The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
Most Recent Entries
- ‘USA Today Made A List Of Tampa Bay’s Best Food Spots [Great Places They Missed]
- Chef Greg Baker: ‘I Now Believe In Coconut Cream Pie’ [Eating At Jestine’s Kitchen In Charleston]
- Chef Greg Baker: ‘I Now Believe In Coconut Cream Pie’ [Eating At Jestine’s Kitchen In Charleston]
- And Now, A Look Back At Year 2014 [Back To The Food Future]
- Behold This Year’s Crazy Florida State Fair Food [Krispy Kreme Cheeseburger, Step Aside]
- The Best Things I Ate In 2013, Part 2 [And Some Of Your Favorite Flavors As Well ]
- The Best Things I Ate In 2013, Part 1 [Thanks For The Calories]
- A Little Sumthin’ Sumthin’ Extra For Santa [Up On The Rooftop, Snack, Snack, Snack]
- Epicurean Hotel, One Week From Opening, Tantalizes With Details [Goat Cheese On The Mini-Bar]
- A Word Or Two About Great Bar Food [And The Golden Snacky Award Goes To…]
- This Haiku Contest/Is All About The Fruitcake/Get To Writing, Stat! [Guess Who’s Judging?]
- Five Edible Christmas Gifts To Buy For Friends and Loved Ones [Black Friday Comes Just Once A Year]
- Giving Thanks For Alternatives To Thanksgiving [Turkey, Shmurkey.]
- Taking A Bite Of The Pillsbury Bake-Off [Fear And Baking In Las Vegas]
- Sea Urchin Crostini, Tiger Beef Salad And Faked Alaska [This Week’s Weekend Eats]
‘USA Today Made A List Of Tampa Bay’s Best Food Spots [Great Places They Missed]
Posted Mar 13, 2014 by Jeff Houck
Updated Mar 13, 2014 at 01:56 PM
Tampa Bay food fans are abuzz about a list posted to USA Today’s web site of the 10 Best Foodie Spots in Tampa/St. Petersburg.
I’m always a little queasy when it comes to lists. Especially when they use the word “best” as a qualifier. Greatness is in the taste buds of the beholder.
The top 10 in this case starts with Taco Bus at No. 10 and puts the star on the tree with Mise en Place at No. 1. In between, the list is populated by the must-visit stalwart Bern’s Steak House, its modern sister restaurant SideBern’s, the rising star The Refinery, the stylish neighborhood hang Pane Rustica, the spiffy Bella Brava and the cool, crazy uncle Z Grille in St. Petersburg.
The list’s biggest surprises: Rococo Steak in St. Petersburg and Maritana Grille on St. Pete Beach, each for different reasons. Tucked inside the Lowes Don CeSar Resort on St. Pete Beach, Maritana Grille rarely gets the love it deserves. Rococo Steak in St. Petersburg opened only a few months ago. It’s worth a visit for all the reasons USA Today cited, but is only starting to make a dent in the dining public consciousness.
What I like is that you could have added another 30 places to this list and still not made a dent in the best the area has to offer. (My friend Kat Kinsman of Eatocracy sagely asks, ” What is a ‘foodie spot’ as opposed to a ‘restaurant?’”) Also, a Tampa Bay food list with no Cuban spots is suspect to say the least. Including Taco Bus barely gave a nod to the Latin community.
Which ones did the writer overlook?
From a purely “foodie” standpoint (gritting my teeth at that word, yet again), I think you have to include Thai Temple (pictured above) for Sunday brunch. It’s a must-visit for anyone who thinks Tampa lacks a diverse, rich food culture.
Facebook friends of mine chimed in with additions as well:
Patrick Tracz - Cafe Ponte.
Jaime Rogers - Saturday morning market in St Pete
Deborah Barone Jonneaux - Vizcaya Restaurante & Tapas Bar most definitely
Mary B Jrvis - One Family Korean restaurant needs to be on the list.
So, yeah, lists. Not my favorite. But if it helps spur conversation about great food, I’m all in favor. Just hearing the word “foodie” and Tampa Bay has a nice ring to it. For once.
