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Food & Dining

Eating Up Armenia: The Tampa Underbelly Tour rides again.

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Published:   |   Updated: June 1, 2013 at 12:44 PM

TAMPA - The intense, earthy flavor was to be expected. This was, after all, a bite of fried pork intestine dancing across my tongue.

What was I supposed to taste? Refreshing citrus zest? No. That would be wrong.

The crispy-on-the-outside, soft-and-funky-on-the-inside texture was a tad unnerving at first, but only because I knew what I was chewing into. If someone had put the plate before me without telling me what it was, I would have thought nothing of taking a piece of the intestine - which looked like a cooked king crab leg - and having a little snack.

My friends at the table with me at China Yuan Seafood Restaurant were not as enamored. We came because we heard there were lots of delicious exotic Asian dishes on the menu. We were not disappointed.

Fish tanks full of future seafood dishes greeted us at the door. Eels wriggled all over each other as tilapia, lobsters and crabs floated motionless, looking out from their Plexiglas homes, as if we and not they were the featured attraction. We ordered plates of barbecued eel and boneless duck feet that tickled the taste buds.

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The pork intestine, however, was an acquired taste.

"I can't deal with the consistency," Michelle Baker said. "That will haunt me the rest of my life."

Understand that this is not a squeamish woman. She and her husband, Greg, both personal chefs, joined me last fall for a daylong search for unusual, out-of-the-ordinary and just plain different food. Eating everything from Mexican tripe stew to catfish and grits to goopy aloe shakes, we dubbed our adventure The Tampa Underbelly Tour.

An October article about our journey struck a chord with readers. Dozens offered to tag along on our next culinary mission.

"I, too, have often wondered as I drove past an unfamiliar restaurant what the food would be like," reader Terri Jones wrote. "You are truly BRAVE to have eaten some very different things."

"I love going to out-of-the-way places," another reader, Joe Pearl, wrote. "This was an eye-opener ... who knew we had such diversity and quality right in our own back yard?"

That was the idea, of course; to showcase Tampa's fantastic range beyond chain restaurants and drive-through fast-food joints. And since anything worth doing is worth doing twice, we decided to do it again, this time by eating our way along Armenia Avenue, one of Tampa's most culturally diverse streets.

Joining us was Domenick Siciliano, who as "Tony Fatso" hosts the Saturday afternoon barbecue radio show "On the Grill" on WFLA, 970 AM.

We met at Blondie's bar on Hillsborough Avenue so Greg and Michelle could lubricate their systems with nicotine and a beer before we saddled up, headed north and challenged our intestinal fortitude.

Stop No. 1:

China Yuan Seafood Restaurant

8501 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa

(813) 936-7388

What we ate: Oriental-Style BBQ Eel, Thai-Style Boneless Duck Feet, Crispy Pork Intestines

During the first Underbelly Tour, we started out slowly with breakfast. This time, we hit the ground running at lunchtime, almost to prove that we won't be playing it safe.

Of the four of us, I'm the only one who is sort of enjoying the pork innards. But the duck feet, although understandably chewy, have great spice with the chilies sprinkled over them.

The eel is by far the crowd favorite. The flesh appears a bit rubbery and flexible on the fork but flakes easily. And the flavor is smoky and sweet, like all good barbecue fish should be.

Restaurant owner Peter Chen stops by our table to chat and informs us that the expansive menu contains "almost 99 percent Cantonese" recipes. All of the cooks come from Taishan in Canton. He came to the United States at age 13. His family owns a farm in Plant City, where much of the restaurant's vegetables are grown.

Chen recommends duck cooked on the bone, his favorite. He runs to cut a couple of samples for us, as well as brings us a few cups of coconut milk pudding to cleanse the palate. Both are outstanding.

We're off to a great start.

Stop No. 2:

Honduras Cafe

7920 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa

(813) 936-7108

What we ate: pastelitos, baleadas, enchiladas

With a giant coffee cup on the awning out front, Honduras Cafe looks misleadingly like a tiny Central American coffee shop.

Once inside, we find eight tables covered in Chantilly lace cloths, with a jar of pickled onions on each for diners to sample before the meal. With the Univision novella "Pasion" playing on the flat-screen TV in the corner, we opt for a few tropical sodas, including tamarind, banana and nance.

