Buttermilk Bakery – Orlando, FL

It’s taken us over a year to try these off the wall, idiosyncratic or dare I say Craftsmen and Wolves-esque lineup of croissants, tarts, cakes, pies, financiers, cookies, and kouign ammans. As a self profressed food lover, it’s a travesty that I’ve waited so long. 

buttermilkbakeryI’m comfortable in my critiquing abilities and knowledge of the greater Orlando area, and so I it seems natural to see Buttermilk Bakery, aka I love Buttermilk as arguably the finest patisserie in Orlando. You can’t browse any of the reputable, nay popular blogger community figureheads without seeing top down shots of what I would consider their flagship flavor: The double baked matcha croissant. Of course, I followed suit, the lamb that I am. But let’s get serious. How many bakers in the area are performing at this level?  With a scope ranging from caramel cornflake crunch croissants to roasted sunchoke goat cheese & herb quiche, and about 100 other equally innovative creations, the answer is roughly 3-4. How many bakers in this area can actually deliver a quality product? I’m going to hold firm with 3-ish. We tried two items on our visit. The aforementioned double baked matcha croissant and a slow roasted strawberry pop tart for the kid.

Why the confidence in Buttermilk Bakery after just one first trip? They’re already firmly established pillars of the community. I mean, if they sucked, I’d have heard about it by now. So what I’m tasting on my first trip cant be a fluke. What I’ve been waiting a year to try has long been warmly accepted by the masses.

matchacroissantEven though I have strong ties to my dear friends (and partners to some extent) at Born + Bread Bakehouse  here in Lakeland, I was reminded by a t-shirt I saw at Urban Canning Co. stating, it’s about “community not competition.” It’s ok to show love to people doing great stuff similar to what you or your loved ones do. We can all learn from, and respect each other’s qualities and be better for it. Even though Buttermilk Bakery ain’t my kin, I still love what they’re providing to the people of Orlando and hope said people continue to sustain these craftsmen so that I can make a repeat visit on April 11, 2017.

The croissant was simply obese, the flaky crust moist with butter. Generously stuffed full and adorned with delicate, matcha tinged frangipane. The pop tart shell was akin to pie crust, flaking as easily as Talia Al Ghul in the Dark Knight Rises. The strawberry filling was extraordinary from the slow roasting which concentrated the berry to a paste. It was close to overwhelming how much strawberry came through, as they don’t skimp on anything.

To understand how highly I view Buttermilk Bakery, take note of my day. I went to Anh Hong, a staple in the Viet-centric neighborhood on Colonial Drive in Orlando for a delicious lunch with the family. This was followed by a trip to the bowling alley closer toward the attractions where my 7 year old son rolled a 92 on his first game ever. The intent was to quickly head back east after bowling around 4:30 pm to arrive at the Audubon Park Market right at 5 pm. Traffic dictated that I would arrive at 6 pm. The drive home normally from Winter Park area is 52 minutes. Traffic decided that 52 minutes wasn’t long enough. Traffic was thinking more like 1 hour 30 minutes. In conclusion, If you find yourself en-route to or from great pastry, your body will forgive 98 extra minutes on I-4.

 

A Netflix Original – Chef’s Table

We were simply awestruck by the very first episode of the new Netflix docu-series “Chef’s Table”. Ever since we teased the show in our Top 10 food films on Netflix, it has become the darling of my food media world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at least 10% of my Facebook friends are sharing their love and talking about this brilliant new show. It captures exactly what I’ve always wanted in an exposé on the leaders in the world of food, focusing on six chefs and their unique stories of struggle, ascension, and cumulative breakthrough success.

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The structure is honest, thought-provoking, in-depth, and filled with heaps and heaps of seductive, slow motion sizzle reel filmed in crystal clear HD. The first episode takes us to a place we should all be so lucky to visit, the wide swath of northern Italy which makes up a Devastator type food Transformer known as Emilia-Romagna. Based on my heritage, tendencies, appreciation for Parmigiano Reggiano, aged balsamico, hand made pasta, and meat products from cloven animals; this is where I, and many others probably wish they could live out their remaining years.

From the beginning of his story it’s clear that Chef Massimo Bottura loves Modena for all that it stands for. The introduction grabs you with a touching story that helped jump-start the growth of his community following a natural disaster. I don’t want to give anything away. That’s why I’m ending the show talk here.

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We don’t really have a desire to critique or review this series. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some great stuff to talk about. As a team, we rank this show right alongside the other great documentary style productions such as El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, all of Bourdain’s TV work, and of course Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Until recently, I hadn’t been thinking about recipe writing for Eat a Duck. I spent more than two years happily coming up with complete menus for the taste section of the Lakelander magazine. Some of which covered more than a dozen individual recipes per article. To think each one through, most often with zero room for error,  was a logistical nightmare consuming incredible amounts of time and effort. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve since stepped away from being full-time editor to give more attention to other important things in my life, which hopefully means putting more of my energy into creating on this front.

