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July 31, 2007

Broadway Market

Dominic Armato
One thing Baltimore does NOT lack is markets.

I love old-timey permanent markets. Decrepit buildings, specialized vendors, a little hustle and bustle... love 'em. Which is why I've always found it so frustrating that Chicago doesn't have one. Where's our Tsukiji? Where's our West Side Market? While Baltimore's have the same classic market feel as Cleveland's massive edifice, the charm city has substituted multitude for magnitude. Baltimore maintains six public markets, three of which I've had occasion to visit, and one of which is a scant five blocks from our new home. Broadway Market is smack dab in the heart of Fell's Point, stretching away from the water right down the middle of Broadway. It's been around, in one form or another, for over 200 years. I can't imagine a more ideal location for a place to drop in and get a few fresh ingredients for a simple dinner or some prepared foods, pick up some deli meats, grab some fresh bread, have a bite to eat and walk home. Which is why it was so disappointing to find that Broadway Market has so little to offer. This isn't to say that Broadway Market doesn't have its highlights, it's just that... well... first the highlights.

Dominic Armato
Seafood has, unsurprisingly, been pretty good in this town. Sal's Seafood is at the far north end of the northern building (the market spans two blocks, split by Aliceanna), and while it isn't mind-blowing, they have a pretty nice selection of fresh fish, mostly whole. On the day I visited, there were also a few sides and filets, scallops, a few types of shrimp, bivalves and, though it's obviously not the focus, a small bushel of live blue crabs to pick through. They will, of course, clean anything to order. Though I didn't partake and can't speak to it, there's also a small raw bar down on one end of the counter, offering a small selection of the basics, freshly prepared by the fellows in between flinging fish. My socks were firmly on my feet, but for a neighborhood fishmonger you could do a whole heckuva lot worse.

Dominic Armato
Moving down towards the south end of the north building is a stall that makes me wish I knew something -- anything -- about Polish food. I know, I know, I grew up in the town where Casimir Pulaski Day is a government holiday. Let's just call it an embarrassing shortcoming and move on. In any case, the cooler at Sophia's Place has to have at least twenty different varieties of sausages, which can't be a bad thing. There's also some more typical deli fare as well as a case of Polish baked goods, but what's really impressive is the wall lining the back of the stall. It's jam-packed with all manner of products from Eastern Europe -- mixes, drinks, candies, canned goods, prepared foods -- you name it. If somebody who's more familiar with the foods of the region could confirm my suspicion that this place is a little Eastern European goldmine, I'd love to hear.

Dominic Armato
Moving into the south hall is Dangerous Dave's, a place that somehow combines panini and gelati with spices and hot sauces. In the store, not in your mouth, but it's still an odd mix. The gelati, however, were quite good. More importantly, in the south hall I had the first good tuna melt I've had in a very, very long time. You wouldn't think it should be so hard, but I've been trying them everywhere since leaving Los Angeles and Bob's '49 behind back in 2001 and this is the first one that wasn't a technical mess. Sadly, the name of the place escapes me. Patty's Diner? Peggy's Diner? In any case, it's the southernmost booth on the east side of the building. The fries came out almost white and a little raw tasting (though I thought vinegar and Old Bay as condiments was a nice angle), but the tuna melt was perfect... warm salad, not too moist, melted cheese, crispy griddled bread... this isn't rocket science, but man, everybody screws it up. Wet tuna, cold tuna, cold cheese, English muffin... keep it simple, please.

Dominic Armato
Seems like a good start, I know, but that's pretty much it. The diner where I got the tuna melt? One of four that all look exactly the same. The only other food stalls are a pizza place, the looks of which don't inspire confidence, and a small Mexican restaurant that failed to grab me, mostly because it's one of forty or so within a three block radius. A large banner out front heralded the arrival of One Eyed Mike, who seems to have some kind of name recognition in this town, and his prepared food booth seemed okay, just thin. A few premium deli meats, a few prepared dishes, some cheeses, marinated olives and vegetables... nothing eye-popping and a very limited selection. Really, limited selection was an issue across the board. The entire market houses one produce stand with a very small and mundane selection. And butchers? Zip. Bakeries? Nothing. So there are twice as many diners as there are butchers, fishmongers, bakeries and produce vendors combined, and the empty stalls outnumber the diners. Broadway Market's official site doesn't indicate that I'm missing anything, but web searches turn up reports of a butcher, a cheesemonger and some other stalls that are now absent, so I have to wonder if this is a recent decline. Whether it is or not, it's a damn shame. It's a great little pair of buildings in a perfect location. Just seems like a waste.

Broadway Market
1640-1641 Aliceanna St.
Baltimore, MD 21231
Mon - Sat7:00 AM - 6:00 PM

July 29, 2007

Attman's Delicatessen

Dominic Armato
The view from the back of the line... after the lunch rush.

I believe I've found the first place in Baltimore that I'll dearly miss when we skip town in two years. Though a kick-ass food town in almost every other manner, Chicago has always been a big disappointment in the deli department. But we're East Coasters now, at least temporarily, and while I doubt Baltimore will be challenging New York for deli supremacy anytime soon, it's already running circles around my hometown.

