It’s been five months since I moved to Santa Rosa, California from Tampa, Florida, and besides the friendships, a few dishes still gnaw at my memory like a half-starved mongrel. I spent 17 years collecting these faves and so wish they could be Fed-Ex’d on a weekly basis just to keep the love alive. My eight best dishes/experiences in Tampa Bay, in no particular order:
1. Blind tasting old vintage wines with Sommelier Brad Dixon and the Caesar Salad at Bern’s Steakhouse. I moved to Tampa to work for Bern’s Steakhouse — my first job after completing a hotel and restaurant management program in Geneva, Switzerland. 17 years ago. Lotsa memories. The Caesar Salads are made tableside, old school-like and every server could probably make them with their eyes closed. Pungent fresh garlic, salty anchovies and mounds of parmesan are the secrets but the same ingredients don’t taste the same elsewhere.
And from Bern’s dusty, old wine cellar Brad pulled older bottles to trip me up (and my band of wine brothers) in blind tastings for years. You just can’t experience that anywhere else in the world. I’ve looked. Back in April, during last weekend in Tampa, we took a trip to Bern’s and Brad pulled a 1974 Foppiano Vineyards Zin from the cellar. Foppiano doesn’t even have that vintage in their library inventory. Gawd, I love Bern’s…always something cool to explore.
2. Guacamole at Al Gusto Mexican Restaurant [RIP]. Yes, California has some pretty frickin’ amazing Mexican food, but I’ve yet to find a guac that tops Al Gusto. Miss its spicy, creamy avocado goodness, and I can’t emulate it. Damn. Anyone have the recipe they would share?
3. Cuban food, or more specifically, Ropa Vieja at La Teresita. The place may skeeze people out with its low inspection ratings of yore, but those people can cook up some mighty fine slow cooked, shredded beef. Been a favorite for years and other places might come close or even surpass this comfort dish but you can’t beat it at 3am on a Saturday, sporting a wedding dress (true story).
4. Salt and Pepper Calamari at Yummy House. I realize that San Francisco has one of the largest Chinatowns outside of China but we don’t make it down there very often (1.5 hours south of Santa Rosa where we live). The Chinese grub in this small town doesn’t come anywhere close, and Yummy House calamari simply rocked my world.
5. Eggs Benedict at Pinky’s Diner. Since we both prefer savory for breakfast, my husband and I are Eggs Benedict connoisseurs. Getting the right lemony tang in a hollandaise is no shorter than a work of art. The sauce at Pinky’s is Mona Lisa-like in expertise. I’ve tried this classic in cities around the country and nothing has come close, although one at Monti’s in Santa Rosa came very, very close recently.
6. Fried chicken at Love’s Artifacts. I’m so far from the south, it’s a bit isolating at times. (But in a couple of weeks, I will be judging a collard greens cook-off, which will likely make the Life in California series, so I’ll get a fix). California doesn’t exactly embrace okra, cornbread and fried chicken like I do. That’s why Love’s will be one of the first places I hit when I’m back.
7. Mushroom soup at Café Ponte. I think Chris Ponte puts crack in this his bowls of umami-laden, earthy, creamy perfection. Or at least truffle oil, which is kinda the same thing.
8. The pulled pork and mustard sauce at Holy Hog Barbecue. I’m not much for the ketchup-based barbecue sauce so the slightly piquant yellow mustard based option at Holy Hog is how I roll. Most BBQ joints don’t even offer it, so I applaud Danny Hernandez for scratching my itch. Also crave their baked, smoked and fully-loaded potato salad.
So… what did I miss? What dishes start you drooling when you think about them?