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The goal here is to pay homage to the six fantastic stories from this first series of Chef’s Table. While walking through town, I thought to myself “how can we tie this show into what we do.” What we came up with, was to formulate a recipe inspired by the theme of each show, a reflection of what lingered in our minds from each episode. It could be inspired by a personal story the chef tells, the region in which they’re from, or just our attempt at blatantly ripping off their most famous dish. We hope you enjoy our six dishes, which will include recipes for whatever it is we come up with. Going in order, the first will indeed chronicle Chef Massimo and his restaurant Osteria Francescana.

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #6

It’s shaping up to be quite the epic contest of Noodle Wars 2015 between James and myself. While I have gotten more strict with my eating habits, there’s no chance I will ever deny myself the joy of eating great Vietnamese food. I may have temporarily dislocated pork shoulder from my daily intake, but that isn’t stopping me from enjoying the extensive menu over at Pho Cali in Sarasota. I opted for a bowl of lemongrass beef bun, with spicy chile and onions. It almost made me forget my fatty pork patties. Jimmy more than made up for my pork omissions. We both have a deep yearning to find that next great menu item that’s possibly hiding on the back page. In this case, it was Ha Noi noodles with pickled green papaya, grilled pork and pork meatballs. What a refreshing feeling it is for each of us to have a place in our respective towns with such high flavor and quality. It’s been a long time coming.

Speaking of a long time coming, a wood fired pizza insurgence is under way. Have you joined the republic? We are feverishly composing our thoughts on Polpo Pizza Co. to express our love for what they are producing. I know there are a lot of pizza people out there. You owe it to yourself to plan a nice beach day in the Sarasota area, with special attention paid to procuring a pizza pie produced particularly by Polpo at the precise period and place Polpo pre-determines to park.

Moving on, we found that going back to our well of old favorites resulted in great rewards. I haven’t been back to Beewon Korean restaurant in almost five years until last week. I found an old picture of my son noshing at the table back then. Poor guy didn’t even have a hair on his head. But he sure was happy taking on their bulgogi beef. While the sure things (Mahans & Oxford Exchange) triumphed, the new stumbled. Deciding after many contemplative passing glances at their storefront on Colonial Dr. in Orlando, I gave Mamak Asian Street Food a shot. While their rendition of Char Kway Teow (a wide rice noodle dish similar to chow fun) impressed, the beef curry meatballs left me wincing with confusion. The curry sauce itself tasted fine, yet the meatballs seemed like they were purchased at IKEA. Truthfully, I guess I should say that I quite enjoy their meatballs. But I expect them to stay at IKEA, in a pool of brown gravy, garnished with Lingonberry compote and not curiously found in an Asian hawker style restaurant. I cant say for a fact they bought them elsewhere or made them by hand, shaped to extremely perfect proportions. They were just very, very familiar to me.  I say maybe give Mamak a shot, but not before going to every single other jaw dropping place in a two block radius. With big guns like Ming’s Bistro, Anh Hong, Little Saigon, and Chuan Lu Garden, Mamak has a lot of competition. It’s by far the prettiest space on the block. So if they can get the entire menu hitting on all fronts, look out!

Finally, we finish at home. We try to eat what’s in season and tastes best, wherever we live. In Florida, we’re seeing a burst of peaches on the scene. They’re mainly smaller and thinner skinned than their relatives that hail from Georgia in my opinion, which results in a more concentrated flavor. We found some gems at Sweetwater Farms yet again. Large heads of broccoli, Japanese eggplant, and a slab of grass-fed sirloin from Providence Cattle proved to make a wonderful version of a New York style Chinese take out favorite; Beef and Broccoli. Another Stone Crab season has come to an end. I got my last chance to enjoy my favorite claw based foods. For one day last week, Whole Foods had them on special at their beer bar for 2$ a claw, so I took advantage of the situation. When you see that kind of deal, never pass it up! We’ll see you next week!

EAD Weekly #6

EAD Weekly Recap No. 3

As one of Eat a Duck’s main contributors celebrated an anniversary this week, there was cause for much rejoicing. The vacation got started at Tia’s, to sample what was voted 2015’s Best Cuban Sandwich in the Universe. I don’t think it stacked up to the best of the best in our #Apuercolypse competition, but it was a valiant effort with great roast pork and extra buttery, pressed La Segunda bread. Everything else inside didn’t seem to receive as much attention as far as detailed flavor profiles or “homemadeness” is concerned.

For the most part, we visited some great old favorites in Orlando in Siro’s and Little Saigon, as well as some Tampa joints with Chocolate Pi, Fodder & Shine, Pinky’s, Squeeze and Jet City Espresso. Then we ended our trip where I’m typing, with family, eating great food at home. This week spanned a pretty large radius. Time to get out there and go eat!

EAD Weekly spread #3

Locale Market – St. Petersburg, FL

On my right, sits an older woman, a wiser woman, quietly scarfing down duck confit and potato gratin out of a takeout container. It’s obvious that she’s eavesdropping on the conversation my dear friend Jeff Houck (Marketing and PR Director of Locale Market) and I are having regarding the evolving beast that is Locale Market. As I surveyed the frenzy of activity, I realized what this was, an enormous “choose your adventure” book, played out over flat tops and fryers. With such an enormous and dynamic enterprise as this, it’s easy to see how every person that comes through the door experiences a unique eating adventure.