Attman's Delicatessen has been around for nearly a century, now on its third generation of ownership, and when you stick around that long it generally means you're doing something right. Not that bodies per square meter should be mistaken for an indication of quality, but the place is a zoo. I've spread three visits across days, evenings and weekends, and have never had fewer than seven people in front of me in line. In typical Baltimore fashion, it's a painfully narrow space, with the refrigerator case and a phalanx of deli slicers separating the patrons, who can barely stand two abreast, from the dozen or so employees, who shouldn't be able to stand two abreast but somehow manage to scuttle past one another, usually bearing large hunks of meat overhead.

Dominic Armato
Attman's serves up all manner of deli standards, though the corned beef and pastrami are clearly the crown jewels, piled high in a warming box behind the deli slicers. Every sandwich is freshly sliced and assembled to order, as it should be, and one even has the option of requesting the meat "extra lean", though why anybody would want to so violate such a beautiful piece of meat is beyond my comprehension. Cured beef aside, the cooler is filled with salads, spreads and some cured fish, and barrels lining the counter contain a large variety of pickled vegetables. Though they prominently feature their kosher hot dogs (topped with bologna?), my preferences in that arena are perhaps a little too ingrained to give them a fair shake. As such, sensing a strength, I've mostly been sticking to the sandwiches. Attman's seems to work primarily on a carry-out basis, but they do provide seating in the adjoining "Kibbutz Room" if you'd prefer to stay put. The Kibbutz Room is longer on character than it is on comfort, but if you can shoehorn yourself into a seat it'll give you a place to rest your elbows while you chow down.

Dominic Armato
I started with the basics, corned beef and pastrami, and was thoroughly pleased by both offerings. Attman's slices their corned beef rather thin, then piles it up. Though they offer the "New York style" gutbusters that contain half a cow, the standard is a modestly sized (and priced) sandwich that could even be considered slightly small by today's oversized standards. The meat is delicious, warm, tender, moist and fatty enough to be flavorful without being obscene. While I've had my fair share of (mostly underwhelming) corned beef, I'm grossly undereducated when it comes to pastrami. If Attman's is any indication, I need to do some further exploration in this regard. The pastrami is sliced a little thicker, and possessed of a peppery, garlicky crust surrounding an unctuous, silken core. This is fairly potent stuff.

Dominic Armato
The menu also contains the obligatory litany of specialty sandwiches, covering almost every combination and permutation of available ingredients. While Attman's has mercifully opted NOT to name them after celebrities, there are still a few colorful titles up on the board -- the Cloak and Dagger, the Lox O' Luck and the Tongue Fu, among others. Ingredient-wise, however, it was the Gay Liveration that tickled my fancy, so I gave that one a try. It's a double-decker, with corned beef, lettuce, Bermuda onion and a thick layer of Attman's chopped liver. The chopped liver, incidentally, would be a great intro for the otherwise organ-averse. It's smooth, creamy and fairly sweet, but while it has a rather clean flavor, it isn't trying to masquerade as anything other than liver. Great sandwich. On my last visit, having toured some other offerings, I finally humored my reuben obsession. I adore reubens. And while I was a little disappointed to discover that the bread was more like toast (I think my tastes tend more towards a very crispy, griddled diner-style), I can hardly fault a counter deli for serving it in such a manner, and it's a beautiful sandwich, even if it doesn't quite nail every one of my unreasonably specific preferences.

I also carried out some bagels and a lox cheese which was, much to my pleasure, actual lox blended with actual cream cheese. I know I shouldn't be so easily impressed, but I've had enough godawful fakey versions of the same that I've learned to put my defenses up the moment I place the order. The only thing that's disappointed thus far was my ladylove's matzo ball soup, which only reinforces that the sandwiches are really where it's at. But I can't say this bothers me. Kibbutz Room or no Kibbutz Room, Attman's isn't really a restaurant and I don't expect much from soups when it comes to carry-out establishments. It is, however, a place out of time -- one that, I suspect, looks and tastes pretty much the same as it did for the previous two generations.

Attman's Delicatessen
1019 E. Lombard St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
Mon - Sat8:00 AM - 6:30 PM
Sun8:00 AM - 5:00 PM

July 26, 2007

All About The Thighs

Apparently you get recipes this week... who knew? More restaurants next week (I've been getting around, but I want to make a few return visits), but in the interim here's another improvisation that turned out pretty well. I'm on record as rarely getting excited about chicken, but I love chicken thighs. They're criminally underrated. Legs are more about the Flintstones factor than the quality of the meat. Wings are awesome with an insane skin-to-meat ratio, but that awesomeness is widely acknowledged. Breasts are the prom queen of the chicken carcass -- not without their charm, but kinda shallow and grossly overrated. But the thighs -- tender, moist and full of flavor -- quietly sit at the edge of the spotlight, humbly content with the knowledge that they're where it's at.

Dominic Armato

6 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
salt & pepper
all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. canola oil
4 garlic cloves
½ C. freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp. sugar
½ tsp. sambal (Asian chile sauce)

Crispy Chicken Thighs with Three Citrus Sauce
Serves 2-3

While prepping, preheat your oven to 500º. Dry the chicken thighs as much as possible with paper towels, so they'll get nice and crispy when you sear them. Season them liberally on both sides with kosher salt and pepper, then dredge them in the flour, shaking off any excess.

