It feels close, doesn’t it?
Tampa’s food scene feels on the verge of being discovered by the cool kids. The way places like Charleston were being touted just a few years ago.
FoodNetwork.com last month wrote that Tampa is “undergoing a major gastronomic renewal.” Better a gastro renewal than a gastro bypass, I say.
Then Out.com extolled our culinary virtues. They tagged us “Florida’s unassuming new foodie wonderland.” That’s kind of a nice way of saying we’re good dancers and have a nice personality food-wise. We’ll take the compliment.
But not everyone is getting the message.
Earlier this week, I got an email from Michael, a paramedic and recent transplant from Charleston.
“Coming from such a diverse culture and food-rich area, I am finding it oddly difficult to find anywhere to eat in Tampa,” he wrote. “Can you explain the food or local farm-to-table scene here? My food, travel and wine experience is quite varied and experienced, but I am at a loss.”
Let me start by telling you that comparing Charleston to Tampa will prove frustrating. Or at least as frustrating to you as to the thousands of newly minted Floridians who hail from New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia and miss their slice, their deep dish, their chowdah and their cheesesteak.
My sympathies are with you. Take comfort in the fact we have no state income tax.
I’m fairly certain, though, that with enough curiosity, you can find something to eat here. With Hispanic, Asian, Indian, South American and African food, diversity isn’t an issue in Tampa.
Agreed, we have no burger-and-fish-taco tavern themed to Edgar Allan Poe like the one in Charleston. Consider it a hole in our repertoire.
What we do have is a skateboard-and-tattoo-themed spot named Z Grille in St. Petersburg that serves Dr Pepper-fried baby back ribs and seafood nachos topped with grilled calamari, gulf shrimp and lump crab. We also have chef Zach Gross. Trust me on this, he’s way more fun at parties than Edgar. Plus, he’s alive.
And no, we don’t have Husk, a Southern darling of food writers with its crispy fried chicken skins, Carolina gold rice pudding and other delights by the inarguably talented chef Sean Brock. I wish we did.
But we do have Greg Baker of The Refinery on Florida Avenue, who more or less tears up his farm-to-table menu weekly and starts from scratch to make dishes such as “Sloppy Joe” sliders with smoked eggplant, lentils, red cabbage and ranch-fried cauliflower. We also have Ferrell Alvarez up the street at Rooster & The Till, whose seared Florida-raised pork belly, smoked corn bread, pickled apple and local peppercorn-steeped honey made me weep tears of joy that tasted just like rooster sauce. I’m not making that up.
And no, we have no Revolutionary War-themed eatery named The Obstinate Daughter that serves South Carolina peach salad with prosciutto, arugula, Gorgonzola and sliced pecans. That sounds mighty tasty.
But we do have a little thing called the 1905 Salad at a Spanish-themed restaurant called The Columbia Restaurant. It does a little Flamenco with old-school iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, celery, Swiss cheese, ham, Spanish olives, garlic, oregano, Worcestershire sauce and olive oil. The servers toss it tableside. It’s highly Instagram-able.
And although Butcher & Bee sounds like a wonderful sandwich shop, I would politely suggest you take your taste buds over to Datz in South Tampa, which serves sandwiches that will make your mouth exceedingly happy. Try the Carolina On My Mind, a Charleston-size Goliath of pulled pork and slaw on sourdough. That is, if you can get past the Havana Hottie Cuban sandwich and the meatloaf stuffed with macaroni and cheese.
See, Michael, it’s OK to love the food in both places. Each has its own culinary charms. Charleston is a great food town. So is Tampa. Grab a fork and a knife and some chopsticks and belly up.
Quoth the raven: Order more!