Locale Market spread

A couple of young fledgling’s across the way, both eating burgers, are moaning as if this were more than just a mid-day nutrient injection to them. That’s because it is. It’s partly entertainment. While Thing 1 gives out a slow “ohhhh myyyyyy gaaaaaahd” like a younger, less annoying Janice Litman-Goralnik née Hosenstein, Thing 2 exclaims ever so braggadociously, “This is…like…oh em gee…the foodie version of Disney World”.

In the future I’m really going to attempt to be less argumentative, as I really am getting sick and tired of people being outwardly negative just for the sake of it. Still, it’s in my genes, and because of that, I must wholeheartedly disagree with Thing 2’s statement, though I can’t fault her for making it. Locale Market is an amazing place, and she was just so excited she couldn’t find a more eloquent way to express herself. My new unofficial home base is better than Disney World, or D23, it’s even better than getting three fast passes for Toy Story Mania in the same trip, which is now physically impossible thanks to Fastpass+ armbands. Disney World has the ability to leave you wanting more or at least wanting a better experience. If you want a fantastical telling of how a Disney getaway can cause you to think it’s going to be one thing and then it turns out to be something completely inverted, watch the low-budget movie that was made entirely in the park incognito, “Escape From Tomorrow.*” (*Watch the first 30 minutes, maybe 45, after that it gets weird and falls apart like a loaf of gluten-free millet bread.) At Locale, no sane person could ever be disappointed. Let me reiterate. This is better than Disney World.

Locale meats

You need to prepare yourself for the first trip to Locale Market. It can be completely overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the concept of mega food halls. Each time I’ve gone, my company gets lost in it all. My advice is to focus on the first thing you see that looks good and order it, then immediately plan your next trip so you can try the next thing down the line. The next stop for me is the fish station.

If you had enough people, you could each tackle one area per person. Then after each team member has found something good, pick a rendezvous point and share the haul with everyone. There are at least a dozen unique food stations to visit and order things to either eat right away or take home. You can also do real grocery shopping as well, although I still don’t think the normal consumer has quite figured out that part of the storefront just yet.

Locale spread 2

If you’re looking to have a full meal without the need to shop for it, you can take a little hike upstairs to the wine bar. It’s a place where cheeseboards rule the day and the steaks come served on slabs of wood with bones intact. All the items have been curated from the minds of Michael Mina and Don Pintabona, so you are guaranteed to have fantastic food in a very casual relaxed environment. Speaking of the partners of Locale, they seem to be very hands on with this passion project. I’ve seen Mr. Mina a few times, not including the night of the Grand Opening ceremony, which is a pretty impressive thing since honestly; he has an empire to run. They are completely involved in the operation, so much so that Mr. Pintabona has been spotted in his chef whites every single time I’ve visited. Don’t just think it’s because he knew we were coming. We always arrive as unannounced guests. He even comically ran into one of my friends on our way to the liquid nitrogen enriched ice cream and shake shoppe.

Locale spread 3

Not only that, you can take a seat at the full service restaurant called FarmTable which opened earlier this year and features a ticketing system unique to the bay area. Similar concepts have had great success at places like the renowned Alinea in Chicago, Trois Mec in L.A and é by Jose Andres in Vegas. Expect to see as much hoopla as the rush to get floor seats for Queen’s 1981 “THE GAME” tour.

Locale at home

As the fever of the first few months has died down a little, I would like to give some advice to those who have yet to go or who have gone and maybe had a shaky experience. Internet trolls tend to only highlight the negative aspects without appreciating how much awesome is all around them. This concept on such a large-scale is entirely new to Florida. It’s the first of its kind from the Mina Group, so even an experienced group of food and business people have to deal with a slight learning curve. Sure, there are a couple of things that could be handled a little better, like clearly indicating where the lines begin for each station. It might be because nobody figured this kind of place would stick so incredibly fast. For goodness sake, the lines for the burger station rival those of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves Mine train. The biggest difference is after Snow White is done with you, you’ve got no St. Petersburger to make out with, and speaking of a burger bound for stardom, it’s made out of a house-ground dry aged beef from the Locale butcher. With a salad tossed in In-n-Out sauce, topped with smoked Gouda, bacon, caramelized onions and mushrooms to boot. This comes in between a brioche bun straight out of Locale’s bakery. It also comes with a molten cheese sauce which I will always omit because of my disdain for American cheese. Yet, if you want it all, I don’t blame you.

Locale meats 2

Another thing many people can’t take is crowds. These kind of people probably also don’t like Disney World or waiting in general. They want it all, they want it all, they want it all and they want it now and if they have to be around the general population, they’ll avoid it like the plague. Don’t go between 11:45 a.m.-2:00 p.m. because you’ll be swarmed and I really do want you to enjoy yourself. Lunch rush gets crazy. Please bear with everyone’s uncharacteristic way pushing and shoving while stumbling around like fashion zombies, looking for grilled persimmons on warm ricotta toast, as if grilled persimmons on ricotta toast were Daryl and Merle Dixon’s brains.