Add the canola oil to a large cast iron (or other heavy oven safe) skillet, throw in the peeled garlic cloves and heat the oil over medium high. Cook the garlic cloves, turning as appropriate, until they're a nice golden brown on all sides. Remove the garlic cloves from the skillet and save them. Add the chicken thighs to the skillet, skin down, and cook until the skin is golden and crispy, about 3-4 minutes. Flip the thighs and cook on the meaty side for another 3-4 minutes, then shove the entire skillet in the oven until the thighs are finished cooking. It'll probably take another 3-4, but you should probably either use a thermometer or cut into one to check. This is chicken we're talking about, after all. Once the chicken is cooked through, transfer the thighs to a plate, put the plate in a warming drawer if you have one (I don't... *sigh*) and put the skillet, oil and chicken grease and all, back on the stove over medium heat.

Add the citrus juices, fish sauce, soy sauce, thyme, sugar and sambal to the skillet drippings, stir everything together, and continue cooking until it's reduced down and thickened to a nice saucy consistency. While this is happening, return the cooked garlic cloves to the skillet and kind of smoosh them into the sauce. You could chop them up, I suppose, but somehow that feels a little too refined for a cast iron dish. I support smooshing. Once the sauce has reached the consistency you want, get it off the heat immediately... it can caramelize and burn very quickly if you leave it on the heat.

Top the thighs with the sauce and serve them alongside your starch and vegetable of choice. I personally sautéed up some asparagus (left over from last night) and threw some rice in the rice cooker, along with a bit of the zest from my citrus. I can heartily endorse these particular companions for your chicken, but go with whatever looks fresh and tickles your fancy.

July 25, 2007


Dominic Armato
It isn't often that I come across an ingredient that's completely foreign to me, so when my ladylove gave me a bottle of colatura a ways back, I was more than a little surprised. Colatura is a Sicilian concoction. It's a clear, light brown liquid that is, in its most basic form, produced by draining the liquid from barrels of salted anchovies. Yup... apparently fish sauce isn't limited to Thailand and Vietnam. I shouldn't be surprised, given the Italians' love for anchovies, but I AM thrilled to be working with a genuine crossover ingredient. This pasta's been percolating for a while, I just got around to trying it out tonight, and it turned out fabulously.

A couple of ingredient notes. First, anybody who reads this blog will know that I'm firmly of the opinion that fresh pasta isn't necessarily better. But for this pasta, fresh is better. And this dish really puts the noodles in focus, so if you aren't making your own, be sure you're getting some good stuff. A lousy fresh pasta will ruin this dish. Also, colatura is a little tricky to come by. In a rare move, I'll endorse a substitute. This would be just as tasty (if ever so slightly different) with an Asian fish sauce.

Dominic Armato

1 Lb. fresh linguine
7 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. colatura
1 lemon
2 Tbsp. minced chives
1 Tbsp. butter
1 small shallot
1 bunch thin asparagus
½ Lb. small raw shrimp

Linguine with Shrimp, Asparagus and Colatura Brown Butter
Serves 4-5 as a primo, 3-4 as an entree

Since the cooking time is fairly quick, you first want to do all of your ingredient prep while you're bringing your pasta water to a boil. Chop the asparagus into 1" pieces, or if your asparagus is thicker, slice it thinly on a sharp diagonal. Chop until you have about two cups, then save the rest for... something else. Peel the shrimp and remove the tails, then slice them in half lengthwise. I'm not somebody who freaks out if the vein (read: GI tract) isn't removed, but as long as you're slicing them in half, you might as well. Gently pat the shrimp dry with paper towels, and refrigerate them until you're ready to use them. Mince the shallot and chives, and juice your lemon. Time to cook.

When your water is pretty close to boiling, go ahead and start on the brown butter. Put 7 Tbsp. of butter in a small, cold saucepan over medium heat. While the butter is browning, fill a very large bowl with cool water and set it next to the stove. The butter will foam, and then start to brown. As it's cooking, scrape any foam that sticks to the sides of the pan down with a rubber spatula. Continue cooking the butter until it reaches a deep golden brown color, but don't let it go black. Think of when you're toasting a piece of bread and it achieves a beautiful deep brown color about 10-15 seconds before it starts burning. That's roughly the color you're shooting for. The moment you've achieved that color, pull the saucepan off the heat and dip the bottom of the pan into the bowl of water to stop the butter from cooking any further. Mix in the colatura, chives and 2 tsp. of your freshly squeezed lemon juice, then keep the sauce warm over the lowest possible heat. A low burner might even be too much. Best to just sit it next to your pasta pot.

Once your water is boiling, cook the asparagus and shrimp. Melt the last 1 Tbsp. of butter in a large pan (big enough to hold all of the pasta, too) over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the minced shallot. When the shallot starts to soften, add the asparagus and cook for a minute or two until it brightens and loses its raw flavor. Toss in the shrimp, and start your pasta cooking. If you're using fresh pasta (and you should be for this particular recipe), they'll be done at about the same time. As soon as the shrimp have lost their raw color, remove the shrimp and asparagus from the heat.

