LAND O' LAKES — The intelligence chatter on the Early Warning Taco Lovers' Alert System began just after Capital Tacos opened in the corner of a strip mall off U.S. 41.
Word was this was no Taco Bell. Instead, a black T-shirted crew looking more like bearded and tattooed hipsters from Austin were putting out tacos with funky names like Catawampus and filling them with deep-fried chicken, queso dip, lettuce, fresh pico de gallo, jack and cheddar cheeses and a spicy poblano ranch salsa.
In Land O' Lakes?
This had to be investigated.
With some research, I found a multitude of places old and new known mostly only to locals. So I broke out my Tampa Underbelly signal light and called my hungriest food superfriends to assemble. It was time to devour U.S. 41.
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Seven years ago, the first Underbelly Tour began when Greg and Michelle Baker, who later created The Refinery restaurant in Seminole Heights, called to invite me to roam the local landscape in search of undiscovered culinary treasure. Over the years, the tour scarfed its way through sandwich shops, strip clubs, bakeries, Vietnamese delis and gas station food counters along Armenia, Florida, Nebraska and Waters avenues, as well as Causeway Boulevard and the Gulf beaches.
The goal: To find great food in unlikely places.
U.S. 41 certainly qualified, especially from where Land O' Lakes Boulevard splits to the west into Dale Mabry Highway and then continues south through Lutz. Any highway worthy of an Allman Brothers lyric has to be grub-worthy.
My philosophy: When there's a fork in the road during an eating journey, take it.
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To Capital Tacos owner Bobby Heskett, U.S. 41 between Land O' Lakes and Lutz reminds him of the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
Those living south of County Road 54 see anything north as the hinterlands, where only brave knights dare venture, Heskett said.
“A lot of them think it's a no-man's-land,” he joked. “I tell them where we are and they say, 'I usually don't go up that far north.' Once they go up there, though, we've got 'em. They're our customers now.”
The restaurant celebrated its first birthday Friday. The previous Friday, Capital served 500 customers in a place that seats about 30. Heskett runs the kitchen while his wife, Kristel, manages the restaurant's operations. They have yet to need advertising to fill their seats.
Customers come because they want tacos with unusual Tex-Mex-style fillings, he said. Grilled tortillas piled high with ingredients are served on wax paper-lined baking sheets. Tiny containers of sauce pack a wallop of unique and bold flavors. Craft sodas are offered to wash down the goodness.
The taco of the day when our Underbelly group visited was the Darjeeling Special, an Indian-flavored taco with grilled adobo chicken, dirty potatoes, grilled onions, cheese, cilantro and a curry mustard salsa. The taste was familiar and new at the same time, which sort of simultaneously freaked me out and made me deliriously happy.
“You can go anywhere to get tacos,” Heskett said. “We just try to bring a little of what's-not-there there.”
But what knocked me out was that breakfast tacos, the perfect cure for all human hangovers, are served all day. A Migas taco, filled with scrambled eggs, green chiles, fried corn strips, cheese and salsa, reminded me of a breakfast that cured a headache I had in Texas years ago.
“The breakfast taco is a Texas thing ... a really big Texas thing,” Heskett said. “If you went to Austin and went to a popular taco chain, you would think we came from there.”
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How do you follow Texas-style tacos? Usually with tequila, a long nap and a couple of Advil. But we're professional eaters, this Underbelly crew. We soldier on.
Our next stop was very far from the Lone Star State, the quintessential Florida waterfront hangout Ukulele Brand's.
“Yooks,” as locals call it, is perched overlooking the cypress forest along the shore of Lake Marjorie. With a main dining room and three screened porches adorned with beer signs, parrots and more than a few ukuleles, the place looks as if it fell out of a Jimmy Buffett song. One writer once described the wood-paneled restaurant as having a “lazy loveliness.” That about nails it.
Ukulele's makes a killer hamburger, but we were hungry for Florida fare. That meant ordering a batch of fried fish, gator tail, frog legs and the “famous” seafood chowder.
Maybe it was the sunny day. Perhaps it was sitting on the porch overlooking the lake. Maybe we all just really liked fried food. But darn if it wasn't a tasty bit of vittles. The chowder didn't just have a little seafood. The creamy bowl was crowded like a Tokyo subway car with all sorts of underwater goodies and vegetables.
There also was a discernible thrill in eating tender, crispy gator tail and nearly Rockette-length frog legs while looking at a lake that probably was full of both creatures.
There's nothing like food with a little Florida sprinkled on top.
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The Underbelly tour's curious nature showed its truest essence when my friend, Brian, mentioned a new Peruvian restaurant named Koki's that had opened across the street. We had to go, of course.
There isn't exactly a huge Peruvian population among the 31,000 residents of Land O' Lakes. What we found was well worth our curiosity.
Chef Jorge “Koki” Tapia and his brother, Reuben, opened Koki's Restaurant & Catering about four months ago. Koki cooked in hotels in New Jersey, all the while hearing friends and family tell him, “You should open a restaurant.” When his brother expressed the same interest, Koki moved south.