Locale Italian

Last thing, this isn’t Eataly, Gotham West Market, The San Francisco Ferry Building or any other example of the gourmet food court. It’s also nothing like Mazzaro’s; a larger Italian focused market on the other side of the city. If Locale, is Disney World, Mazzaro’s is Dollywood. So please, let’s stop with those silly comparisons people. I’ve said already but it bears repeating, this is the first of its kind in the state. The name is Locale for a reason. I couldn’t think of many things they sell that are not either made in-house or sourced locally. That goes for the meat, cheese, produce and the seafood. Even the water that bears Locale’s name is from Florida. The only things I can think that doesn’t fall in line are the packaged items that simply can’t be done in these climates, or because there is a far superior product elsewhere, such as pints of Cool Haus ice cream from L.A. or bottled cold-brew coffee from Stumptown in Portland, OR. Arguably the best bottled coffee in the country and the only place I’ve found it nearby is Locale.

Locale sweets

If treating your body like a temple sounds fun, you can be that person and still enjoy yourself here as most things are either organic, sustainable or wholesome and, if possible, all three. If treating your body like are amusement park is more your style, Locale market is your Magic Kingdom.

Apocalypse Cow: Prologue

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Not long ago, we published the results of our exhaustive competition to determine the bay area’s most delicious Cubano. The #Apuercolypse Tour was a mathematically charged, statistic based taste exploration into what makes this much loved sandwich truly great. We did our best to put personal bias aside, in order to crown the true champion based on the cold hard (or in this case piping hot and tender) facts.

If a Cuban sandwich was a baseball player, our champion would be a 5 tool superstar. That winner happened to be Dochos Concessions, and if you’ve yet to eat one of their amazing sandwiches, your mouth-hole is missing out.

So where do we go from here?

We hemmed and hawed for weeks to come up with a worthy follow up to such an epic event. Finally we landed on a classic, the hamburger.  Meat, cheese, bun, simplicity at its finest, yet everyone does it so differently. Who has the best Hamburger in your town? In many towns the answer might be obvious, but Tampa’s top burger is not so easily decided.

We are a collective group of experts on all things that taste good. We have different styles and viewpoints, but if anything can move us to fall in line, not unlike the kids of Voltron, it’s the love of a great hamburger.

Logan – Eat a Duck extraordinaire, the yin to his own yang and hater of all things American…Cheese.  No, really, he hates the stuff.
Jimmy – Eat a Duck’s photo blaster and California ex-pat. He likes his double double animal style and don’t you dare hit that thing with lettuce!
Chris – Tasting Tampa’s newest compadre and lover of the junk burger. The more on top, the merrier for this heavy hitter.
Kurt – Tasting Tampa’s newest evil leader. He loves the classics, and by classic we mean with bacon and fried eggs and maybe some foie. Luxury has never looked so good.
Todd – Tasting Tampa’s founder here in spirit, because San Diego is a long long way away. Offering advice and overseeing our junket.

These 4 men and one in spirit are setting out on a quest of glory and greatness to seek out the one true burger above all other burgers. There will be danger and anguish, heartbreak and pain (well heartburn and pain), there will be much meat.

Therefore, on this, the eighth day of November in the year 2014, we will declare it to be Apocalypse Cow!

Our newest food crawl will pit 12 unique bay area spots in an all-out rumble for burger greatness. We’ve compiled this list from our own experiences, tireless research and a heaping helping from you, the readers. With our focus solely on the bay area, we made sure not to include chains or establishments with locations out of town. This way, our winner will be truly local, the undisputed burger king of Tampa. To even the playing field, we’ll be judging based on the execution of 6 key components, each with its own value of importance. Luxury won’t be enough to win the day, it’ll be fantastic ingredients, cooked with care, assembled with skill and executed to perfection.

Let the burger games begin!

Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

What makes a restaurant truly great? It’s obviously a subjective question as preferences in taste, service, ambiance and price vary widely from person to person. In my opinion, the overarching quality that I look for in a great restaurant, is consistency. The places that can provide, not only delicious, but creative food, along with knowledgable, friendly service and comfortable atmosphere, all at a reasonable price, are few and far between. That’s why I chose to wait a while before I sat down to write about Rooster and the Till in Tampa. It’s easy to get caught up in a one-off meal that blows you away, only to find out it was a fluke. The real test of quality is whether or not the restaurant in question can deliver equally impressive meals over multiple visits. It’s been a long time coming, but after a half-dozen trips to Rooster over the last few months, I can happily report that they’ve passed the test, wowing me each time with their inventive flavor combinations and constantly changing menu.roos_logo_colorNow I would expect a high level of performance from a place with access to vast amounts of financial backing, top of the line equipment and the hottest PR team to generate buzz. In that case, there are no excuses, you’d better deliver, every single night, without fail. Rooster is not that place, and yet they are capable of producing legitimately high level cuisine with nothing but four hot plates, an impeccable mise and a small crew of exceedingly talented cooks led by two no-nonsense dudes in Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez, no excuses necessary.

Recently, Logan and I joined the boys from Tasting Tampa to put Rooster through its paces. I like to think four voracious eaters like ourselves, posed at least a small challenge to the kitchen as we ordered at least 80% of the menu. Keeping with tradition, we began with the raw items from the chalkboard, a scallop crudo and a smattering of oysters. The source and flavor profile of these items changes with the wind, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see these specific items, I’ve never been let down by their raw offerings.