Drain your pasta, add it to the asparagus and shrimp, pour in the brown butter sauce and toss everything together over very low heat. Plate the pasta and grate a little bit of lemon zest and maybe some freshly ground black pepper over the top. Just don't add cheese. Or do what you want... just don't tell me.

July 22, 2007

Tortilleria Sinaloa

Dominic Armato
I daresay this place is starting to feel like a home. Not home home, per se, but a comfy place where we know people and places and have begun to develop some routines.

One routine to which I've returned is dragging the little fellow around the city for lunches. Online information about Baltimore restaurants is scarce (from sources I trust, anyway... I will NOT be using Zagat to guide my Baltimore dining), which leads me to one of two conclusions. Either Baltimore's dining scene is somewhat subpar, or people aren't digging. I have to believe the latter, so it looks like the next two years are going to involve a lot of random crapshoot meals.

Of course, we're in a great neighborhood for writing about random crapshoot meals. I'm not, however, talking about Little Italy. While we are, indeed, surrounded on all sides by Baltimore's paesani, I'm declaring a total moratorium on our immediate 'hood. Let's just say that the folks who run the local food establishments are all my neighbors and writing anything about their food -- negative OR positive -- kinda seems like a recipe for disaster. Little Italy borders, however, on an impressive little pocket of small Mexican joints, which should take me at least a couple of months to survey. One that caught my eye right away was Tortilleria Sinaloa. I've been spoiled by Chicago's ample supply of wonderful, fresh tortillas and was thrilled to discover that a large local source is right around the corner. So I popped in for a couple of lunches last week.

Dominic Armato
It's a tiny little joint, with a massive tortilla machine in plain view just over the front counter. I haven't visited in the morning while this beast was running, but I can't imagine it's quiet. When the tortillas for the day have been produced, however, Sinaloa is a cute little place to drop in for lunch or an early dinner. There's enough seating for eight along the front window and one wall, provided those eight don't mind getting a little cozy. It's a counter service establishment, but the cheery folks who run the place will urge you to have a seat so they can bring out your meal along with a couple of salsas and lime wedges. The salsas are very no-nonsense, a red and green, both very potent, almost porridge-like in consistency and much less tart than I'm accustomed to. It's a minimal markerboard menu, featuring five or six taco selections that vary by the day, as well as a few soups and other random dishes. A small cooler by the register holds the typical taqueria libations -- Senorial, Jarritos, Mexican Coke.

Dominic Armato
Over my two visits, I sampled three of the available tacos, the res, pollo and carnitas. The tortillas were, as one might expect, really wonderful -- fresh, moist, light and still warm from that morning. The meats were all nicely, if minimally, seasoned and topped with the typical onion and cilantro. They came accompanied by a small cup of guacamole, but I preferred to leave them as-is.

Though I dug the tortillas, I was a little less enthused by the tacos, but don't take that to mean that I thought ill of them. The fillings were tender and moist and delicious all, but missing something. From what I can tell glancing over the counter, the precooked fillings are chopped and added to the warm tortillas without any further prep. I don't mean to suggest that holding taco fillings isn't perfectly kosher, but Sinaloa doesn't appear to do anything to refresh them. Perhaps I'm becoming a little too accustomed to late-night greasy taquerias, but I'd enjoy the tacos a lot more if both tortillas and fillings were kissed by the griddle before serving. That, and the carnitas seemed almost lean, at least as much as carnitas can, compared to some of the others I've sampled. I don't see this as a positive thing, but that's probably a matter of personal preference.

Dominic Armato
I didn't sample the soups (though I've heard their pozole is quite good) and the tamales that I've read they sometimes sell were nowhere to be found. Ceviche, however, was on the menu as a special. It's a seafood town and I love ceviche, so this seemed like a good direction to go. Sadly, the ceviche left an awful lot to be desired. I identified octopus and shrimp, though there were other seafoody bits of indeterminate origin, along with the requisite onion, tomato and cilantro. But it was mostly just watery and underseasoned. I found myself throwing in whatever I had on hand, which included some of the red salsa, a healthy squeeze of lime, the guacamole I left off the tacos and a dash of salt. Much improved, but still underwhelming. The ceviche did, however, give me a chance to sample Sinaloa's chips, which are really wonderful. They're thick and strong, but still very light, crisp and layered, almost like a fine pastry. Excellent, excellent chips. And even better, you don't have to order the ceviche to get them, as they're sold by the bag.

Dominic Armato
I can only assume that Sinaloa supplies some of the other local taquerias, so hopefully I won't have to venture far to find a place that marries these beauties with some more exciting fillings. When you get down to it, while it's a cute little place with some decent tacos, Sinaloa is all about the namesake tortillas. Wrapped in paper, warm and steaming, they're a beautiful thing. You can't buy less than the huge stack pictured here, but at $1.70 per kilo, you could wipe your counters with the leftovers and they'd still probably be cheaper than paper towels.

Tortilleria Sinaloa
1716 Eastern Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21231

July 19, 2007

Tampa - Day III

Dominic Armato
You don't top a day like day two. But that said, day three was a nice, laid back finish. After two days of Cuban and seafood, a little change of pace was in order. So I went for the simplest, most comforting option on the hit list.

