"Our presence has been requested."
"We need to go outside," my friend and Flavor columnist Tony "Fatso" Siciliano whispers as I pay my bill at the register of the Nebraska Cafeteria. "She wants to sing for us."
The "she" in question is Diana, a neighborhood resident in a flowery-print dress and wide-brimmed sunhat who wandered into the tiny eatery while I and seven eating companions are sampling the food.
The Nebraska Cafeteria is the second stop on our third edition of the Tampa Underbelly Tour, during which a group of friends and I eat at as many off-the-beaten-path places as we can endure during an entire afternoon.
Unlike the most recent Underbelly tour, which took place last year along Armenia Avenue, and the first adventure in 2007, which had us eating all over Tampa, this third round is dedicated to finding hidden jewels along Nebraska Avenue, a street known more for prostitution than promising food.
During neither of the previous incarnations had we been presented with a performance opportunity, though. Dinner and a show? Cool.
After paying the tab for puerco asada, a tamale, congri rice, a stuffed potato and spaghetti with a mayonnaise-flavored creamy tomato sauce, I walk outside the restaurant to hear Diana warming up for the country gospel standard "Turn Your Radio On."
"TURN YOUR RADIO ONNNNNNNN!" she sings. OK, "sing" is inadequate as a description. Belted is better. With a waterfall of vibrato added on for good measure. "GET IN TOUCH WITH THE LORD ABOVE, TURN YOUR RADIO ON."
Her version goes on for a few minutes before she stops and takes a bow to our impromptu applause.
The Underbelly group begins walking toward our vehicles to go to the next ...
"TURN YOUR RADIO ONNNNNNNNNNNNN!"
Uh-oh. She is serious now. Making the turn into an encore. Impossible though it may seem, her voice is louder. And she is throwing some sassy dance moves into the mix. Hips are being shimmied. We'll be pinned for an hour if we aren't careful.
We listen politely, applaud as she finishes again. Then we make a run for the grocery across the street.
We try to walk casually through the market until we can make a dash for our cars. Success!
Little did we know that this would be a sign of weirdness to come.
But first, back to the beginning.
STOP NO. 1: PALM AVENUE SANDWICH SHOP
2002 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 223-5157
Adventures must start somewhere. Might as well be where interstates 275 and 4 form an interchange armpit on the map.
Several in our group have driven past this sandwich shop for years, making excuses that the parking lot is always too full of work trucks to stop. (Note to self: Always stop if the parking lot is full of work vehicles. That means good food is inside.)
Our group of eight hungry eaters ambles inside. At a busy sandwich counter, we take turns ordering as other customers grab bags full of freshly prepared food and head out the door. I get a media noche sandwich and a devil crab croquette. Rommie Johnson, an editor with TBOExtra.com, orders a crab empanada. We all decide to split and sample the food.
In an adjacent room, a cafeteria buffet counter offers non-sandwich fare. Flavor columnist and food blogger Jaden Hair goes for some oxtail. She and Underbelly participant Max Boehmer, of Chefs on the Loose in Tampa, had never eaten it before. Personal chef Greg Baker - he and his wife, Michelle, write the Culinary Sherpas column in Flavor - loves the flavor of the oxtail. Tony isn't as impressed. One man's delicious ox appendage is another man's trash.
The crab empanada has a fresh filling surrounded by a crispy brown crust. The tail has an earthy, savory flavor that teeters on gamey but is very delicious. Greg digs into a media noche, the smaller midnight-snack cousin to the traditional Cuban sandwich. It falls apart in his hands. He declares it a "deconstructed" media noche. I warn him that using that hoity-toity culinary term will not be tolerated.
All in all, a very solid, delicious start to the day's eating festivities.
STOP NO. 2: NEBRASKA CAFETERIA
905 E. 20th Ave. Tampa; (813) 223-7533
As previously stated, before Diana's tour de force performance interrupts, we dive into a plate of puerco asada, congri rice, stuffed potato and spaghetti with diced onion in its creamy red sauce. For good measure, we add a few rings of pickled onion slices.
In the spirit of trying new things, Jaden tries a carrot and mango juice to wash it down.
We all agree the spaghetti's sweetness is an acquired taste for our collective palate. The puerco, however, is spot on. It is a perfect blend of meaty, greasy, spiced protein goodness.
As we sit for a moment to digest, our eating companion Pat Kane-Prescott, who designs the Flavor section's pages each week, reveals to the group that she brought an owl hand puppet, named Orson, along for the trip. All recollection past that point is erased thanks to Di's entrance and stunning performance. But the puppet becomes an accepted member of the group.
STOP NO. 3: C.C.'s CARIBE EATERY
7107 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 600-3240; www.cccaribbeaneatery.com/
It's hard to beat authentic Caribbean home cooking. Little did we know that we would find a tidal wave of it in this tiny strip mall storefront.
The group pulls together two tables in the restaurant's spacious dining room and orders a few exotic dishes to start. The cow feet seasoned with natural herbs and spices and stewed with butter beans is a good place to begin. To that we add a dish of tripe served with butter and lima beans. Another dish that catches our attention: ackee and codfish.
