After six years living 3,000 miles away from my hometown, I craved the delicate crust of Cuban toast inlaid with palm fronds, soaked and salty with melted butter. Deviled crabs daintily crisped with tender blue crab meat, spiced and smothered in hot pepper sauce. Creamy boiled peanuts bathed in brine.
I like to tell people that I’m from the Tropical South. Tampa offers a special cuisine all its own born of Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrant influences on Appalachian granny meals, Native American traditions, and African-American soul food.
Grits, fried pork chops, sweet tea, black beans and yellow rice.
Ybor City is the epicenter of this cultural mingling. In the 1800’s, these cobblestone streets connected a Cuban community dotted with cigar factories and cafes. The world-famous Cuban Sandwiches and spicy Deviled Crabs came into being here, feeding the hungry labor force of the day. This is still what you want to eat.
For a quintessential Ybor experience, don’t forget to check out Florida’s oldest eatery – the gorgeously tiled, 110 year old Columbia Restaurant in the heart of the city. Flamenco dancing, sangria, and an entire city block of dining rooms. You also won’t want to miss out on the cigar cafes like King Corona, where you can sip a strong sweetened cup of Cuban coffee while chewing on a locally rolled cigar…indoors.
If you want to head off the beaten path for some old school traditional Tampa eats, try The Cuban Sandwich Shop in my little pocket of Tampa called Forest Hills. It’s very close to both Ybor and the up-and-coming foodie scene happening in the Seminole Heights neighborhood. More on that later…
Ask any Tampanian with a love for Vietnamese cuisine (or with nostalgic vegetarian leanings) where to eat and Trang will be the answer. Besides the charming decor that was obviously inspired by an old folks home cafeteria from the 80’s, my favorite thing about this place is the herb garden out back. A very rare treat in Florida, the family grows beautifully lush mint, basil, green onions, lettuces, and more behind their strip mall restaurant. Also, the food is dope. They offer a Traditional Vietnamese Menu and a Vegetarian Menu with various vegetarian proteins. Awesome. I always order the Vegan Curry Stew, Autumn Rolls, and the Happy Pancake.
Another place that has a hold on my heart is Tomo Sushi. When I was a kid, my best lady friend Summer forced me to go out for sushi. Like, eww. Imagining slimy raw tongues of fish slumped over chewy balls of rice, it took some convincing to get me through the door. As we found a seat, koto music strummed across the room and ladies in kimonos brought us tea. Summer ordered age-dashi tofu and a spider roll. She told me I would love it and I did. Life = Changed. While the restaurant is quite different all these years later, the food was still fresh and well executed when I visited.
Back to the Seminole Heights foodie revolution… go to Mauricio Faedo’s Bakery for that amazing Cuban bread pictured at the top of the post. Seriously. You can watch Cuban grandpas artfully form mountains of loaves by hand, gently decorating each with a moist palm frond. There’s also the Front Porch, Ella’s Folk Art Cafe, and the Independent – but y’all need to eat at The Refinery. It was maybe the best meal I’ve ever had in Tampa.
Mirroring the local farm-to-table movement we’re privileged to enjoy all over the Pacific Northwest, this spot obviously puts love and care into every plate. I guess that’s why the James Beard Foundation took notice and nominated them for awards in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Check it out…
Burger: garlic potato salad, house bacon, smoked eggplant puree, pickled kohlrabi, Yukon Gold fries.
Roasted chicken with turnip-rapini cheddar casserole, brown butter-sage veloute, herb salad, pickled watermelon radish, lemon vinaigrette.
Lamb shoulder chop with black eyed peas, collards, fennel confit, ginger-sherry glaze, grainy mustard-tarragon butter.
If you have time for a day trip or longer, go to the Gulf of Mexico – it’s only 30 minutes away!
We took a trip out to Clearwater, where I spent so many hot days of my youth swimming out to the shell covered sandbars, wading through flocks of stingrays, and chasing sandpipers. This oceanside city offered me a peek at adult independence and eating at the beach shacks made me feel grown.
Wild dolphins raced our car as we flew down that familiar highway. I suddenly dreamed of the thick and creamy, salty-sweet She-Crab soup at Frenchy’s. These days, I would only really recommend the Original or Saltwater Cafe, since the Rockaway location has become a bit of a tourist circus – but, if your goal is to enjoy the citrus blood beauty of a Florida sunset with a drink in hand (and food is an afterthought), Rockaway is just dandy.
Now, if you want to know which restaurant back home has haunted my every memory with inextinguishable desire and longing, this is it…
I discovered this South Indian restaurant during college when I was a strict vegetarian. It was extraordinary. I’ve taken all of my friends and family there, and eaten at many other Indian places from New York City to San Francisco and nothing compares. Call me crazy…until you try it for yourself.
There is no decor. No fancy service. No meat. No neighborhood ambiance.
Sounds awful, right?
It is glorious.
We started with one of their Indo-Chinese specialties: Gobi Manchurian Dry – cauliflower marinated and sautéed with fresh ginger, garlic, chilies, and green onions. Drool.
Next, of course, was a giant, fluffy, crisp, and steaming hot balloon of batura bread ready to sop up some curry. It was about the size of a beach ball.
And then my favorite chana masala in this whole crazy world, served with fresh cilantro and a lemon wedge.
Finally, I had to have one of their perfectly sour fermented dosa crepes stuffed with curried potato, onion, and lentils. It was about 3 feet in length.
I wonder if they overnight to Oregon?
Places to eat and drink in Florida
Specifically in Tampa, Clearwater, St Pete, and Orlando – but be aware that some of this might be pure nostalgia, others the only decent option around, and the rest are solidly great. Let me know where to go next time!
Food & Drink
Bern’s and SideBern’s
Woodland’s South Indian Restaurant
Mauricio Faedo’s Bakery
The Cuban Sandwich Shop
New World Brewery
Cask and Ale
Sacred Grounds Coffee House
Kaleisia Tea Lounge
Dandelion Communitea Cafe
Fusion Cigar Lounge