I cruised down Dale Mabry in search of another LTH recommendation, Wright's Gourmet House. The intelligence indicated sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches. And it was clear upon stepping in the door that these weren't going to be all manner of oily grilled faux panini with "Tuscan" flatbread and ancho garlic mayonnaise. First clue? The austere oil painting of Marjorie and Pete Wright hanging over the register. Second clue? A refrigerator case filled with, among other things, three kinds of potato salad and an abundance of pie. The chalkboard menu was filled with plenty of creative concoctions, but they were creative in a grandma's secret sandwich recipe kind of way. I picked out a couple of specialties, and ordered a half of each.

Dominic Armato
First up was the Wrights' famous Beef Martini... more appetizing than it appears due to some camera wonkiness. It was the kind of combination that's easy to dismiss as old hat, except that it's really, really good. There was roast beef the way it should be, not overcooked, tender and juicy. A few strips of bacon and mushrooms that had been sautéed in butter, wine and herbs and served warm rounded out the fillings. And the bread? Nothing fancy here. Plain old white sandwich bread spread with butter that had been touched up with a bit of garlic and herbs. I can't remember the last time I had butter on a sandwich, and it's high time it came back. Though she was more of a braunschweiger and pickles kind of gal, the style reminded me of Grammy Jo's supper table in Jeff City, Missouri. No pretentiousness, just simple goodness. Delicious sandwich.

Dominic Armato
Even more delicious, however, was another Wright specialty. The Golden Gate was another white bread concoction, a triple decker layered with very lightly seasoned sliced roast pork, more bacon, Jarlsberg swiss, buttery planks of German dill pickle, lettuce, a mustard sauce and the secret weapon, a fantastic house-made peach chutney. The Golden Gate is a satisfying combination across the board, but the chutney is what makes it. And what makes the chutney is that it has body. This isn't peach flavored sugar syrup. It's a pile of sweet, tart, spicy chunks of peach. I don't mean to oversell Wright's. I mean, these are sandwiches, and fairly simple ones at that. But they're good, satisfying, and just creative enough to be interesting without being annoying. This would be a regular stop for me if it weren't in Tampa.

Dominic Armato
For dinner we wanted to get one more fresh seafood fix, but couldn't stray far owing to an evening flight. The answer was Crab Shack. Not A crab shack, mind you... just Crab Shack. Just off the bay, across the bridge from TPA, Crab Shack is so close to the edge of a six-lane highway that when you park out front... well... let's just say you're better off not trying to retrieve anything from the trunk. Plus, backing into 60 MPH traffic on the egress is a hoot. I'm not going to suggest that Crab Shack is worth getting smeared across the pavement, but it IS a cute little place that serves up some fresh, no-frills seafood. When it comes to decor, "shack" is the operative word here. Claustrophobics may be a little on edge, but it has the kind of dusty, quirky, flair-festooned quality to which endless national chains aspire, except here it's the genuine article. Or at least it feels that way. Are they trying? Sure. But it doesn't feel contrived. We took a seat at a long table flanked by benches, and ordered up some sea critters.

Dominic Armato
My starter was a little disappointing. I'm a sucker for clams, so half a dozen steamed with butter was pretty much irresistible. But I think they spent a little too long in the sauna. Anything doused in butter tastes pretty good, but they were mostly just tough and chewy. Thankfully, things looked up from there.

My ladylove, still basking in the glow of the previous evening's fried grouper sandwich, opted for an encore. All of the elements were there -- fried fish, light bun, fresh vegetables and tartar sauce -- the only differences being that Crab Shack's went breaded instead of battered, and this particular take didn't quite have the magic of the previous night's catch. But still, a good sandwich, crispy, fresh and delicious.

Dominic Armato
I decided to start prepping for Baltimore by going with Crab Shack's crab sampler, a simple trio of blue, snow and golden or stone crab (depending on the season) and more butter. I am, admittedly, a crab novice. Aside from softshells, the occasional chilled cocktail-style and a small quarter here and there in China, I hadn't cracked into a whole crab since seventh grade. Naturally, I made a complete fool of myself. It's an art, not a science, and I have yet to develop the feel. But I still managed to get through the larger legs and three whole blues in just under an hour, which left us with juuuuuust enough time to catch the plane. The blues, coated with garlic butter, were delicious. It's no wonder these fellows are coveted, and the intensity of the meat is the only thing that makes the effort worth it. Of the other two, both quarters with large legs, I wasn't certain which was which, but one was delicious while the other was borderline tasteless. I should've taken notes. But everything was fresh and it's a fun joint. I'd happily return.

All in all, one fantastic food trip. I understand the American Board of Pathology has recently instituted a maintenance of certification program that involves additional testing every ten years. Clearly, they're looking out for me. Ted Peters will still be there in 2017, right?

