Lakeland Barbecue Co.

I don’t remember exact flavors at Good Buddies, exempt them dirty fries. Why my phantom taste buds can recite this one menu item among all the others is beyond human comprehension. Yet, as an ode to the restaurant that once bustled then succumbed to a tragic fire a half dozen years or more in downtown Lakeland, my French fry cart The Root concocted our own version of dirty fries. Unfortunate or indifferent as it is, Good buddies isn’t back although the team that once brought some of the best BBQ around is. And what’s in a name really? For me, it happens to be nostalgia for  something I honestly can’t really remember too much of other than my brain verifies they was awesome. Lakeland BBQ Co. has risen out of the ashes of a burned down building and years worth of domination in local BBQ competitions. That is what their reputation of this new to you named BBQ Co is built upon.

LkldBBQ
This isn’t really a review, think of it more of an introduction to how I gauge my barbeque.
When you walk in, head toward the bar in the far reaches of the building where you might see someone waving a wooden stock pot spoon at you to control foot traffic in the right direction. If you don’t already know how to order BBQ from a new place here’s how you do it. Everyone’s got one or two favorite cuts of meat or preparations. From birth I’ve been a rib guy, mainly spare with the tips attached. If that’s not available, I wont always go for the back ribs as the next option. If not pork ribs, ill usually gravitate (if available) toward more rare white rabbit type forms such as Burnt Ends, In House Smoked sausage, Pig Belly and Mutton. If you don’t have a preference with BBQ I think you’re on the verge of being lost. I’m saying this because we have rules. Without rules, chaos reigns. When chaos reigns, you get your queues from a talking fox. On the first trip to a new BBQ restaurant or frankly one you’ve never been before, always order what you already love. This is your gauge. If you don’t think they do what you like very well, you probably aren’t going to like the rest. I would never order pulled or chopped pork over ribs, brisket, sausage, lamb, duck or even chicken, so why would I judge based on that? Chopped pork is way down my list, but this is  not at the behest of anyone that likes it. We all have our security blankets.

The ordering structure at Lakeland BBQ co. makes it easy to perform a second test because the subject is already at the table. Saucing. Take your less predominant index finger  out. Place a few dabs of whichever sauce you think you’ll enjoy. You want control, which is why I squeeze with my right and test with the left. Their spicy sauce is not overbearing on the heat index, but it’s cold inside to be honest. Usually shivering will cause you to feel the heat more than it’s meant to be felt, so sit near the window for maximum effort. It was very tolerable nonetheless. I detected a flavor combination with a subtle complexity right off the bat. I think I got some coffee and smoked chile, caramelized brown sugar in there somewhere.

As for the ribs:

The smoke ring was there as you see, but the smoky flavor wasn’t as bring you to your knees powerful as you’ll find at other joints.  Because of these factors, the texture made me think more of deeply roasted shoulder. I respect the restraint they exhibited as it caused me to actually taste pork. Kind of the reason we like the stuff in the first place.

lkldribs

The menu is brief with the main and sides at a minimum, so you don’t have a myriad of options. I’m fine with that. I’d rather have fresh tasty sides done very well, over a pliable sheet panned week old macaroni and cheese. Opting for what I perceive everyone will gravitate toward, Cheesy Hash brown casserole was my side of choice, although the following visit allowed me to put their Collards under the microscope. You see, in actuality making good Collard Greens isn’t tough. Just don’t serve them raw in a salad or turn ’em to mush. everything else within the spectrum is allowable. The problem is people who make really good Collard Greens don’t want to admit anyone else does them good.  I have to admit, they done did the Collards right. Tender, ham hocky, salty and tangy with some great pot likker broth to sip as an after meal digestif.

A fitting suprise was the wedge of cake like cornbread on my lunch tray. I wasn’t expecting it, probably didn’t need it from the generous amount of ribs they provided, however I was very happy to eat the entire brick. Restaurant cornbread can be as fickle as a newspaper editor, twice as crummy and three times, no four times as dry. Not here.

