« Tampa - Day I | Main | Tampa - Day III »

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


Yep, the dude from Wolfmother sings just a touch out of my reach too. Technically speaking I can hit the notes, but I wouldn't do it outside the comfort of my car. Half step down and I'm ready to rock.

Um, tasty food too.

I'm jealous...whenever we've visited that area, we've relied on my husband's grandmother's cooking, which is beyond excellent, but she's never given me smoked mullet that looks that good. Other than it not being fishy, what else would you say about the flavor? I'm about ready to start licking my monitor over here...

Oh, it's a little fishy, Kathryn, it's just that I was warned by multiple sources that it's a very strong-flavored fish, and was prepared for something much more aggressive. Perhaps it was a matter of expectations. It's not a mild fish by any means, but it's hardly anything I think anybody would find offensive. What was beautiful about the flavor was its purity... my little twist of lemon, fish and SMOKE. I've had my share of smoked items, but few as smoky as this. But the fish stood up to it. Next time you visit, you have to go.

The comments to this entry are closed.