Wright's Gourmet House
1200 S. Dale Mabry
Tampa, FL 33629
Mon - Fri7:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Sat8:00 AM - 4:00 PM
Crab Shack
11400 Gandy Blvd.
St. Petersburg, FL 33702
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun1:00 PM - 10:00 PM

July 17, 2007

Tampa - Day II

Dominic Armato
My itinerary for day two was perhaps a little overly ambitious. This post might as well have been titled "Don't Feed Me Until Next Thursday". But it yielded one of the tastiest days I've had in the past few years. If I ever return to Tampa, the contents of this post will have me drooling with anticipation.

It was warm, it was beautiful, it was sunny and I was flying solo (read: without the little guy) for the first time in months. As such, my first stop was at Best Buy for some very loud music. My second stop was JeffB's Pan-Latin ground zero of sorts, a series of strip malls on Columbus just east of Dale Mabry. As is usually the case with strip malls, they weren't much to look at from the street. But inside, these joints were hopping.

Dominic Armato
I first popped into Borinquen Meat Market, pictured above, one of many small Cuban groceries dotting the landscape. It wasn't the most bountiful ethnic market I've visited, but it was definitely one of the busiest. A small corner of the joint is devoted to a hot table with a handful of lunchtime selections. Though it was a little early for lunch, there was a mob of folks looking for cafe con leche, of which I partook while wandering from store to store.

My cup emptied, my curiosity for Cuban markets sated and my stomach ready for something more substantive, I fell upon La Teresita. It's a charming little dive with pink walls, three U-shaped jetties posing as counters and all manner of colorful folk. The stern fellow manning the counter had an ex-military look about him, a solid body gone slightly paunchy with age. Throw in the shaved head, and this guy was a surfboard and a wide-brimmed hat away from passing for Lt. Colonel Kilgore. The stools at 11:30 were completely filled with a dizzying spectrum of leathery Floridians, native Spanish speakers of all types, retirees, power lunchers and sun visor clad tourists.

Dominic Armato
The menu is chock full of all manner of Cuban standards, most of which I'm completely unfamiliar with. I opted to start with the garbanzo soup, just one of a huge selection of eight or ten, mostly bean-based. It was thick, rich, and quite porky, with a nice chunk of fatty, melty belly sitting right on top.

I moved onto the Cuban, making my first mistake of the day... which wasn't that I ordered the Cuban, but that I ordered the large instead of the small. A lighter lunch would have paid dividends later that evening. Those in the know inform me that Cuban sandwiches in Tampa fall into two camps -- Miami-style pressed sandwiches, and Ybor-style composed sandwiches. Based on my two-stop sample (the second in a moment), it appears that Cubans of the compressed rather than the composed variety dominate this particular drag.

Dominic Armato
A good Cuban sandwich is one of those pure classics where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ham, pork, swiss cheese, mustard and pickles may not seem special, but throw them on some good bread and heat them up in a press and you have one great sandwich. La Teresita's Cuban was thin, crispy, meaty, melty and -- unexpectedly -- mayonnaisey. Mayonnaise and I are super mega BFFs, but in this case I think I would have preferred without. In any case, a minor complaint. This was a damn fine sandwich. As an interesting footnote, I learned that the bread used in Tampa differs significantly from that used in Miami. Though I haven't been, I understand that Miami Cubans are generally served atop bread that is very lardy and doughy. The Tampa variant, on the other hand, uses bread that's light and moist in the middle, but very crisp and crusty on the outside. If my second Cuban of the day was any indication (again, see below), I think the textural Tampa bread is more to my liking.

Dominic Armato
On my way back to the car, I fell into Florida Bakery to grab something to bring back for my ladylove on her lunch break. It gave me the opportunity to sample a second Cuban (a taste of hers, not another one... yow), and also to try a Tampa specialty that had been recommended to me. Florida Bakery's cases are stuffed with sweets and cakes of all kinds, as well as a wall of bread on the far left when you enter. It's a pretty lively place around lunchtime. One woman arriving for her shift and finding a small crowd waiting at the counter went straight to pulling coffee without bothering to remove her purse. It remained on her shoulder until the wave had passed. I carried out my items and whisked them back to the hotel.

Dominic Armato
I have to say, Florida Bakery's Cuban was the lone miss of the day. The bread was the doughier Miami style, which wasn't doing it for me. I don't know if it's a function of the bread itself or this particular roll, but I find the Tampa-style bread much more compelling. And beyond the difference in bread, it was practically swimming in mayo and also included lettuce and tomato. Though I didn't know it at the time, Florida bakery serves what is known as a Super, which has somehow grown out of the traditional Cuban. I'm told this isn't a matter of catering to the gringos. Apparently they're quite popular among Cuban expats. But even if this variant has been embraced by the community that created the original, I think it defeats the purpose. The mayo and fresh vegetables disrupt the harmony that make a Cuban such a great sandwich. Sticking to the original is, in my limited experience, addition by subtraction.

Dominic Armato
The second item I procured from Florida Bakery, however, was a completely new experience and an outstanding one, to boot. Devil Crabs are unique to Tampa, the magical marriage of the unwanted leftovers from two local food industries. It's a croquette of sorts, the shell made from stale Cuban bread, and the filling made from the last bits of dark crab meat salvaged from the local fisheries. Jeff put it perfectly, so I'll just quote him. "The devil crab cannot and should not be compared to a crab cake. This is not a simple dish that depends on top-notch produce, treated with a light hand. It is a complicated, labor-intensive dish that is based on leftovers spiced with a heavy hand." Going in, I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. The shell was doughy, but the exterior was a deep golden brown and quite crumbly/crispy -- a very nice texture. The filling was way more potent than I expected, chock full of onions, garlic and tomato in addition to the requisite crab, but mostly it was about the VINEGAR. Loads of it. I loved it. We completely destroyed the Devil Crabs and could have eaten two more. The Cuban went nearly untouched.

