I am that rare creature: a native Floridian. I was born in Tampa 19 years ago and have moved many times since, but something of my native states humidity, weird politics, and love of alligator meat has stayed with me. I'm always happy to go back, to visit my grandparents, to sit out in the sun that keeps everything warm and toasty even in the deadest and dankest bits of winter. But there's another appeal to the Tampa area: food.
Floridian food isn't a cuisine that's regarded highly (or regarded at all) here in California, and that's a shame. Food in Tampa is a wonderful mix of Cuban flavors, Greek cuisine, Creole and Cajun influences, and good ol' Southern home cooking. Add in some tropical tastes and a good amount of fresh, delicious local seafood, and you've got an enclave that can serve up some damn fine treats.
So what defines Tampa food? What do I gravitate towards first, moth-like, when my feet hit the pavement in Tampa and the humidity begins to curl my hair?
(Image from Food Reference.com.)
Cuban sandwiches were my first love, that's for sure. A Cuban sandwich is oft-debated, but I think of a roll of Cuban garlic bread, filled with swiss cheese, mojo-marinated roast pork, ham, and salami in the Tampa variant, combined with pickle (THERE MUST BE PICKLE), mustard, and a very healthy slobber of mayonaisse. Once the sandwich is composed, it is pressed under a large flat thing over heat - like a panini without grill marks - and quickly devoured, all that melty, cheesy goodness fully sustaining belief in a heavenly deity,or something like that. Cuban sandwiches are special and run deep in the soul of every Floridian. I have a fierce memory of being in preschool in a palm-tree studded backyard, eating a salami-festooned Cubano for a school project of one sort of another. And it was delicious. I have been demanding them ever since when I return to Tampa, seeking them out across the city. One of the best versions I've had was served out of a gas station deli (with a side of neon gummy worms.) These kind of things happen in Florida.
We make them at home whenever the urge to roast a big slab of pig comes upon my dad, but it's never quite the same. The trick is that delicious, crusty garlicky Cuban bread, and no one has bothered to bring it to Sacramento yet. Someday I will find a supplier, and I will be able to be fully content with Sacramento. Maybe.
(Image from the Frenchy's Cafe website, purveyors of fine grouper sandwiches.)
Grouper is my second Tampa food fixation. A grouper is a large, corpulent, and somewhat depressive looking fish that is common in Florida, with firm white meat. It is unspeakably delicious, especially when deep-fried, slathered in tarter sauce and put into a bun. Grouper appears inevitably on almost every Florida menu (including Thai and Italian restaurants) and is served in almost any way you might want to serve firm fleshed white fish, though the deep fried version is almost always most delicious. The Greeks do it up fine too, even when broiled, which while less likely to kill you is not quite the same. I am bound by family convention to say the very best fried grouper is found at my grandparents house where you are unfortunately not invited unless I know you, but grouper of equal deliciousness may be found at Frenchies in Clearwater Beach, originators of the grouper sandwich. But most restaurants in the Tampa area know their way around a good grouper...order with confidence.
Greek food has a strong presence in Tampa, due to an influx of Greek immigrants who came to the nearby town of Tarpon Springs to sponge dive. Tarpon Spring is another integral part of my early childhood, walking down the street and squeezing every big ugly dried sponge displayed out front, gawking at the sharks in the aquarium and the blood-stained model of a victim of the dreaded undersea bends at the world-famous Sponge Museum. My grandfather still speaks with great and ineffable pride about my love for calimari and delicate, pungent fried smelts. When I was two or three, we would go out to our favorite Greek restaurant on the water and order a big plate of calamari and smelts, which I would (apparantly) proceed to messily devour to the great delight of the Greek waitresses who staffed the place.
My love of smelts, squid, and Greek food has never left me, and I anticipate my return to Tarpon Springs every year eagerly indeed. We always eat atPaul's Shrimp House (which I will do a review of in a little bit), but there are rows and rows of Greek restaurants present on Tarpon Spring's main tourist drag, almost all of them good. Amble up and down the street, pick up a dried and gory alligator head or perhaps a flamingo pen, and then sit down wherever strikes your fancy.
Recommended dishes? Seafood is king here, so eat all the squid and fried oysters you possibly can. Greek style squid, sauteed with olives, peppers, onions and feta is incredibly delicious, as is almost anything fried. Boiled shrimp in herbs and spices are another wonderful local treat. If you see Greek salad offered with a scoop of potato salad, a variation found far as I know only in Tampa, please, please go for it - something about Greek salad served with a scoop of savory and smooth potato salad is pure tastiness, oil related calories be damned to hellfire. Round off your meal by walking up the street to one of the various and delicious Greek bakeries, where super-flaky honey drenched baklava, chocolate parfaits, and slices of creamy and cool key lime pie await you. Get some gritty and intense Greek coffee and watch the tourists waddle by. Bam, you're in Florida.
Key lime pie image from PRWeb.com.
Which leads to my final must-eat: key lime pie. This tangy, smooth dessert might have migrated inexorably across the country - it's too good not to - but it is done best in its native home, in Florida. I order it almost everywhere I go, but I know what makes a really good key lime pie. Color is important: none of this neon green food coloring junk, but a delicate, yellow color indicates you're looking at the real thing. A tangy and sharp flavor is also key - no inispid sweetness, a tiny bit of puckertude. Finally, the graham cracker crust must be crumbly (but not too crumbly) providing a perfect offset to the smooth and cool filling. Combine these elements with a spot of whipped cream and you have my absolute ideal dessert - refreshing, not too sweet, with just a little bit of crunch. This may be minor blasphemy, but Publix grocery stores do a pretty darn tasty interpretation of this Florida delight, and they'll even sell you half a pie so you can convince yourself you're exercising restraint. See, wasn't that easy?
There are some odds and ends of Florida eating, of course. Odds are good you'll encounter alligator, which really and truly swear to God does taste like chicken, albeit with a not-unpleasant fishy tang. Order the fried gator' nuggets once or twice and convince yourself you have had an authentic experience - gator ranching is now such a common trade out here that you are in no way damaging species survival. (Fun Florida tip: for God's sake, don't swim in any canals unless you're okay with being eaten.) Another standby is deviled crab, a tasty and spicy croquette like item, filled with crab meat mixed with spicy sauce, onion, and whatever spices the maker finds pertinent. These are very good appetizers and since they are usually football sized (or near to it) will rarely leave you hungry. We had a tasty and humongous version of this at Carmines in Ybor City, but many other area establishments will hook you up good.
Finally, it may sound pedestrian, but keep an eye out for black beans and rice. This distinctly Cuban carbohydrate is delicious, flavorful, and will certainly provide you with the energy required for a day of lying out on the porch and not doing a goddamn thing. I love going to Florida. I love eating in Florida.