We tell Adkins of our culinary quest to eat food we usually do not try, and she unleashes a battery of dishes upon us. Curry goat and curry chicken. Oxtail. Tilapia. Rice and peas. Homemade fried dumplings. Okra. Chicken wings made with her own jerk sauce. After a while, it becomes a delicious, belly-bloating blur. The macaroni and cheese is so tasty, we keep spooning it into our mouths well past the point of personal abdominal comfort.
STOP NO. 4: SUNCOAST BAKERY
8319 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 936-0539
A few days earlier, I drove past this bakery's building across Nebraska from Tampa Greyhound Park. Even with my truck's windows up, I could smell the yeasty goodness from the Haitian bakery
We order a fried patty filled with salted cod and another with pork inside. Along with that, I buy a long loaf of bread.
We take it outside to eat on the tailgate of my truck. The bread, with it's almost poundcakelike consistency, is a hit. The crumb of the bread looks dense but chews lightly.
Now overfull with food, we take a vote on our fifth stop. It is unanimous among the five men and three women in the group.
STOP NO. 5: FOXY'S SHOWBAR GENTLEMEN'S CLUB
13415 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 978-3691; www.foxysshowbar.com
It isn't often you see an adult entertainment establishment that appears as proud of its menu as its adult entertainers. On the bikini bar's Web site, next to a photo of one of the dancers, Foxy's boasts, "Great Food, Philly Cheese Steaks and Great Wings and More!"
Our group walks from the blazing afternoon sun into the bar's inky black showroom. There's no one here, not even a dancer on stage. Then again, it is 3 p.m. on a Wednesday. It's not exactly prime time for bachelor parties.
Pulling together a couple of tables, a server introduces herself and takes our drink order. Her name is Lexi. Sexy Lexi, to be precise. She works the 2-to-10 p.m. shift.
We order a few glasses of water, an iced tea, a Diet Coke, a Sam Adams. Looking at the menu, we order a plate of taquitos. Lexi suggests a plate of wings.
"They're awesome," she says.
A dancer takes the stage. Michelle laughs.
"All the men are facing away from the stage," she notes. Jaden and Pat laugh. It's true.
You bet your boots. This is a human resources nightmare of the highest magnitude. Tony does the gentlemanly thing - this is a gentlemen's club, after all - and tips the dancer for her performance.
The taquitos appear through the darkness as the music thumps. They're crispy and delicious, the perfect bar food. The wings show up with just the right amount of spice. They would be a perfect snack if we hadn't already been eating for five hours. Tony washes his down by sipping a Buttery Nipple cocktail.
Owner Jody Lopez stops by the table to tell us how he came to co-own the bar with his wife, Cathy. Seems he was a pharmaceutical rep. His wife wanted to own a bar. She had to talk him into buying Foxy's, he tells us during a tour of the private themed rooms. One looks like Sherlock Holmes' library.
Another has a working shower in the corner. Jaden and Michelle take turns posing inside. Classy.
Orson the owl puppet reappears, and during a lull between dancers, I urge Rommie to put Orson on the brass pole onstage. He obliges. We giggle.
Sexy Lexi likes Orson.
"You want me to climb the pole with him?" she offers.
Uh, yeah. We would. A lot.
At which point, she scampers up the brass pole in her plaid miniskirt, crop top and black leather boots. Nudging close to the charcoal-colored false ceiling, the one with lots of divots from where others have bumped into it, she clenches her legs around the pole, leans back and dangles upside down while displaying Orson in the proper upright position. Her short blond hair dangles like a broom.
As we applaud and snap photos, one fact is clear: Lexi would make an excellent astronaut.
STOP NO. 6: SKIPPER'S SMOKEHOUSE RESTAURANT & OYSTER BAR
910 Skipper Road, Tampa; (813) 971-0666; www.skipperssmokehouse.com
It's almost a shame that we started at the south end of Nebraska instead of the north, considering how many great-looking options there are on Skipper's menu. The place is mostly known as one of the best outdoor venues in the area for live music. It's a pity owner Vicky Dodds' Floribbean cuisine of alligator, conch, jerk chicken, johnnycakes, ceviche and sushi have to take second place to that musical reputation.
The most we could consider eating at that point: a dozen oysters, an order of "mudbugs" (crawfish) and a plate of gator ribs, an item none of us had eaten before.
The oysters hit the tongue like a lifeboat for the taste buds. Salty, cold and fresh, it's a reminder of the power of simple flavor. The mudbugs snap the tongue back to Spicytown. The gator ribs? Good flavor, but a bit of a gnaw.
At this point, though, a bowl of tapioca would seem like rawhide, our jaws are so tired from gorging.
On our way to the parking lot, the group walks in stunned silence. Even Orson is packed away, speechless.
I ask Greg for a grand assessment of the experience.
"We learned you need to turn your radio on," he says. "We learned that if you flash enough press credentials, you can have a bikini bar to yourself. We learned that Jennifer makes some awesome food. And spaghetti, mayonnaise and ketchup don't make good spaghetti."