Oysters & Scallop Crudo

This crudo only reinforced my belief that scallops are, first and foremost, meant to be eaten raw. These were so supple they were nearly a mousse. Pickled onion with corn and red pepper offset the sweet and malleable scallops in both texture and flavor, as a smooth avocado schmear joined the creamy party.

For the carnivores, I suggest you add the charcuterie slate to your order. On any given night you’re likely to find a pâté, a couple of cured offerings and maybe even duck rillettes if you’re lucky. At the moment the slate is sporting a beef heart bresaola with bread and butter pickles and hibiscus all-spice mustard.

Charcuterie slate

Rooster goes to great lengths to use what’s fresh, keeping it seasonal and local when possible. For us that meant heirloom tomatoes marinated in aged sherry vinegar, cucumber, smoked goats milk yogurt, charred lemon arugula emulsion and flax-seed pumpernickel crackers. Dishes like this are often the most impressive as they’re so simple, yet most of us would never think to combine the flavors just so. The short rib gnocchi is an auto-order item for me. Ferrell prepares his gnocchi in the Parisienne style, resulting in a far lighter and less dense pillow than their heavier set cousins. The clincher for me is the duo of smoked ricotta and pickled peperonata. Creamy and rich, tangy and electric, it’s a great response to the unctuous short rib as it relaxes in its San Marzano coating. The star of course are the dainty gnocchi that almost dissipate on your tongue instead of adhering to the roof of your mouth like a barnacle.

Heirloom tomatoes & short rib gnocchi

I’ve been called a pole bean my whole life. Until I had them at Rooster, I’d considered it an insult. When you add in potato confit, garlic chips and duck cracklings, it becomes a compliment of the highest order. If you are what you eat, then I’m a tasty fellow. Another small plate selection that keeps with the earthen theme is the roasted mushrooms. Thankfully Ferrell didn’t go crazy with the bleu cheese, a known flavor bully, by piping small dots around the plate. Savory mushrooms are showcased front and center with a bacon and roasted bone marrow backup band to rival the Spiders from Mars.

Pole beans with potato confit & roasted mushroom with bacon and bone marrow

Ferrell presented us with a surprise care package of sous vide face bacon. That’s right, bacon of the face. A protein like this calls for some headstrong accompaniments, able to make themselves known. These came by way of chili flake broccolini, more of their amazing house ricotta, pine nut bread crumbs and tomato gravy. Dishes like this give me pause, if they can come up with plates of this calibre on the fly, out of leftovers no less, what else are they capable of?

Facebacon

Veggies, specifically beets. Normally I’m not a fan of this root, but the preparation here sold me. The healthy dollops of rich ricotta didn’t hurt either. Beets two ways, roasted and shaved raw, with cherry tomatoes was a light and refreshing departure from the previous dish, but no less enjoyable. Vegetarian friendly isn’t a phrase that rears its head on Eat a Duck often, but Rooster has a way of showcasing ground treasures so even this hardened protein protagonist can sing their praises.

House ricotta, beets

I write about this next dish with a heavy heart. After a good long run, the orecchiette with uni butter and bottarga has finally been retired. Bitter broccoli leaves and chili spiked confit tomatoes proved to be winning combination. If it was available, I ordered it every time without fail. It really was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve had, but I know all good things must come to an end. I take comfort in the fact that Rooster always comes up with something new and exciting to replace classic veterans. As I write this, the menu is already reflecting the hot new rookie, garlic chive cavatelli with charred tomato, pancetta, arugula, shave crontonese and gremolata breadcrumbs.

Uni butter orecchiette

At Rooster and the Till, for me at least, dessert consists of more savory dishes, or perhaps another half-dozen oysters. But their sweet dishes are as delicious and well designed as anything else on the menu. They’re typically on the refreshing end of the spectrum, a welcome palate cleanser after hearty meal. On this occasion they featured passion fruit, coconut and berries. The beautiful presentation is matched only by the depth of flavor.

Rooster dessert

Rooster and the Till are often maligned for serving small plates with high prices. I’m not sure what planet these commenters are from, but you won’t find a better value in Tampa. There are hardly any other restaurants in town serving up this calibre of food with such consistency. Even fewer establishments earn a spot in my “where to eat dinner tonight” list, but Rooster and the Till have landed a permanent reservation, as one of my favorite restaurants of all time.

Rooster & the Till on Urbanspoon

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol II: Through the Mojo-ve Desert

A few days have passed since the Cubano Apuercolypse Tour came to an end, and our bellies are still recovering from the Spartan test we put them through. We carefully scored each restaurant, crunched the data, and have at last discovered which local establishment makes the best traditional Tampa style Cuban sandwich, something none of us take lightly for various reasons. Whether it’s because of ethnic background, a deep-rooted bond with the city, a never-ending quest for the best of what’s offered or simply because of an obsessive adoration of sandwiches, the competition was taken seriously, as judging anything, especially food, ought to be.

Bay of Pigs

So why do we insist on a narrowing down our favorite to skew towards a Tampa style? We feel that the Tampa style encapsulates why the sandwich was invented in the first place. A bunch poor folk, from varied backgrounds, put the best of what they had together to make something great. To this day, a Tampa Cuban is one of the best examples of cultural diversity we have in this country, and we wanted to showcase those who do it best. Naturally you’ll find a majority of Cubanos at Cuban restaurants and bodegas, but a few gems out there that stray from tradition. Just like every vulgarian knows about Thriller, but not everyone digs down to PYT.

