Since moving to California almost two years ago, I’ve craved quite a few tasty morsels hidden in the folds of Tampa’s food underbelly. On a recent trip back east, I undertook the momentous effort of packing all these culinary cravings into one very short gorg-cation. The result was not only weight gain and stomach bloating but often reminiscent bliss beyond compare. The details are too delicious and would be mean to share completely, but the highlights are the best restaurant meal destinations a person can have in Tampa in four days.
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It’s shorts and flip flops time for quick eats so we have more hours to play. My hubby and I discussed, debated, dissented, and compiled our fave, fast-casual restaurants. These places, where you line up to order, are much more appealing than fast-food options (and cheaper than sit-down cousins). Experts say this hybrid category is on the grow and judging by the parking lots, most patrons agree.
Read more: Tampa Bay’s best restaurants with fast-casual food suit our speedy lifestyle
“I love New Orleans. I went to Marti Gras all the time and I can’t eat anything without hot sauce,’’ says Shrimp and Co.’s owner Levent Cilek. His habanero hot sauce blend makes a noticeable addition to Cajun choices such as popcorn crawfish, oyster bayou, and oyster and shrimp po’ boys. Start with a cup of homemade soup like clam chowder, shrimp bisque, spicy crab enchilada with angel hair pasta, or seafood gumbo, served on weekends. You-peel-‘em pink shrimp: seven, large, shellfish (all but one being headless) are boiled in an Old Bay seasoning.
Read more: Fresh shrimp is the bait at Tampa’s Shrimp & Co.
Miami has its attributes but can it claim rights to the holy grail of tropical sandwiches? Ybor City was turning out these banquets on Cuban bread before the turn of the previous century. Early bricklayers flattened their “mixto’’ sandwiches between hot bricks thus toasting bread, melting cheese, and melding flavors. But Miami Herald reporter Fabiola Santiago says Tampa has no culinary chops and started a cat fight about Miami boasting the original. “There’s no doubt that our Cuban sandwich, served all over South Florida, is more authentic and tastier. Even in its Americanized or gourmet incarnations, a cubano in Miami is superior– my Tampa and Miami friends agree,’’ whined Fabiola. Harrumph!
Read more: Tampa defends its Cuban sandwich title: The best in the Bay
Boca is restaurant, market, and watering hole. Wood dominates its décor and low lights glint off the expanse of a wall of windows. A convivial bar allows a small peek into the kitchen. It’s more contemporary and has more enclosed space for eating than Smoke, the barbecue establishment formerly located here.
Read more: Tampa’s Boca Kitchen Bar offers a mouthful of farm-fresh favorites
If hurling and soccer, shamrocks and goofy Irish wit buttons bring you pleasure, you’re more than ready for St. Patrick’s Day. Tampa Bay’s assorted ale houses don’t always meet lofty standards but with the luck of the Irish, the grub can be filling and satisfying.
Read more: The best Irish pub fare in Tampa Bay
Just because I’m reaching for my trusty Dove Ice Cream Bar doesn’t mean I don’t like a heart-friendly menu. Who doesn’t like to enjoy dinner without having to loosen the belt? There are enough places where healthy doesn’t mean torture, simply not the food that Paula Deen unleashes on our arteries. The best restaurants in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater where you can find the best healthy, vegan and vegetarian food.
Read more: Tampa Bay restaurants where vegetarian, vegan, healthy and hedonist share menus
It took a stint of unemployment to help Todd Sturtz become a cheerleader for Tampa’s culinary scene. Last year, the chemical-environmental engineer and self-proclaimed foodie, started a blog, TastingTampa.com, and organized a dozen Food Truck Rallies throughout the area. The September rally at Hyde Park Presbyterian Church created lots of lines with almost 5,000 visitors. Todd recently launched 13th Step: A Support Group for Foodies, to promote the local talent in our area.
Read more: Food bloggers agree: Tampa’s Pelagia Trattoria makes a meal of discovery
Unabashedly rich and irresistible, few foods bring on such giddy cravings as chocolate. Love is sweet, but it’s much sweeter with chocolate. Its phenylethylamine is the same chemical that our brains produce when we fall in love. Quality chocolate stirs the same emotions and is positively addictive this close to Valentine’s Day in Tampa Bay. Charge up your appetite, and your wallet, with some luscious choices from candy land.
Read more: Chocolate is love in an edible form: Nine of Tampa Bay’s best chocolate shops
Osteria Natalina draws from its previous life as Spartaco to offer something new and something old. It’s set in the same location, a corner of a strip center in South Tampa. Its obscure location doesn’t keep it from being discovered — it’s a well-traveled haunt. And its short, uncomplicated menu, with English subtitles, showcases owner Spartaco Giolito’s hometown, Rimini, on the Adriatic coast.
Read more: Tampa restaurant review: Un-ostentatious Osteria Natalina showcases seaside legacies