Chef Greg Baker: ‘I Now Believe In Coconut Cream Pie’ [Eating At Jestine’s Kitchen In Charleston]
Posted Mar 10, 2014 by Jeff Houck
Updated Mar 10, 2014 at 12:53 PM
There are many food and wine festivals across the country. In the past decade, they proliferated in all parts of the U.S. as the interest in food as entertainment grew. Once-small events now command millions in ticket revenue and sponsor dollars as more affluent patrons flock to enjoy gourmet dishes and drinks.
Few festivals offer a window into the rising stars of American food like the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, held each year on the second weekend in March. In the past five years, the quaint gathering on South Carolina’s shoreline city blossomed into a major destination for American chefs and gourmands, mirroring the growth of Charleston as a home for modern southern cuisine ingredients reinvented for a new generation.
For several years, Greg and Michelle Baker, rising stars and owners of The Refinery in Tampa, have attended CW+F, both as fans of the festival and, for Greg, as a contributing chef participating in events. They returned last weekend to Charleston to again participate and represent Tampa.
But a trip to “The Holy City” wouldn’t be complete without and eat-around beyond the festival’s borders.
Greg and Michelle will be writing a story about Charleston for the Tampa Tribune in an upcoming edition. In the meantime I invited Greg to write about the great eats he found while in Charleston. He emailed me this missive on his way into the belly of the southern beast.
Looks like we all need to make a road trip.
Charleston Wine + Food is essentially a giant golf course for chefs across the country. We all look forward to it. Some of us participate. Some of us just attend and mock our peers, as they do in kind when it’s our turn on the brightly lit stage or jammed into a tent overflowing with drunken attendees. Some of us do both. We all rub elbows with the press. We all eat an insane amount of food. We all drink twice as much as we eat and none of us sleep. It’s a grand, grand time but it takes some prepping.
Eat as soon as you land in the old city of Charleston.
I always ask my cabbie where he/she eats. Typically, they know where the best food is. I then ask the front desk of the hotel where they have eaten recently. The trick is “recently.” You don’t want them to tell you about tourist trap restaurants. When both the cabbie and the hotel personnel name the same spot right off the bat, go. Jestine’s Kitchen was that place.
Fridge doors, cartoon figurine salt and pepper shakers, and accolades from every major food publication cover ever surface. Jestine Matthews is the namesake and it’s an awesome story of how the ‘Kitchen’ came to be. Check out their website for the full story.
All of it was full of goodness.
But I wanna talk about pie.
It’s worth noting I have loathed coconut my whole life; my wife loves it. But dare I say it, I’m now a convert. The coconut cream pie served at Jestine’s has the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever eaten. The coconut filling is a true custard mix with toasted shredded coconut. The soft meringue on top was a work of art that only a few decades could master. Yes, the sausage gumbo, butter beans, cornbread with honey butter, fried chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes were amazing but that pie has inspired me to rethink my enmity with coconut.
Now that I’m wheel barrow full, I’m heading to the first leg of the golf course. The Opening Night Party, followed by another Opening Night Party followed by the After Opening Night Party. Wish me and my liver luck.
And Now, A Look Back At Year 2014 [Back To The Food Future]
Posted Jan 13, 2014 by Jeff Houck
Updated Jan 13, 2014 at 05:55 PM
How about that year 2014, huh? What a great year for food and drink in Tampa.
Not that 2013 was bad, mind you. But 2014 was the year Tampa and St. Petersburg truly went ballistic for food.
Remember with me, won’t you?
There was that two-day mobile gorgefest in March known as the World’s Largest Food Truck Rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Food truck impresario Jeremy Gomez pulled together about 100 trucks in 2013, then came back in 2014 with more than 200 trucks. Hungry fans came by the tens of thousands to eat big from trucks all over the southeast.
Then there was the continuation of the Great Beer Rush of 2013, when breweries sprouted like weeds across the area. In 2014, Angry Chair Brewing opened its tasting room on Florida Avenue in Seminole Heights. Coppertail Brewing Co., did the same in Ybor City with a building they put up on East Second Avenue.