Dominic Armato
Fearing that I might not have the opportunity on day three, I scooted across the bay to St. Petersburg during my ladylove's afternoon session in search of smoked fish. On my way, I learned that seven-mile bridges are cool, that the high end of Wolfmother's lead singer's vocal range is a frustrating half step above mine, and that if my team played in the eyesore that is Tropicana Field, I'm not so sure I'd go to see them, either.

I loved Ted Peters right off the bat. Stepping out of the car, I walked smack into a wall of sweet smoke that dazed me such that I didn't notice I was having camera issues. Note to self: air conditioned cars and muggy Florida weather beget foggy lenses. Ted Peters is laid out in such a manner that its coziness belies its location right on top of a six-laner. I eschewed the air-conditioned dining room in favor of the great outdoors, where a counter is surrounded on three sides by an assortment of lacquered wooden tables and benches, all under cover. I grabbed a stool, perused the menu and asked the woman helping me about their "Fish Spread Sandwich". She disappeared into the kitchen and returned shortly thereafter with two small dishes, one with a taste of the fish spread and one with the German potato salad. The potato salad was simple and delicious, barely dressed with big planks of bacon. The fish spread was stupendous. Creamy, sweet and smoky all in one, it was made from the smoked mullet with mayonnaise and relish, like tuna salad's deeper, more complex, underappreciated cousin.

Dominic Armato
I briefly considered ditching Plan A in favor of the spread, but decided to stick to my guns and order the smoked mullet. I was warned that it was possessed of a very intense flavor, it would require careful bone removal, and if this put me off I might consider the mahi mahi or salmon. I was, of course, undeterred (though intrigued by the mackerel), and I assured her I was entirely comfortable with bold, pointy fish.

And how. Wooooo, this was some good stuff. My experience with smoked fish is fairly limited so I can't offer much in the way of comparison, but damn, this was wonderful. Already feeling full-ish with dinner around the corner, I opted for the lunch plate which omitted the sides and gave me a single whole (well, headless) mullet, cleaved down the middle and smoked to a deep golden brown. I thought the warning of fishiness was vastly overblown. I can't imagine what anybody would find offensive about this, but then I can't imagine what anybody would find offensive about a lot of foods, so take that for what it's worth. I gave it just a touch of lemon, but it probably didn't even need that. This fish was a beautiful, beautiful thing and from this day hence I think I can safely say that every visit to Tampa (and perhaps Orlando) will include a visit to Ted Peters.

Dominic Armato
Dinner was, mercifully, later in the evening and a bit of a trek, giving me some time to digest. We drove up to Tarpon Springs, a quaint coastal burg up the shore from St. Pete's and home to a thriving Greek community. Our target was Rusty Bellies, a relaxed little joint sitting on a small inlet of water. The big draw here was that the folks at Rusty Bellies do their own fishing. Heck, they built the boats! The boats go out in the morning and return with the restaurant's supply for the day. It doesn't get much fresher than that. The view and scent from the deck were airy and refreshing at sunset (a good thing, since our server left us languishing for nearly half an hour), and dinner was right on the money. I've had hush puppies before, but the ones that hit the table immediately after we sat down tried to convince me otherwise. A beautiful start.

Dominic Armato
Fresh seafood, simply prepared was clearly the theme for the day. We started with a half bucket of their peel-and-eat shrimp, and I could have stopped them right there, ordered two more full buckets and called it a night. They were steamed with just a touch of seasoning and served swimming in clarified butter. I spritzed them with a bit of fresh lime juice, waved them over a bottle of tabasco, and proceeded to get lost in them. My ladylove declared them the best shrimp she's ever tasted. I'm certainly not prepared to go that far, but they were eminently scarfable and I explained that it was probably the first time she was eating shrimp that hadn't been frozen at some point. When I first started traveling to Asia, I thought the breeds of shrimp available overseas were inherently tastier than what we get in the States. It took a few years for me to realize that it has nothing to do with breed and everything to do with freshness. There's a sweetness to fresh shrimp that's lost when they hit the ice, and I need a dish like this every now and again to remind me of how shrimp are supposed to taste.

Dominic Armato
Fried grouper is a local specialty, and my ladylove picked a total gimme by going with the fried grouper sandwich. Hot, moist, tender and flaky in the middle, delightfully crisp on the outside, with a great fresh tartar sauce and a light, spongy bun. No frills, just awesomeness.

I chose a self-proclaimed house specialty: one of their catches of the day, grilled or blackened, with mashed potatoes, your choice of side and sauce -- tomato caper, lemon dill or creamy citrus. Grouper, grilled, tomato caper, corn casserole. The grouper was solid, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the shrimp or my ladylove's sandwich. I found it a little tough, but not overly so, and I would've felt better about a fresher tomato sauce. It was cooked down to an intensity that I thought detracted from the fish a bit, but it was still quite good. The corn casserole? Ho, buddy. A big winner. Moist, mushy, sweet and utterly comforting.

