Welcome to EAT THIS CITY, your tour of the best restaurants in one of our favorite cities, as chosen by a world-class chef.
This week, join us in Tampa, Florida, where we’re meeting up with Ray Lampe, aka, Dr BBQ. If there’s anyone who deserves a doctorate in barbecue, it’s Ray — who spent fifteen years perfecting and “pitting” his recipes against competitors on the path to becoming a professional, world-renowned pit master. A favorite judge on Chopped, World Food Championships, and American Grilled, he was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2014. But he’s only just getting fired up! Dr. BBQ’s opens in St. Petersburg’s Edge District in 2017.
Ready to see what Dr BBQ prescribes you eat while you’re in Tampa?
I lived in Florida for 10 years before I found the kind of pizza I’d loved while growing up in Chicago. The real thing has a thin, crispy, crunchy crust, topped with chunks of good Italian sausage. To serve, it’s cut into squares. That deep-dish stuff is mostly for the tourists. I’d pretty much given up on Florida pizza until I found Paul’s. It’s totally casual with pictures of Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka and Michael Jordan on the wall, just like any good Chicago pizzeria should have. You walk up, order your pizza, then sit down and wait in anticipation until your pizza arrives smoking hot and crispy fresh.
This is a classic foodie dive joint housed in a couple rooms of an old motel. They serve a variety of Mexican and Mayan food but for me it’s all about the tacos. Homemade tortillas filled with Grilled Puerco, Mayan Cochinita pork, Chorizo, and Carne Asada are my favorites, unless it’s Tuesday. On Tuesday the Picadillo (ground beef) tacos are $1.00 each and just too good to pass up. The tacos are topped with just a bit of chopped onion and cilantro and served with lime wedges on the side. Simple and delicious!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Sopa de Tortilla. My fiancé Sandi has this often and it’s truly a meal. A tangy broth packed with chicken and served with fresh fried crunchy bits of tortilla on the side so they don’t get soggy.
Chef BT Nguyen has been cooking up the best Vietnamese food in Tampa for many years. Her delicate rice paper rolls are full of fresh herbs, crisp bean sprouts, and cool rice noodles all wrapped up in this handheld little bundle of freshness. The slightly sweet and salty rich peanut sauce served alongside smooth out this ultra clean, fresh dish. Bahn mi with the freshly baked, crispiest French baguette you’ve ever had. Soft on the inside – crunchy on the outside. Pair that crispy bread with the cool crunch of chilled bright green cucumber and snappy orange carrot shreds, the tart pickled daikon radish, the earthy flavor of roasted shallots, the clean crisp dark green fresh cilantro sprigs…and the richest pork terrine of your life.
It’s over the top – and completely authentic.
Bodega claims to serve Latin street food made with fresh ingredients and that’s exactly what I see when I eat there. They are literally in a window on the street and the food is mostly eaten right there on the sidewalk. It’s on bustling, trendy Central Avenue in Saint Petersburg, FL right around the corner from where Dr. BBQ’s will be. It’s a hip and trendy neighborhood and Bodega is rocking it there. For me, their food is all about the Lechon, a Cuban style roast pork that is tender and juicy and loaded with traditional flavors of garlic and sour orange. There’s also a Cuban sandwich that integrates some of that pork, a coconut marinated chicken known as Pollo Asado, and a couple nice veggie options.
Be sure to save room for a Café con Leche and a guava and cheese pastry. You’ll be in street food heaven.
When you walk into Dough you are immediately transported to your childhood…or at least what you wish your childhood looked like. There are candy bars and donuts and ice cream and cookies and cupcakes and macarons and chocolates and homemade marshmallows everywhere. It’s sensory overload with all the beautiful sweet treats and their luscious aromas. There are coffees and boozy shakes and hot chocolates too and, if you’re really in the mood to live it up, they will make you one of their famous Donut Ice Cream Cones. It’s an ice cream cone made of donut stuff filled with ice cream and topped with everything else sweet that they can pile on top.