Cigar City celebrated its fifth annual Hunahpu’s Day on March 8, putting a cap on another successful Tampa Bay Beer Week and cementing the brewery’s reputation for holding Florida’s premier must-stand-in-line-for-beer event for craft suds lovers. This was the first year Cigar City sold a limited number of tickets (3,500) at $50 a pop. Each ticket holder enjoyed unlimited tastings and a Hunahpu’s Day sampling glass.
Cigar City continued in 2014 to be the fastest-growing craft brewery in the state. They met demand for their line of beers by using Brew Hub in Lakeland, a 50,000-square-foot contract brewing facility that opened in late spring. Orange Blossom Pilsner of Orlando and California-based BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse also used Brew Hub to expand their own beer lines. With the first year’s capacity booked, Brew Hub CEO Timothy Schoen began plans for more hubs throughout the U.S. and an expansion of the Lakeland facility.
We can look back and remember that 2014 was the year Richard and Casey Gonzmart brought Ulele Native-Inspired Food & Spirits to life in Tampa Heights. The $4 million project to turn the historic Tampa Water Works into a restaurant and bar that celebrates the native food of the region was part of a multi-faceted plan to expand the adjacent Water Works city park and finish the Tampa Riverwalk. Brewmaster Tim Shackton’s house-made beers and chef Eric Lackey’s menu inspired by heritage Florida ingredients were well-received.
It also was the year that the boutique hotel mini-boom brought more dining and drinking options (because what is a luxury stay without the benefit of being able to eat and sip like royalty?).
The Federal Courthouse boutique hotel in downtown Tampa, the former Mercantile Bank building along the Hillsborough River and the Hotel Zamora on St. Pete Beach all re-opened as luxury lodging with gourmet restaurant offerings. Ted Dorsey, former executive chef at Boca Kitchen Bar & Market and at Copperfish Seafood & Oyster Bar in Tampa, took over Zamora’s food program, including the Castile restaurant with crew members from his previous stops.
After the grand opening on New Year’s Eve, Rooster & The Till became the must-visit restaurant for area cooks and restaurant staff. Chef Ferrell Alvarez’s seared pork belly with peppercorn honey, corn bread and pickled apple became a huge hit on the menu of the 36-seat restaurant in Seminole Heights.
Speaking of the Heights, Greg and Michelle Baker followed their award-winning restaurant The Refinery with Fodder & Shine on Florida Avenue, which draws inspiration from heritage foodways of Florida pioneers. Eric McHugh, who turned the Sunday brunch into a must-visit meal, then took over the kitchen at The Refinery.
How crazy is the food scene getting? Fresh Market on Lithia-Pinecrest in Valrico opened in late spring, ahead of the start of construction for the Super Walmart on Bloomingdale Avenue.
Fresh Market in Valrico. South Valrico. How improbable is that? Almost as improbable as a retrospective written a year in advance.
How about that year 2014, huh? What a great year for food and drink in Tampa.
Behold This Year’s Crazy Florida State Fair Food [Krispy Kreme Cheeseburger, Step Aside]
Posted Jan 6, 2014 by Jeff Houck
Updated Jan 6, 2014 at 03:27 PM
Just heard from Cheryl Reas at Carousel Foods. She and her husband Dennisspend winters thinking up new, delicious, gut-busting, fantastical food to unleash on our nation’s state fairs and festivals.
After digging out from snow in Indiana, they kick off their year at the Florida State Fair in our beloved city of Tampa. This is where the Krispy Kreme cheeseburger was birthed. This is where the Ice Cream Burger had its coming out party. This is where the French Toast Burger first set foot in the collective gullet of America.
So what will it be this year?
I’ll let Cheryl explain.
Hold on to your hats.
“Wanted to let you know our new burgers for the 2014 fair. Boy does time fly. Seems as if I was just doing this. Hope your year has been good. Ours has been very good business wise.