With that said, let’s lay out the basics. A Tampa Cuban should include the following components:

  1. Cuban bread
  2. Roast pork (preferably shredded or pulled, not deli sliced)
  3. Ham
  4. Salami
  5. Swiss
  6. Mustard
  7. Pickles

Anything that strayed too far from these basic qualities had points deducted. As far as extra ingredients, there are certain allowances to the rule as long as the sandwich is made better by the inclusion. Mayonnaise was a hotly debated topic. Our collective stance was that long as it didn’t detract from the end product, a deduction would not be made for mayo. The judges decided we would request that each sandwich be made in the traditional style. The true meaning of which, at times, seemed to escape our competitors. We also concluded, for continuity purposes, that every sandwich would be hot pressed. We all prefer, almost exclusively, that our Cubans pressed, however there are times when the mood calls for a cold one. However this was no time for cold sandwiches. We ended up eating 12 Cubans in all, the dirty dozen as it were.

To kick off the results, we’re sharing the six sando’s that didn’t make the cut. This being a Cuban sandwich contest, that cut had better be made diagonally or I will follow through with my plan to burn the building down. Below, along with each restaurant, we’ve combined our individual thoughts on the sandwich as written at the time of consumption.

We are the Four Coursemen of the Apuercolypse

J: Jimmy of Eat a Duck (World renowned sandwichier)

K: Kurt of Tasting Tampa (Tampaholic, can’t stop won’t stop)

L: Logan of Eat a Duck (The Truebano Operations Analyst)

T: Todd of Tasting Tampa (Patron Saint of Pork)

Aguila Sandwich Shop

J: The endless loop of their Man vs Food spot was full of promise. Sadly, reality is rarely as impressive. The diminutive amount of cheese was hardly melted. The roast pork was sliced and dry and the accompanying mojo sauce was a salt bomb.

K: Miami style with no salami, heck no, not in Tampa.  Also, with a video showing beautiful moist roast pork, why was my sandwich so dry and flavorless?  As an aside, that garbanzo bean soup and the fresh passion fruit juice hit me right.

L: While waiting we were treated to an endless loop of Man v. Food in which Aguila was spotlighted. Adam Richman got a sandwich piled as high as Pico Turquino. TV must add 5 pounds of pork to each sandwich, because ours was sorely lacking meat, as there was no visible cinematographer on set.

T: No salami, a bit dry, and the briny mojo just made me thirsty. The sandwich was forgettable, although the jugos were really good. The soup too. Basically everything other than the Cuban.

Aguila Sandwich Shop Cuban

Columbia Restaurant

J: After nearly 100 years in the Cuban game, Columbia fell, inexcusably, to many of the same issues of its younger peers. Dry, flavorless pork, parched bread. The few pickles to be had were limp. The cheese was decent but cold.

K: Tradition rules at the Columbia, but not necessarily a great one on the Cuban.  The bread was pressed for way too long. Dry, sliced roast pork doesn’t do it for me.  Please, please, please Columbia, make the Cuban that you should be known for.

L: Bread was so dry it crumbled in my hands, like the nazi that couldn’t answer what God’s name was at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This is what 100 years of practice gets you. We talkin’ practice?

T: As much as I love the Gonzmart family and everything they’ve done for Tampa, this will be my last visit to this place. It was laughable, the restaurant wasn’t super busy or anything, it’s like they absolutely didn’t care, from the food to the service.

Columbia Restaurant Cuban

Brocato’s

J: Within our parameters, this much-loved Tampa staple didn’t stack up. Enormous piles of ham overpowered the lesser amounts of pork and salami. Its core was stone cold as it was warmed in the oven and not pressed. This resulted in the cheese melting at the edge but not in the middle.

K: My growing up favorite became my adulthood disappointment.  This is the value choice Cuban.  A single cuban could feed a family of four. But because of the crazy amounts of ham, you lose the flavors of all the other meat. I’m looking for a perfect combo of pork, ham, salami, cheese, and pickle. This tasted like mostly ham.

L: Truth be told, they messed up on our first sandwich and rushed the replacement. At first bite, hot on the outside, icy-cold in the middle, with no press whatsoever and way over meated. As a society, have we learned nothing from Encino man except to not weeze the juice? Can’t wait to go back to the ribeye steak sandwich with provolone, which is far superior.

T: Hot on the outside, chill in the middle, briny from cheap sliced ham, no rich or “juicy” element to it, cheese not melty, overall dry, not balanced. A good value, but beyond that, not worth repeating.

Brocato's Cuban

La Segunda

J: Great bread as you’d expect from the supplier for the majority of Cuban sandwiches in Tampa, well buttered, pressed and crisp. I’m a mayo man, but this was ridiculous for a Cuban. Again, sliced dry pork, a cold center, undetectable cheese. Pickles had a nice tang but were covered in mayo.

K: Amazing bread (best I had that day). While I’m not anti mayo, I’m definitely anti-too much mayo.  Have I mentioned the mayo?

