I’ve recently been tasked with some work that requires some traveling for the next 3 months or so. Sadly it’s meant that the lights at Eat a Duck world headquarters have been off for much of the past month. However, traveling means new restaurants, and as I’ve a moment to catch up on my latest food-ventures, I thought I’d share.
My first assignment was in St. Petersburg, a city I’ve come to love over the years due to constant trips back and forth from home to concerts. As food goes, ten years ago, downtown St. Petersburg could have been the inspirational backdrop for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, a desolate wasteland. You had bars and concert venues, the occasional jerk chicken shack and not much else. After I got married, my wife and I developed a mutual love of the local baseball team. We searched for places to eat before the game, but it was an ordeal to find those great local places back then, as we had only word of mouth from friends and associates to rely on.
Nowadays complete strangers are more than willing to give you insight into just about every dining room, hot dog-cart, or kitchen that exists. From those strangers I’ve conversed with over the most years, some of them have actually become great friends. I give my most heartfelt gesture of respect to these new friends I’ve met along my journey, with a goal to eat the best that I can, every single day. Of course there’s James (my bro and co-conspirator), always spit balling with me about anywhere either of us eat. It’s less a question of needing the approval of the other to eat at any place in particular, and more of a desire for that stamp or blessing from a trusted friend that good eats are ahead.
To Mr. Jeff Houck of Tampa Tribune fame, who is a walking Gastropedia, as well as Todd Sturtz, who proves every week, that he can out do any of us when it comes spending one’s per diem. For me though, on this trip, I have to tip my pickled daikon filled hat to Ms. Marissa Nguyen, a true ambassador to the greater St. Pete food scene. I felt bad, but almost everyday she would get a message, asking where I’d be going for lunch? With her recommendations in hand, I ended up eating my way through her stomping grounds, 4 out of 5 days. That’s why we’re better for wear when it comes to technological advancement. I probably would never have discovered all the fantastic places in neighborhoods like as Pinellas Park and off everything off 4th st, as those areas have just never pinged on my radar.
How about some food?
The banh mi stands alone at the top of my sandwich pantheon. When you get a great baguette, fresh herbs and pickled vegetables with some sort of fabulous pork product, well, things don’t get much better. You’ll end up feeling like King Friday XIII or Queen Sara Saturday living in the magical world of make-believe.
Here are three banh mi’s, so tasty they’d make Mr. Rogers slap his Viet-ma-knees! I ate four banh mi from three different places on my lunch breaks, each one having a distinct personality that made me love em all.
This first one is the special banh mi from Season’s Café & Bakery. Tightly packed and full of sliced pork, pork skin and a smear of paté.
Second, the meatball sub from Saigon Sandwich. I was hesitant about this one since I hadn’t received much feedback and the place was empty. I’m happy to report that the meatballs had great texture and the generous amount of mayo was sweet and lemony which helped soften the interior of the bun.
I tried going to Thuy Café on Wednesday but they were closed. Timing was off until my last day when I got this lemongrass and grilled beef beauty. The bread here was superior. However, each banh mi offered distinct qualities worth going back for. On my way out of Thuy Café, I stopped in the market next door for a drink. What I found was a lesson in marketing with the most amazing impulse buys laid out for the taking. BBQ pork soft baked buns and shrimp sui mai sitting at the register as I made my purchase. At just a buck, I couldn’t pass up that deal son.
Sandwiches are well represented in St. Petersburg. Although I didn’t photograph everything, it’s worth mentioning the many bread encapsulated lunches, from the imposing hunk of burger at El Cap, to the Bones Brigade meets haute cuisine manner Z Grille presents their unreal burger, to a possible top 5 best cuban sangwich ever had at Bodega on Central.
Everyone has that one place to get a classic burger, where they’ve been making it the same way for decades. It’ll never let you down and will always amaze. If you don’t have that, move. El Cap, St Petersburg’s version. Get it all the way for a perfect condiment conglomerate.
Z Grille was my first dinner as it was highly recommended. My buddy Todd even decided to meet me for this one. I think he tried to kill me, because our choices were anything but light fare. We started with sweet and tender, leperous-like Dr. Pepper ribs. I say that because the meat was cooked so exquisitely, that it fell right off the bone. The name got me immediately as I’m a huge fan of any soda boasting 23 unique flavors. They were better than I could have dreamed. We followed that by a couple of entreés, that of sage and cornflake crusted chicken and waffles and Chef Zack’s attempt to kill a couple of Tampa food stalwarts in one fell swoop, by way of house ground steak burger. The chicken and waffles were great on their own, as they remained crispy throughout the meal, even after been drenched in a fantastic peppercorn infused maple syrup. The syrup initiated the most conversation, as it was thought provokingly floral as syrups go. The burger, on the other hand, hit us like a Peterbilt. It’s not enough that they make it using fresh ground ribeye and brisket, or that there’s a plank of Neuske’s bacon and house roasted garlicky tomatoes topping it off. Ordering it “Z style” will also afford you the opportunity to add a slab of pork belly, an over easy egg, as well as a nice seared piece of foie gras. Oh and they serve it with a side of truffle frites.
The next meal was at Nitally’s. I’d heard this was a must try from multiple friends. If you love food with spice, I think you’ll meet your true love, as Nitally’s mashes up the cuisine of Mexico and Thailand in a way I’ve never seen before. The menu is vast and I was mentally exhausted after working extremely long hours. I put the decision in the hands of my waitress. You should only do this if you trust them implicitly…or if you’re just too wiped out to read the menu. A good measuring stick is to ask them what they like to eat. If the response is lightning quick, you’d do well to heed their recommendation. If you hear a lot of ums and uhs, it probably means that A. They don’t eat there much, or B. The food sucks. I was treated to a whirlwind of geographic cuisines as she brought me Mexican baos filled with grilled pork, with an abstract slathering of sweet and hot sauces. My main course was red curry pad Thai. More of an ode to Southeast Asian, however I didn’t care where the food came from at that point, just as long as it blew my mind. The heat from the chiles made me sweat and I was only halfway though the plate, but the flavor kept me coming back for more.
My last dinner was at La V. It might have been the most modernized Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever been to. It was a nice change of pace to what we’re used to, as I felt more relaxed in this setting. At least for me, Vietnamese food is set aside for a hurried day time meal with no fuss, it’s get in and get out!! With La V, I was more inclined take my time. The wife made the trip for this one, so we agreed this was going to be the place for us. She ordered the lemongrass bùn, and proceeded to devour it so quickly I failed to get a shot! We shared the garlic and sweet chili wings, which our host basically insisted we order. He was right, they ruled. Me and the little guy shared a fajita-like seared filet with mushrooms and onions. This five year old is a definitely a steak snob, as nothing but filet will do. I wonder who he got that from? Couldn’t be his dad, as I will eat any part of the cow set aside for legal consumption in the state of Florida. These were fine dishes and a pleasant departure from the norm, with a touch of elegance. Looking back, dang I ate a ton of cilantro..
Honestly, almost every place I went last week deserves a full-blown slow clap review, picking all the finest points about why we should all be eating there now. Nitally’s is going to get that somewhere down the line, the same goes for Z grille. As always, every restaurant that graces the pages of Eat a Duck is approved for your future consideration. Be on the look out for more of my travels as I go all over the west coast this spring! If you’re interested, come out and meet me one night so I’m not so lonely. If you have a place in mind that I missed, let me know and I promise to hit it up!