“Here goes with the burgers. We are having three new ones:”
“#1 The Ramen Noodle Burger: Our fresh burger on a Ramen Noodle bun topped with Asian Slaw and a special Oriental Sauce. The Asian Slaw is a vinegar base slaw with a hint of Sesame oil and Soy sauce. The Oriental Sauce has soy, hoisin, mayonnaise, ketchup, and a little sugar in it. The sauce makes this burger.”
“#2 The 3B’s Burger: Our fresh burger, bacon, and beef brisket all on garlic toast topped with provolone cheese and your favorite veggie toppings. We will have a special horseradish sauce, A-1, or Barbecue sauce to finish it off.
“#3 The Healthier Burger: We have had some people ask for a turkey burger or soy burger so we have bowed to there request. We do not want to deal with raw turkey burger so we have opted to use the soy burger option. This burger will be a soy burger topped with Provolone cheese (optional) a fried Parmesan crusted eggplant all on a 100% whole-wheat thin bagel and your favorite vegetable toppings. They can have any sauce they like on the burger. We did not have an overwhelming request for the healthier version but decided to accommodate those who are watching those calories. We will see how it goes. Still trying to find the most flavorful soy burger. Not exactly an easy task. Working on it!!!”
“Will see you in Tampa the good Lord willing and the weather does not freeze us in place. Florida is looking better then ever this week. It is zero here right now and still dropping. “
* * * *
For those who might be turning up their nose at the idea of a ramen burger and saying that it looks like a sandwich with a Jheri Curl, (Sing along with me: “Just let your SOULLLLLL GLOOOOOOO!”), I’d like to kindly point out that it was, along with the Cronut, one of the hot food items of 2013.
As the New York Post reported:
A Japanese-American mash-up, the fad food of the millisecond features a hamburger patty sandwiched between two discs of compressed ramen noodles in lieu of a traditional bun. To date, it’s only been available on three occasions — the past few Saturdays at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg food market — and each time, it’s sold out in just a few hours.
“It’s definitely crazy!” says Keizo Shimamoto, 35, the creator of the Ramen Burger and a former computer programmer who quit his day job in 2009 to devote himself to ramen and blog about it at GoRamen.com. “I didn’t expect it to be this popular.”
You have a few weeks to prepare your innards for these delicacies. Govern yourselves accordingly.
The Best Things I Ate In 2013, Part 2 [And Some Of Your Favorite Flavors As Well ]
Posted Jan 1, 2014 by Jeff Houck
Updated Jan 2, 2014 at 08:43 AM
When we left off yesterday, I was listing the best grub I threw down my gullet during the past year. Part 1, as it were.
Which got me to thinking: “What is the best food YOU, dearest Stew reader, ate last year?”
So I asked my friends on Twitter and Facebook. Because I’m inventive and stuff.
@ChefStops - The best thing I ate all year - Uni under dashi gelee and caviar at Caviar Russe.
@halehawk - Better Bush tomatoes from my backyard garden.
@MobilityMaker - sharing a bottle of @josephphelps 2009 Insignia on Christmas Eve w/my husband.
@OhMyPotluck - The Spätzle from @RougeCal and the entire chef’s menu was a highlight.
Cricket Larson - Milky Way Martini at Kellys-Chic a Boom Room-Blur courtesy of Kathryn Dickinson Carlson don’t judge, Jeff. Food… Skipper’s Smokehouse blackened crawfish mac & cheese of course.
Patrick Tracz - Grouper caught at noon. on my grill by 2pm
Connie Hunt - Right now, I’d have to say either the pecan pie at Uncle Bubba’s in Savannah or the roasted brussels sprouts at Ruth’s Chris
Krista Kirby Singleton - Hawaii Five-Oh! Bao Bun from “I Wanna Wok” Food Truck.
Fritz Eichelberger - Many to choose from, fortunately! But I could eat a table of these oysters gratinee [pictured above] (made with blue crab, lemon, esplette chile) at Sideberns’s Krug dinner (I posted pics of the dinner in a FB album). As for drink, had some barrel aged bourbons, 100 year old brandy & amazing cocktails but the Clyneleash single malt, distilled in 1965 & bottles 20 years later…wow!!! & thanks to john Glaser of Compass Box for this
Susan Jacobs Leonidas - For me it would have to be the amazing food we had while in Costa Rica back in August. We cannot wait to go back!