The only bad thing about Dough is picking the four or five treats that are your favorites.
Chef Marty Blitz and his restaurant Mis En Place have been the gold standard in fine dining in Tampa for 30 years. That’s not a typo and it’s not just hype. But the food is not what they served 30 years ago, that’s for sure. Chef Marty is a culinary badass and his menu is constantly evolving based on his travels, new trends, and of course what is fresh, local and sustainable. On a recent visit we tried the Sous Vide Lobster, Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio, a killer crab soup and a hangar steak entrée adorned with horseradish chimichurri butter and served with a mushroom corn radish salad and duck fat smashed potatoes.
Nothing plain or boring here and tons of great technique. Great service and a big fun wine list make Mis En Place fine dining at its best.
Datz is the local hangout for a lot of the folks in South Tampa and it’s easy to see why. First off, there’s a world class bourbon selection. That makes me happy but we’re talking about food here. They have a big menu and they take pride in every single dish so don’t be afraid to get adventurous. You can order the Cheesy Todd (a burger between two buns made of fried mac and cheese!) one day, the blackened fish tacos next time and a Kentucky Colonel Bowl the third trip to keep from ever getting bored. There’s breakfast too and a very popular brunch on the weekends where you’ll find my favorite dish, the Short Rib Biscuit Benedict. Pair it with some Funnel Fries (yes, strips of funnel cake) and a Mimosa and I promise you will need a nap later that day.
This may seem like an odd category for me but even I can’t live on BBQ alone. Right down the block from Dr. BBQ’s is The Cider Press Café, a plant based restaurant where even a serious carnivore will be happy. I’d suggest starting off with a Florida roll which subs watermelon and mango for the traditional sushi choices and hits it out of the park. Gazpacho or Gumbo Z’herbes make a very satisfying soup course and I love the cheese enchiladas for my entrée. To me a good dining neighborhood includes a wide variety of choices and these folks cover the vegetarian category very nicely.
New Orleans in Tampa? Yes please and for me it’s a great fit for brunch. We always start out with BOGO Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas and then mow down a couple dozen raw or char-grilled oysters for $1 each! The char-grilled are my favorite, all buttery and cheesy with a little bit of house hot sauce added. These are easily as good as the ones I’ve had in New Orleans and that’s not a surprise because the Chef spent some serious time in the kitchens there. Then we move on to some other apps like their spicy alligator bites, homemade boudin balls and the really innovative tasso coconut encrusted shrimp. If you’re not full yet the brunch entrees are equally creative and tasty. Try the bananas foster pancakes or the spicy chicken and waffles but make sure to save room for at least one dessert. My fave is the house made bread pudding.
ICONIC FOOD OF THE CITY
The iconic food of the Tampa Bay area is a mix of Cuban, Spanish and Italian cuisines and there’s no question that the Cuban Sandwich and the Devil Crabs are at the top of the list. The Cuban Sandwich is a combination of ham, swiss cheese and the local favorite roast pork — seasoned with garlic, cumin, oregano and sour orange juice. A healthy piece of Cuban crusty bread (kind of like French bread) is dressed with mayo, yellow mustard, pickle slices and then topped with the meats and cheese. These days it’s usually grilled in a sandwich press. Pure Tampa and good stuff! The Devil crabs are a croquette filled with blue crab meat, onions, roasted red peppers and typically served with hot sauce. Brocato’s Sandwich shop has been serving both of these delicacies since 1948 and they are the best in town. The vibe and old school feel of the place would be worth the visit alone… but stay for the food.
ODD CULINARY EXPERIENCE
You may think Cuban cuisine would be Tampa’s cultural secret, but really it’s Wat Mongkolratanaram, a.k.a. Thai Temple or Wat Tampa. For four hours every Sunday morning, the Palm River steams to life with bubbling noodle pots, robed monks, and throngs of the food faithful. Go for the fresh and vibrant Som Tum (green papaya salad), an addicting combination of sour, spice and crunch. Grab several skewers of freshly-grilled Satay and a Thai tea, then get in line for the Guiteow. Fresh noodles are drenched in a savory stock, steeped with lemongrass and galangal, then topped with your choice of roast pork, beef, or vegetables.
