It isn’t often that I’m completely clueless about a restaurant that I’ll be visiting. Earlier this week, my good friend invited me to eat at a place in Tampa called Wimauma. When he asked me, I replied, “there’s a restaurant in Wimauma?” For all you non-Floridians, Wimauma is a town you’d never want to visit. It’s a dumpy little place that you’d miss if you blinked, but these tiny cities bring up childhood memories of growing up in Florida.
I’ve noticed a trend in many of the newer restaurants in the area. Many chefs from around the country are embracing the fresh and local approach. Less obvious though, is the “Southern inspired” cuisine popping up all over the place. People from the south, are drawn to places like this. We’re always looking for a good southern restaurant. It’s been at least fifteen years since there’s been one that I could call my own. It’s been a massive gap that I’ve had to mind, being filled solely by my own households cooking and that of my mothers. I think, for the most part, Wimauma has successfully given me a new home for southern food.
I knew nothing of the place other than what my friend told me. I’m not rich, so when I plan on a night out that involves a “new” restaurant, much research is involved. I study the menu and imagine what I would order. I also keep in mind what my wife might like. Much of my decision-making, revolves around ensuring everyone will be able to find something good.
We arrived to a packed house. Which I love to see, especially when the place is brand new. We had a reservation for 8:00, but there wasn’t an open table. I didn’t know who it was at the time, but the co-owner Amy greeted us outside and apologized for the wait. Honestly, we might have waited for 5 minutes tops. We were seated in the corner at a large round table with great light. The dining room is very open with a layout that encourages engaging, loud conversation. There’s a large chalkboard where you’ll find the daily specials, which on this day, consisted of smoked pork belly, oxtail “beef-a-roni”, pea-encrusted salmon, and grilled Amber jack.
Wimauma was billed as a southern food restaurant and it is. However, there’s a noticeable Asian influence in some dishes. There were tinges of French, a few had a Thai flavor and some things took a handful of flavors from all over the globe and smashed a dish together and some were strictly Southern. This excited me because it was uncharted territory. Before we could make up our minds, Amy emerged from the kitchen with small plates in tow. She presented all of us with a plate of fried green tomato chunks with a salad of chopped cilantro, fried crispy shallots and ruby-red grapefruit vinaigrette. My wife was planning on ordering this anyway because; as she said “It’s a perfect combination of all my favorite things!”. This was a remarkable way to begin a meal. The mix of old southern cooking with Asian flavors and the citrus dressing was something to be applauded.
Our waitress returned with drinks, I had some tough decisions to make and quick! I got my order in and felt content with my choices. Tom Petty was absolutely right, waiting really is the hardest part. Amy came out yet again with another amuse bouche, individual crab toasts. Creamy herbaceous crab salad, on a grilled baguette, finished with a touch of tomato for acidity and red onion for texture. Our comments on the amazing flavors we tasted were cut short as food began pouring out of the kitchen at full speed. First, disco fries and oysters. Both were fried to perfection. The frites were coated with oxtail gravy and had about a half-pound of melted aged cheddar covering the plate. I appreciated the play on poutine, it was a clever execution. The oyster however, was criminally insane. The flavor combination the chef came up with shouldn’t work but somehow it did. First, you have extremely fresh oysters dredged in corn meal and then fried. A traditional guacamole cradled the oysters which were finished with a dab of sweet smoked tomato jam. Every part of your tongue gets a workout. Next, the shrimp and grits, fried chicken, fish stew and smoked pork belly.photos courtesy of: Pietri Photography
I failed to taste the fried chicken as my fellow eating partner hoarded over it with an iron fist. It must have been too good to give away. The mixed seafood stew had a bouillabaisse-like broth, which seemed to be a fish stock/coconut milk hybrid, flavored with lemongrass and Thai basil. The rice was vibrant green and looked beautiful and was light and refreshing. I only sampled the mahi, which was tender, moist, and like a sponge, soaked up the broth.
The grits were creamy with a very nice consistency and a clean flavor that went well with the tangy tomato that made a pool in the center of the bowl. The last amazing touch was this wonderful invention called pork bark. Crispy, salty, and a little like a bacon bit without being fatty. My pork belly followed. Now I’ve had some horrible pork belly in my time. I’ve been given many a gelatinous glob of fat which was mistakenly called pork belly. Most of the time it’s a big disappointment. This particular hunk of swine was what dreams are made of. Not only did it strike the right balance of meat and fat, but the accoutrements were just as good. Slightly sautéed Brussels sprouts with a hit of vinegar was the base. Surrounding the plate was a parsnip purée. The star of the show, long strips of fried parsnip chips, were being swiped off my plate by everyone’s mangy mitts. I didn’t mind sharing by any means.
My charcuterie board arrived as everyone started getting full. Being the pro that I am, I attacked the wall of meat that sat before me with abandon. The cornucopia of cured delights consisted of smoked pork loin, thinly sliced small batch cured ham (and remarkably reminiscent of jamon iberico), sausages two ways, one with duck the other with pork, maple and sage, both were equally impressive. The best meat on the board was the smoked duck breast. If this ever catches on with the public, it will be bigger than bacon. Aside from meat, the best thing was the loquat chutney. As I was assembling my bites, Amy returned and asked if we were enjoying everything and quizzed me on all the cuts. I think I passed before starting in on the loquats. I said “this is the first time I’ve ever eaten a loquat at a restaurant”. She smiled and said how they’re native to Florida so they wanted to incorporate them on the menu.photos courtesy of: Pietri Photography
They couldn’t be more nostalgic for this Florida boy. Both my parents and grandparents had loquat trees in their yards. Nothing brought me back to my childhood more than this humble cup of preserves. Wimauma is already a very special place, it takes me back to when I was a boy, when things were simpler and grandma cooked the best food ever. At the same time, Wimauma is moving the cuisine of the Deep South forward. There are flavors here that no granny would ever think of, yet without a hitch they marry perfectly.
We finished our meal and were again greeted by our gracious host. We found that her husband happened to be head chef! Both are Florida natives, which is a huge plus for me. I believe that this could be the deciding factor in Wimauma’s success, while other similar restaurants will fail. They know the land; they know what people want to eat and what they used to eat. They surprise you and bring you home at the same time. The chef has been cooking this stuff his whole life, now they have a place of their own and nothing will get in the way.photo courtesy of: Pietri Photography
There are many stories about how this restaurant came to be and there was a lot of drama surrounding the two owners previous endeavor, but we are in the now. The food is good, the place is welcoming and nothing else matters. I came to Wimauma with no expectations and walked out in love and about 7 pounds happier. That’s the power of food.
Wiamuma – 4205 Macdill Ave S. Tampa, FL 33611