The menu is still being fine-tuned — he just added a few mainstream dishes like Chicken Marsala — but the rest is purely Peruvian comfort food reminiscent of their hometown of Callao, a477-year-old city west of Lima. The food is warm and filling and humble, yet full of flavor.
The red snapper with white wine coconut milk sauce looked great, but we followed our instincts and went with the special, the Arroz Con Frijoles y Seco de Res (rice and beans with cilantro beef stew). It was hearty with just the right amount of spice. The dish tasted as though someone's grandmother stirred in a little love.
On Saturday nights, customers can come for the food and stay for the karaoke. There's also a TV that would be perfect for watching, oh, I don't know, World Cup soccer matches.
“It's been slow-going,” Koki said. “Not too many people know about us. Hopefully, we can walk and then run.”
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If you ask anyone from LO'L to name a few landmark food spots, somewhere in the top three would have to be Larry's Deli and Hungry Harry's Family Bar-B-Que.
Larry's began in 1981 in a former gas station. There is a high probability that many blue-collar workers within 10 miles have Larry's in mind for a lunchtime stop.
Driving north, Larry's is hard to miss on the east side of Land O' Lakes Boulevard. A giant orange mural with blue letters depicts a Florida Gator, a Florida State Seminole and a University of South Florida Bull doing battle.
What got my attention was the sign out front suggesting, “TRY OUR CUBAN REUBEN.” I have eaten all manner of Cuban sandwiches. A corned beef and sauerkraut variety had escaped me thus far. This had to happen.
We ordered one to go, along with a steak sandwich, and watched as a small militia of cooks behind the counter pressed the sandwiches to a golden brown. In the meantime, we roamed the store. In the freezer, fresh-caught frozen fish were for sale. One aisle stocked Seminole Swamp Seasoning and Gator Hammock Cooter Rub. Two hot tub-size slow cookers on an adjacent counter slowly stewed batches of boiled peanuts.
The only places to sit at Larry's are a handful of rustic picnic tables behind the shop that overlook Bell Lake. This is all the seating you need. Perched under oak trees dripping with moss, the tables were like a cloud in heaven once we unpacked the sandwiches and watched boaters yank water-skiers across the choppy lake. With one bite, the Cuban Reuben became my new favorite thing.
A few miles south, the giant red barn at Hungry Harry's was hard to miss. Owner Harry Wright took over the former rib joint in 1985, back when U.S. 41 was a dinky two-lane ribbon. That was before the 1990s building boom turned the area into a nest for Tampa commuters.
“We had a girl lay in the road for 20 minutes once to see how long it took for another car to come along,” Wright said. “These days, you take your life in your hands crossing the street.”
Harry went 15 rounds years ago with the DOT when it wanted to widen the road and shrink his restaurant to 38 seats from 110. Harry lost, but not really. He bought adjacent properties and opened dining rooms in buildings on either side, as well as the lake front behind the restaurant on Lake Padgett.
That's where the Underbellies sat to lay into a batch of well-spiced gator sausage and peppers and a full rack of tender pork ribs smoked with oaky goodness. Harry used to smoke with hickory and citrus until all the groves were plowed to make new homes.
Harry's health forced him to retire and hand the restaurant operations over to his son-in-law, Chad. At 64 with 11 grandchildren, Harry occupies his time in new ways.
“I used to be a kick-butt guy,” he said. “Now, I'm just a mellow papa.”
His customers range from froufrou Avila country clubbers to salt-of-the-earth day workers. He once fed 1,400 bikers during a charity ride. Barbecue has a way of bridging disparate groups.
“I have people who eat with us five days a week and have done so for 25 years,” he said. “They're the reason we're still open all these years later.”
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When we started the Underbelly Tour, I warned participants to taste instead of gorge. It was a marathon, not a sprint. But when good food is all around, discipline is hard. Once we got to John's Butcher Shop in Lutz, a few of us looked like a cruise ship leaning hard to starboard. But my friend Dominic had bragged about the shop's fresh-ground cheeseburger. “It will change your life,” he told me.
We knew we were on the right track when we walked into the shop inside a white, wood-frame building painted with the giant black words JOHN'S 4 MEATS and BURGER SHACK.
Co-owner Donny Duncan's father, John, started the shop 40 years ago at Bearss and Florida avenues in Tampa, before eventually finding the current spot six years ago in Lutz.
Duncan says John's sells an enormous amount of hamburgers, cheeseburgers and steak sandwiches, along with the usual items you would find at a butcher shop. By the time we got there, a Post-it note on the butcher case calling attention to “Veal Cutlets $3 each” was placed above an empty rack. Another on a nearby fridge touted “Whole Rabbit $7.”
The burgers have a different flavor because Duncan and co-owners James Smith and Mike Lacy grind the beef as many as five times daily.
“If you buy stuff pre-ground from a packing house, it could have been ground two weeks ago,” he said.
Already full from our eating extravaganza, we took two half-pound cheeseburgers to go, cut them into segments and ate them in a nearby park. The burger, moist and perfectly cooked medium-rare, was as outstanding as Dominic claimed. It was the perfect way to finish.
On U.S. 41, “you've got everything from gyros to Mexican to barbecue to burgers,” Duncan said. “We've got our own little thing going on up here.”