L: The amazing feats they’ve made in the art of bread making, were nearly overlooked by the end result. It was so off the mark, the rest of my portion was stripped from my hand and swiftly thrown in the trash bin.

T: Would you like sandwich with your mayonnaise?

La Segunda Cuban

Wright’s Gourmet House

J: Wonderful cheese, nicely melted, stretching to TMNT pizza proportions. The pork was slightly dry, the mustard was there but hardly pronounced and I could have used more butter on the bread. Also, turkey?

K: Hello turkey on my cuban. Why are you here?  Super melty cheesy goodness though and I love melted cheese.

L: Lots of people, all eating a lot and looking quite melancholy. Maybe it’s because they realized there was turkey on their Cuban sandwich.

T: The trend today seems to be Tampa classic/staples that have become apathetic, there’s no love in it anymore. And why turkey? Needed more mustard-gravy to offset it.

Wright's Gourmet Cuban

Floridian

J: Not bad by any means, cheese was great. This one got knocked a bit for unbalanced pickle distribution, my bites were full of them. The overall flavor didn’t make much of an impression.

K: This is the Cuban that you expect to get. It’s not splashy, but it does the job. This is the everyday Joe Cuban. It could be a true contender with a little more work.

L: I kept detecting faint traces of rosemary, which no one else agreed with. Great, distinct Swissyness. Touted as finest Cuban on the planet. Disagree, yet still pretty tasty.

T: I kept finding myself liking it better if I put some of their calypso hot sauce on it, or modified it in some way, but standalone it was unremarkable. Cheese was good although it wasn’t melted, meat looked/tasted cheap. At the price point, it’s tough to justify.

The Floridian Cuban

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol I

We are four men, bound by principle and the unwritten law of what is pure and true. When we were little boys we wanted to be big boys and do big boy things. We wanted to be independent, able to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. So here we are, at the great fear inspiring precipice before each of us, one so steep that once you jump, there’s no turning back. Serious sandwich deliberation is in our future. Honestly, I’m nervous and it’s keeping me awake tonight.

Bay of Pigs

When I was a boy I dreamt that one day I would find the perfect sandwich. Something that would encapsulate each one of my interests that could be found between two pieces of bread. We were not the type to eat out often, when I was a kid. When we did, I remember my entire meal budget was 3 dollars. My life hasn’t always been foie gras and cote de boeuf. One of my earliest food memories was sitting over a fresh Cuban sandwich laced with real tabs of half melted butter on the crust after a good firm pressing. We always picked this circular table tucked away in a dimly lit corner inside what used to be the bustling Latam restaurant at the cross of Columbus Ave and Habana. I loved eating Cuban sandwiches from Latam not just because they were they only thing I could buy and still have enough for a can of Jupiña, but also because it really was extraordinary. Sadly, Latam either went downhill or changed hands, then moved multiple times in the last 20 years. My dad had a saying when he no longer cared for a restaurant, he used to take a long pause after a bad meal, right before his last sip of cafe con leche and say…”Well, I’m marking this place off my list.” When he uttered those words, that was all she wrote. It was the kiss of death. He had a way of making you appreciate how important it was to not waste money on things. Bad food/coffee was on the top of his list. We never went back to Latam after that statement was made because, when he said something, he meant it. Instead, my extended 1/2 Cuban family started going to La Teresita after it had its resurgence in the mid 90’s, when the enormous expansion took place next door to the original diner. I still admire La Teresita’s Cubano, as the press is near perfect, though they skimp on the meat so the ratio is off. For just under $4, it’s a great deal. We now prefer dining at Arco Iris, which also has a location on Columbus, due to being turned on to the chicharron de pollo, (not their Cuban sandwich which is good but too hammy and covered in mayo) by my friend Jeff Houck.
I miss my dad so much in part because of the little quirky expressions he had, which makes a world of sense now that I’m a big boy and want to do big boy things, like eat 12+ Cuban sandwiches in a single day. I imagine he would probably call me “a dad burn deviant” for thinking up something so ridiculous.

At its nucleus, the reasoning Eat a Duck and Tasting Tampa are embarking this venture is because, quite frankly, Tampa has lost its way. As Tampanians and Floridians, the Cuban sandwich is part of our heritage, and from our perspective, we see bastardized versions more often than those which make our eyes roll back with porkified pleasure. It’s time we put our foot down and figure out who still does it best, because, if made properly this sandwich can not be topped.

If you choose to study the storied past where numerous incarnations of pork products were brought together by a smattering of multinational subgroups, allow me to point you in the direction of a true Cuban sandwich historian. This comprehensive examination is expertly done, and far more in-depth than we could ever go.

The conversation for doing a Cuban sandwich crawl to figure out who does it best started with four friends who couldn’t agree on who makes the best Tampa Cuban, in well…Tampa. We feel that the tradition of the sandwich shop with its $3.45 masterpieces have slowly gone the way of the buffalo, in a sense that no one is actively trying to make anything great anymore, much less the perfect Cuban. The passion for things such as these is so lacking, it literally causes a frustration of plans. We are sick and tired of these places getting comfortable, thinking their illustrious past reputations can hold up through a decline in quality. There are so many shops making a Cuban sandwich, yet we as a whole community of food lovers have no consensus on who does it best. Sure, you can come at me all you want with the fact that there is a Cuban sandwich festival that crowns the winner. That’s all well and good, but let me tell you something brother, not everyone participates. So how is that a true gauge?