Michele Northrup - Charbroiled Oysters in New Orleans
Vickie Chachere - Jabadahut Roll at Takara Sushi & Sake Lounge
Wayne Garcia - The Double Vieux Carre at Anise Global Gastrobar was my best encounter of the year, just perfectly executed
Michael Paul Lukacina - Lobster roll and grilled oysters @ Copperfish
Andrea Billups - Two perfect meals: One at Bianca in the Delano Hotel in South Beach—Moet Rose’ to start, heirloom salad, perfect salmon, cheesecake from NYC’s Carnegie deli to end. Another at Luke, the John Besh restaurant in NOLA on Christmas Eve, which was epic. Started with raw oysters and Pinot Gris and moved up from there—crab bisque, pork belly-gruyere-onion tart, etc… Both places got it all right and then some.
Dolce Debbie - That is my Maple Syrup/White Wine Braised Pork Belly on a rutabaga/sweet potato mash with a thai cabbage slaw and arugula salad
Mark Traugutt - Deep South bacon & hi hat ranch honey
Willie Drye - My wife Jane Morrow says daiquiri in Costa Rica made with fresh mangoes and local Costa Rican rum.
Mike Jeffers - Best food is this most perfect Cheese Steak from John’s Roast Pork in S. Philly. [pictured above] They are a James Beard winner and a Philly institution since 1930. Best Drink is this Coupe de Grace (on left) served by Ryan Pinés at Edison: Food+Drink Lab. Grand Marnier Liqueur, Free Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters, & Angostura Orange bitters.
Cindy Campbell Davis - Sauteed shrimp po boy @gumbo shop in New Orleans.
Sally Chambless - Pan Roasted Monkfish; Tarragon Scented Pea Purée, Morels, Armagnac-Black Pepper Sauce. WOW!
Deborah Barone Jonneaux - The best food I’ve had was anything at Vizcaya.
Ro Patel - Paloma made with Stiegl Grapefruit Radler, Aperol and rosemary!! Killer!!
Bob Sylvester - Fireball Whiskey!
Dan Bolduc - Sea Dog Brewing Co. - Clearwater Master Brewer Bobby Baker’s Reese’s Beer!
Gordon A. Ridge - Ramos gin fizz
Marlene Cambronero-Butkus - Not ready to answer yet…the best may be yet to come…in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Bar and restaurant hoping
Jill Munson - Huckleberry Martinis at The Belton Chalet, West Glacier Park, Montana.
Kristin Mulcahy-Finley - South Pacific Grill’s banana spring rolls!!!!
Xuan Pham Hurt - I crave the foie burger from Elevage pop up. Will go to the restaurant asap in 2014.
Nancy Willson Fintak - The mussels at Joe’s Crab Shack in Orlando….yummy
Marti Wiggins Nusbaum - Large cheese board (w/ meat) at the Mermaid Tavern on Nebraska. Good sangria too!
You have to admit that my friends have incredible taste in food. Better than mine, actually. Picture me doing a standing ovation of one. Clapclapclapclapclap.
Okay, so back to my list of favorite eats for 2013. Here we go!
The Drunken Grilled Cheese at Mermaid Tavern in Tampa. I’m pretty sure the “drunken” in the title refers to the port wine cheese in the sandwich and not to the eater in question, which would be me. But this I cannot confirm.
I’m shutting up now.
Goat cheese grits at Fire Food + Drink in Cleveland. Didn’t see this one coming. Great brunch grits in Ohio? Not on the radar. Could not have been more delicious in one of the most depressing cold-weather cities I’ve ever visited. And I was born in Baltimore, so I know what I’m talking about.
If these grits lived in Tampa, I’d marry them and have a million of their grits babies.
Gravy frites with mozzarella cheese curd and brown gravy with fried eggs at The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland.