All handmade by Thai locals and volunteers in exchange for Temple donations.
Sometimes you just need someone to hand you a burger out of the window of a biker bar. That’s when you should head to Biff Burger. The place has a storied past as a chain that’s down to one restaurant and they cook the burgers in some bizarre roto-griller that they claim is the secret to their success. I believe them. You order a single Biff Burger or a Double Biff Burger. Either one comes on a plain burger bun that’s been nicely toasted. You get one or two roto-grilled patties topped with American cheese and Biff sauce which seems to be a tangy BBQ sauce. That’s it. No need for any other toppings. It’s perfect. Salty and sweet and beefy handed out the window wrapped in one of those old school fold over baggies. I always add a large order of tater tots and they come out perfectly crunchy too.
I’ve often claimed that Skyway Jack’s is the best restaurant in Saint Petersburg and while that might be a stretch it’s definitely the best hangover restaurant. It’s a funky oldish diner with concrete pigs in front and waitresses wearing t-shirts with two well-placed fried eggs on them inside. It’s fun, but the food is serious. Yes they have scrapple, giant pancakes, impressive biscuits, bottomless coffee and many other diner staples. But they also have something called a hobo skillet, brains and eggs (although I’ve never seen anyone order it), SOS, and my favorite the Ham Hash. It’s a greasy in a good way pile of ham and onion hash topped with two poached eggs and all covered in hollandaise sauce. Next to this are some of the best home fries I’ve ever had. If this doesn’t cure your hangover nothing will.
Parkshore Grill is on trendy Beach Drive in Saint Petersburg where it’s always fun to see and be seen. The kitchen is manned by a local rock star chef, Tyson Grant, and the service is impeccable — making this is a great place for that special date night dinner. The over the top iced seafood bowl followed by the amazing roasted Parkshore oysters will get your date off to a very sexy start. Then you have to choose from the Park or the Shore for your entrée. I usually head to the shore for the grilled Cobia and my Fiancé Sandi chooses a filet from the Park menu. On occasion Sandi has wandered over to the Composed dishes of the menu and had the angel hair pasta with lobster and vodka sauce. How could that be a bad choice? It’s hard to go wrong ordering at Parkshore Grill.
RESTAURANT RUN BY A FRIEND
Zack Gross is my friend and the Chef at Z-Grille in downtown Saint Petersburg. I think Zack would rather be selling tacos out of a VW bus near the beach where he could spend most of his time on a skateboard, but he’s burdened with the fact that he’s a James Beard nominated Chef with crazy skills in the kitchen and a huge, loyal fan base. So for now he’s there in the kitchen serving first class food in a funky fine dining setting. The deviled eggs are always a good way to start. The flavors rotate but I’ve never had a bad one. The sweet spicy Dr. Pepper glazed ribs are a good choice and wildly popular to round out your starters. Then it gets interesting. Dos tacos is always a good choice; I like them filled with shrimp. Or maybe a house ground burger with a wide choice of topping like pork belly, crab queso, confit shiitakes or foie gras. Maybe not all together though. There’s always a local fish choice with some amazing presentation and a big ribeye served with serrano mash and chipotle butter for the less adventurous.
Thank you, Ray, for taking us on a culinary tour of Tampa!
Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier chef in a different city sharing their insider eating tips! Missed a week? Check out Durham, Toronto, Baltimore,Monterey, Vail, Lexington, Bentonville, San Antonio, Warsaw, Kansas City, NYC, Washington DC, New Orleans, Cleveland, Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Sydney, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Providence, Memphis, Orange County, Boston, and Detroit.
See you next week!