Greg takes a forkful of the onions, which emerge dripping from their bath of vinegar, sugar water and cumin.

"Sometimes, I swear he likes to make himself hurt," Michelle says of her husband.

Soon, the pastelito comes out. A fried corn tortilla stuffed with ground beef, rice and potatoes, and sprinkled with lettuce and tomato, it's so delicious and fresh it makes us almost embarrassed to have ever settled for Taco Bell. The enchilada, a corn tortilla topped with beef, cabbage salad, tomato sauce and cheese, is equally delicious and fresh.

Our server, Gabriela, senses our quest. Hearing that we've never eaten a baleada, she brings one to the table a few minutes later. The flour tortilla stuffed with beans, cheese and sour cream is a common street offering in Honduras. One amazing creamy, hearty bite tells us that we have led a very sheltered culinary life.

Stop No. 3:

La Pequena Colombia

6312 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa

(813) 876-8338

What we ate: a platter of steak and eggs, avocado, plantains, red beans and rice, chicharrones, chorizo sausage

With eel, pig intestine and pastelitos fighting it out in our intestinal tracts, we opt for a melange of flavor at La Pequena instead of a dietary bungee jump.

The place is decorated quaintly and features numerous glass cases filled with delicious-looking baked goods. We dive headfirst into a platter of assorted offerings.

And while it might not seem so exotic to say, "I ate steak and eggs," when paired with avocado, chorizo, red beans and plantains, the collection and its contrast of textures make the plate something unique and extraordinary.

"This, to Colombians, is country food," our server tells us.

A new chef at the restaurant plans to move away from the platters toward a more sophisticated menu, she says. We all hope he'll keep at least a couple on for old time's sake. If only for the fatty, smoky, delicious chicharrones, which were heartbreakingly good. Literally.

"I think my pig fat quotient has been reached today," Domenick says.

Newly coined maxim: Never doubt a pig expert nicknamed Fatso.

Stop No. 4:

La Lechonera Restaurant

5601 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa

(813) 870-3504

What we ate: mofongo (garlic-flavored mashed plantains) with shrimp, cabrito (goat stew)

The aroma from this Puerto Rican and Caribbean cafeteria hits with the first breath you take walking through the door. The message: This place is all about flavor.

We stand looking at the menu for darn close to 10 minutes. It all looks so delicious.

Remembering the wonderful goat we ate at a Caribbean spot during the first Underbelly Tour, we opt to split a bowl of the cabrito. I recognize mofongo on the menu. Last time I tasted it at the Dominican Republic kiosk during last year's Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, it was delicious. Since no one has had it, I order a plate. Greg and Michelle select a relleno de papa (stuffed potato). I throw a devil crab into the mix.

By the time the food arrives at the table, it's clear we've ordered too much. But the flavors are so strong and intense - bay leaf in the goat stew, spicy crab, moist mofongo - we plow through with a couple of bites of each. We're reaching maximum density. We're so full we're starting to forget our middle names, but we can't help ourselves. The food is just too delicious to stop.

Stop No. 5:

Pupuseria & Cafeteria Centroamericana

2504 W. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Tampa

(813) 874-1248

The goal is to stay on Armenia Avenue, but we've heard such great things about this Central American pupusaria, we can't resist. Plus, it's only a half-block away on MLK.

Pupusas are thick, handmade grilled tortillas stuffed with a variety of items. We order several, including some with pork, beans, cheese and chicken.

Remembering the baleada we had earlier, Michelle impulsively orders a steak version. I like the sound of curtido (cabbage, carrot and vinegar salad). Plus, it's about time we throw some vegetables into the mix.

Again, we are inundated with food.

A plate of piping hot pupusas arrives, and each is tastier than the last. (The cheese wins a vote of Most Popular Pupusa.) The baleada oozes sour cream, just like our previous one. One spoonful of curtido cuts through the heavy meal.

We sit back and take a few deep breaths. Outside the restaurant, rush-hour traffic stacks up on MLK Boulevard. We can wait a few minutes and let the food setlle.

Who knows, in a couple of minutes, we may be ready for another round of pupusas.

Keyword: Stew, to see

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Reporter Jeff Houck can be reached at (813) 259-7324 or jhouck@tampatrib.com. Underbelly Tour.

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