submissions. From the candidate restaurants, Yelp said it then narrows the list down with the expertise of community managers and a trend expert to “curate a list as quirky, interesting and unique as the Yelp Community itself.”
And Abstrakt Filipino Essence is packed with 5-star reviews on Yelp.
“I kid you not, I just had the Bentley of adobo dishes,” wrote one Yelper. “Classic Filipino flavors, yet refined… oh, and the different textures!! The pork belly adobo was so delicious that my friends had food envy. We enjoyed everything we ordered. Chef Jojo takes the essence of Filipino dishes we grew up with and transforms them—packing them full of flavor and then plating each dish with care. His passion really shines through.”
Hernandez said he cooks using an 80-20 philosophy: 80% derived from his Filipino heritage and a 20% twist.
“I got so much respect for my grandma, we call it ‘Lola’ in Filipino, I got so much respect with them, like, especially my mom. I want to impress her when she comes in here. I want to show them…that thing works like that,” he said.
The goal is to make food good enough for his grandma, but also to bring it to the broader community that might not be familiar with the cuisine of the archipelagic country in Southeast Asia.
The idea that had been in his head for years finally came to life in 2020 when Hernandez left his position as an Executive Sous Chef at the Florida Yacht Club and opened a food truck full-time.
Hernandez said opening the truck at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic ended up being good for his business because a lot of restaurants shut down and people turned to food trucks. He worked almost every day and saved as much as he could for the next big goal, opening his own brick-and-mortar.
So, after selling his food truck, Hernandez opened his restaurant in late February 2023.
Hernandez said he couldn’t have done it without the support of that community, his family and his hardworking staff.
Growing Filipino Food Scene
The restaurant is part of a growing number of Filipino food spots in Jacksonville.
“I see a lot of food trucks and restaurants opening here in Jacksonville and it makes me happy. It makes me feel like it’s not just me…I don’t look at it as competition. The more for the community, the better.”
“We are more than lumpia.”
That idea, that Filipino cuisine is more than lumpia — a savory deep-fried pastry filled with pork and vegetables — is also the theme behind Jax Filipino Chefs, a group co-founded by Hernandez that aims to highlight the Filipino chefs working around Jacksonville.
“It’s our turn to put our food on the map,” Hernandez said.
Now, not only is Filipino food on the map, but it’s on the Yelp Top 100 list.
Florida restaurants named to Yelp’s Top 100 U.S. Restaurants for 2024
5. Fratellino, Coral Gables
12. Mio’s Grill & Cafe, St. Petersburg
34. Amy’s French Bakery & Bistro, Pompano Beach
44. EDOBOY, Orlando
56. Bunbury, Miami
70. How Ya Dough’n, Boca Raton
71. Abstrakt Filipino Essence, Jacksonville Beach
73. Bulegreen Cafe Yard, Oakland Park
75. Bayshore Mediterranean Grill, Tampa
80. Shaker & Peel, Oldsmar
84. The Tiny Turtle, Cocoa Beach
86. Twice Removed, Fort Lauderdale
97. KUBO Asian Fusion & Bar, Fort Lauderdale