We have carefully hand-picked a broad range of spots from hole in the wall to dang near fine dining, in order to give a wide variety of establishments the chance to take the crown. We took public opinion into consideration, as well as some of the winners from said Cuban sandwich festival. There’s a couple here I bet you’ve never heard of, right next to a restaurant that’s been around for over a hundred years. If you have a hundred years to practice anything shouldn’t you be the best? Think about it. A hundred years a single establishment has been afforded, to formulate the perfect combination of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, mayo, (mayonnaise the only optional ingredient) pickle, Cuban bread and yes, salami. This is Tampa. If you don’t put salami on your Cuban, you’re the one that’s suffering, not me, and if I see a shred of shredded lettuce, I’m going to burn the building down. If there is even a slight sliver of sliced tomato, I’m going to burn the building down. However, we are not down on the whole community. There is greatness out there, and we aim to find it.

At each stop we will be grading solely on the quality of that particular sandwich and grading only it on its own merit. There will be no comparing sandwich x with sandwich y. The winner will undoubtedly be worthy of jubilation and applause as they are truly deserving. We want you to know not only who is the greatest but most importantly, why. I already know that some of you will disagree and say we are completely wrong when we fail to pick your lame place as the champ. If that’s the case we have two things to say to you.

1. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
2. You’re entitled to your wrong opinion.

We hope you enjoy the chronicle and enjoy our journey. Without further delay, the time of porkening is swiftly approaching. I can hear the faint sound of hoofs stomping and snoots snorting in the distance. The Cubano Apuercolypse is drawing nigh into the city limits. 12+ sandwiches in the span of one day. 4 worthy judges will crown a champion of the Tampa Cuban.

Are you with us or against us?

Élevage at the Epicurean (Sneak Peek) – Tampa, FL

When you think of Bern’s steakhouse what comes to mind? Not much comes to mine, as I’m forced to live vicariously through the myriad fables and tall tales told to me by friends, who relish in rubbing salted butter in my wounds. You might consider this is sacrilegious, considering I claim to be a food and resto lover. Yet, facts are fact, and the fact is, I have never been to the place that has built an empire serving some of the finest beef and wine combinations available in the Western Hemisphere. I got no excuses. Yes, Bern’s is fine dining on the highest level. That hasn’t stopped me from unloading way more money than I should at other places. I’m ashamed.

As reconciliation, allow me to share a sneak peek of what’s coming next from the people who also brought you Sideburns. If Bern’s is the personification of classic cuisine, Sideburns should be known as Xanadu, the restaurant of the future! And the mesh that binds these two vastly different approaches? Elevage, a concept housed inside the newest venture from the Bern’s constituency, a boutique hotel known as The Epicurean.

Logo

It has been some time since I was blessed with an insiders look at what to expect from Elevage, as Sideburns boarded itself up one week in Mid-October, to focus on their soon to be newborn creation.

I refer you to read my friend Jeff Houck’s more in-depth coverage of Elevage, where he describes it as “classic American comfort food with a fine-dining touch.” I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Houck’s description. You want to know where Bern’s and its neighbor to the side meet and give the everyman a chance to partake? It’s at Elevage. From what I saw of the sampling, there will be nothing overly stuffy or excessively avant-garde about the dining experience. Here’s exactly what to expect broken down to its most cellular level. Picture the dish your mom made for dinner growing up, or if you have a little age on you think about every clichéd restaurant food from the 50’s and 60’s. Do you have it yet? Did your mom not cook for you as a child? You didn’t ever go out to eat? Oh, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t aware. How inconsiderate of me. For everyone else, I’m sure you’ve pictured a dish or two that fulfills these criteria. Maybe you live too far away and you don’t get that home cooking from mom anymore, or forgot that duck a l’orange was the ramen burger of the Mid-20th Century.

With dishes like Quail Cordon Bleu, flounder almondine stuffed with rock shrimp and black garlic aioli, and foie gras matzo ball soup, you’d think you’ve stepped into some alternate reality, where Ozzie and Harriet are next door neighbors with John and Sarah Conner, who live across the street from the Jetsons.

I love classics done right. I adore the idea of the figurative elevation of traditional cuisine, done in a setting that doesn’t include a TV tray. Elevage has proved its worth before the doors have even opened for business, before the first reservation has been honored. To forecast more of what the diner has in store, I see nostalgia playing a big part in their success. To be taken back to a place and time with food as the sole teleportation device, a place that can only exist in one’s mind, is a pretty exciting notion.

Like I told Mr. Houck when he queried about my expectations, I said, “I wasn’t pleasantly surprised. I expected it to be amazing, and they exceeded that.” I urge you to check out his story where he delves into some of the more enticing homages Elevage will be offering, including my warped, nay distorted, albeit delicious choice for dessert.

In the meantime take a look at some of the dishes made available to us at the pop-up hosted by Sideburns. Special thanks to Thai Vo, who shared some of the better pictures below, as many of mine were sub-par.

Elevage Sneek Peek

Elevage on Urbanspoon