Dominic Armato
Tarpon Springs is also home to a great number of Greek bakeries, so in an ideal world we would have spent the next hour sauntering along the sponge docks, noshing on honeyed pastries. But intense testing requires a rested mind, so we scooted back to Tampa to get my ladylove to bed.

Apparently this was mostly a matter of my own ignorance, but I was really surprised by just how excellent the food was in Tampa. With a third day still to go, it was already one of the best food trips I've had. Day two yielded four, maybe five dishes that I could see cracking my top ten for 2007. It's going to be a Florida bonanza come year's end.

And honestly, it isn't just the view talking.

Day III on Friday.

La Teresita Restaurant
3248 W. Columbus Dr.
Tampa, FL 33607
Mon - Thu8:00 AM - 12 Midnight
Fri - Sat24 Hours
Sun8:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill
937 Dodecanese Blvd.
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Sun - Thu11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave.
South Pasadena, FL 33707
Wed - Mon11:30 AM - 7:30 PM
Florida Bakery
3320 W. Columbus Dr.
Tampa, FL 33607

July 15, 2007

Tampa - Day I

Dominic Armato
At long last, I'm settled at home with an internet connection for the first time in nearly a month. Of course, home is now 706 miles from where it was the last time I was in a comfortable position to write, and new posts, they are a brewin'. But first, a recap of an outstanding little culinary trip I had in the interim.

Back towards the end of June, my ladylove's presence was required in Tampa for the boards and I went along for moral support. Of course, this left me with extended periods of time to myself, as she spent the daytime in a cubicle, hunched over a microscope. I'm not much of a beach guy, so rightly or wrongly I don't think of Tampa as a tourist city. Orlando's not too far away, but I once visited a Disney park by myself during a dark period of my stint in L.A, and that's not a road I care to traverse again. So clearly, the thing to do was eat my way across the city.

Dominic Armato
Perhaps I didn't give it enough respect going in, but I was thrilled to discover that Tampa is one helluva good eating town. I had three days to cram in as much as I could, and day two turned out to be one of my best eating days of the past few years. Of course, it helps when you have a great guide, and JeffB over at LTH Forum (a Tampa native, I believe) sent me in all the right directions, and a few others chipped in with some great recs as well.

I didn't get out of the gate quite as quickly as I would have liked on day one, but good food was a distant second priority for the trip and we opted to stay close to home and eat conservatively so as to keep my board-certified hopeful in tip top test taking form. A simple, comfortable, relaxing lunch was in order but a screwy hotel internet connection conspired to keep me from my online sources. The one place I could remember offhand that seemed appropriate was Tampa's famous Columbia Restaurant, so we moseyed over to Ybor to fill up.

Dominic Armato
Columbia Restaurant is a trip. It's the kind of elaborate, ornate, multi-roomed affair that would come off as totally pretentious and overdone if it didn't have 102 years of history behind it. The place was opened in 1905, and I think the waiters are still using the original vests and bowties. It's as though the Gonzmart clan, which owns and runs the restaurant to this day, is desperately clinging to the establishment's former glory. But somehow, rather than inspiring pity, it works. It's charming in a genuine throwback sort of way. We were led through enormous oak doors, past a huge bar and through a cavernous ballroom to the courtyard where we dined. Two stories of wrought iron tables and chairs surrounded a central glass atrium that housed green palms and a large stone fountain carved in the shape of a fish. Seated under the sunlight, next to the trickling water, I found myself unable to resist a mojito. It was, in fact, the best item we had -- freshly muddled, crisp, sweet, balanced and totally refreshing.

Dominic Armato
In keeping with the decorum of the establishment, one of the house specials, the 1905 salad, was prepared tableside. I'm not a fan of tableside preparation and I'm not sure what it is about the 1905 salad that merits such attention, but it somehow seemed appropriate. When you're over 100 years old, you deserve to be pampered. It was good, and executed as well as an iceberg lettuce salad with ham, swiss and romano cheeses, olives and a very garlicky vinaigrette can be. But I suppose that's another thing about being 100 years old. You know who you are.

I have no frame of reference for what palomilla should taste like, but my instincts tell me that Columbia's version isn't in the running for best of breed. Thinly sliced and grilled sirloin was paired with a mojo crudo (onions, lime, parsley) and served atop yellow rice and platanos. Overcooked and underseasoned, I thought, but the surroundings had me in a forgiving mood. I enjoyed myself. And in the end, I think that's the bottom line at The Columbia. Culinary nirvana it's not, but it's a unique and fun place that's worth a stop.

Later in the evening we wanted to stay close to the hotel to allow for optimal relaxing and studying, so I'll spare you the details of the national Italian chain across the street (no, no, not THAT one... sheesh). And with my ladylove resting her brain, I spent the evening planning a dense itinerary for the morrow. Tampa Day II, on Wednesday.

Columbia Restaurant
2117 E. 7th Ave.
Tampa, FL 33605
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun12 Noon - 9:00 PM