Okay, that thing I just said about Cleveland? I take all of it back. The food redeems the place during the winter. Greenhouse Tavern became something of an eating clubhouse for the better part of a week that I was there in October. The half of a roasted pig’s head they have on the menu? Stellar eats. Seriously. Get yourself to Cleveland, pronto, kids. But bring a jacket. My god, that place is epic cold.
The Rustic Onion Soup at Dough on South MacDill Avenue in Tampa. Chef Domenica Macchia uses sweet onions in an aged sherry-thyme broth and tops it brilliantly with a grilled cheese crouton.
Macchia’s migration to Tampa away from the fresh hell of a non-compete contract in St. Petersburg was one of my favorite food stories of 2013. The bistro menu she’s doing at Dough is incredible and a testament to the sturdiness of her imagination and resolve. I expect big things again in 2014.
The Edison Oldie cocktail by bartender Ryan Pines at Edison Food + Drink Lab in Tampa. Pines is one of the most inventive bartenders in the area. His addition to the staff at Edison was a great hire. His version of the Old Fashioned made me want to sit at the bar for days and days and eat chef Jeannie Pierola‘s great apps until someone forceably removed me from the premises.
The braised short ribs with spelt berry pilaf and charred Brussels sprouts served during a South Africa-themed wine dinner at Red Door Wine Market in Lakeland.
First, the fact I included Brussels sprouts in a year-end list is nothing short of shocking. For years, Brussels sprouts were my sworn enemy. Now, I love them like a fat kid loves cake. Can’t get enough of them. Okay, that’s overstating things. But you get my point. When made well, Brussels sprouts are a joy forever. And proof that a man can change his mind about important issues of the day during his middle age.
Second, Red Door Wine Market was one of my favorite finds of 2013. Intimate and funky, the food put out by chef Jason Boniface would fit well in Tampa in the Seminole Heights restaurant scene. It’s that good. In Lakeland, it’s an absolute jewel. Plus, there are swans a couple blocks away in a nearby lake. So, Red Door wins on bird appeal. But the place is amazing. Well worth a drive from wherever you live for a casual dinner with a great wine list.
Speaking of Lakelandia, my eyes were opened to the food scene there by The Poor Porker, a beignet cart operated by power couple Robyn Wilson and Jarrid Masse.
They serve every week on Saturdays at the Lakeland downtown curb market. Varieties change weekly, but the true Poor Porker beignet includes bacon, maple syrup and powdered sugar.
Plus, Wilson and Masse are just good people, and they’ve become a catalyst for small businesses to incubate in Lakeland. Well played, delicious treat makers.
The salted caramel macaron ice cream sandwich at L’Artisan des Glaces in the France section of Epcot. How has no one made these before? It boggles the mind. One of my favorite new foods in the park.
A Jack’s Apple Tar cocktail made with Maker’s Mark, applejack, maple syrup and coffee liqueur and served at the new Jack Dusty restaurant inside the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota. I drank this one out on the patio, overlooking the pool and the marina and while eating oysters on the half-shell. Life doesn’t get much better than that. Amazing that you can have so much flavor and pleasure and relaxation in one sitting.
Of all the hipster foods to come back in fashion, my favorite might be pimento cheese. So lowbrow and yet so very satisfying. Chef Cynthia Diaz at The Corner Store in Plant City serves it as a side with pita chips, but the spicy, creamy, spreadable goodness could be a meal on its own.
The Pharmacy speakeasy in Orlando showcases many great drinks and dishes on its menu, but the Oaxaca Mama is by far my favorite. The mezcal cocktail is served with a ghost pepper lollipop that recharges the spiciness of the drink as the ice melts. This to me is genius. I would drive to Orlando and brave some of the worst traffic in Florida just to have this drink. That either makes me a cocktail aficionado, a traffic sadist, a lollipop freak or someone who needs an intervention. I can live with that.
Which brings us to the end of this year’s list. With all the new restaurants coming on board in the next few months, I can’t wait for 2014.
To borrow a line from Julia Roberts, I’m just a boy, standing in front of a calendar, asking for it to feed me.