Since they’re only open for Lunch, this new place might not end up on everyone’s to do list. If you’re a fan of Good buddies, maybe you’ll try this and think it’s just like they used to do it. Maybe you’ll think they have grown from the years being on the circuit. Maybe you’ll be elbow deep in pork fat  and far too busy to pontificate over these trivialized matters.

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #7

Every so often, the boys of Eat a Duck are bestowed with incredible meals in rapid succession. Sadly we couldn’t share in any food-ventures over the last few days, but if the spread below is any indication, I’d say we still had a successful week in eating.

The wife and I snuck in a visit to Boca: Kitchen, Bar & Market in Tampa and Café Boulud in West Palm Beach before heading down to Miami to see my parents off for the summer. If I’m not eating with Logan, I’m probably eating with Jep, and we did some fine work this weekend. Dim sum at Blackbrick, incredible Japanese spiked Peruvian fare at La Mar and a long-awaited trip for pizza Napolitana at Stanzione 87 were all on the menu. A simple dinner at home with some home-made pesto over fusilli and antipasti of burrata, heirloom tomato and prosciutto from San Daniele.

Logan made his rounds to some of the best eats in Lakeland with Vietnamese from Pho Tan, and BBQ from Fat Maggie’s. Concord Coffee and their Poor Porker supplied pastries seems to be a weekly affair, and who can blame him? The food scene in his town is really starting to show some promise, so I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot more Lakeland restaurants making their way into the recap in the weeks to come.

Look out for some full length pieces in the next few weeks featuring some of the new Miami joints we’ve teased here!

EAD Weekly #7

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

Pho Tan – Lakeland, FL

A Rooster and the Till outpost could have arrived in town and it would have taken second fiddle to the new Vietnamese place, Pho Tan, that just opened over in no man’s land USA, aka the Combee settlement in Southeast Lakeland, Florida. You have to understand my plight, my yearning, and my overall displeasure pho my local food scene be-pho you understand why a legitimate Vietnamese restaurant means so much more to me.

Here’s a little back story to prove my love.

I preface this by apologizing pho bashing the only other Vietnamese place in town, but it helps tell the story. When the other “Viet” restaurant in town opened about two or three years ago, how excited I was! The cuisine of Vietnam has gradually caused to become one of my favorites. From bánh mi to com dia, and all the delicious bánh bao. At long last I wouldn’t have to drive over an hour to sample these delicious dishes. Oh how wrong I was. The food was as sad as a fatherless child, yet disreputable sources continue to bestow either 4 ½ stars or a 95% approval rating, which means people are still giving them their business.

Pho Tan spread 3

It’s my hypothesis that the general population in town doesn’t know what authentic Vietnamese food tastes like if this place does it pho them. To be fair, I’ve never been anywhere close to the Mekong River, so my comparative knowledge spans from the ethnic crossroads found in neighborhoods I’m very familiar with in Manhattan, Orlando and Tampa. All of which are offer much greater quality than this terrible incarnation we had.

About two months ago, I drove into an old dingy parking lot by accident after needing to make a U-turn to get out of Combee as fast as humanly possible, and noticed the sign pho Pho Tan. At first I thought I was mistakenly seeing a sign pho a salon, the letters spelling ‘Phoenix Tan’, having long fallen off. I imagined a glowing bird ascending through the flames, sporting a pair of Wayfarers pho retinal protection. It couldn’t possibly be a restaurant could it? Fast forward to this past Sunday, my phone starts blowing up around 11:30 am with close friends who know my hatred pho the Viet restaurant that shall not be named, telling me that I have to check out Pho Tan! All day I was bombarded with pho-tos of pho, bun, bánh mi and rice paper rolls. So I went, that very night with ZERO expectations.

My wife wants to hate Pho Tan. She doesn’t think it’s possible to have even a handful of decent places to eat in town. I don’t disagree with her based on what’s around, yet my hope never dies. It’s a general theme between us lately; the impression of pre-conceived hatred. I just want it to be good. Good enough to where I can say “ Hey, I don’t want to drive out-of-town pho dinner tonight, you want Pho Tan?” That’s all I ask. Sadly, that’s how bad it is here sometimes. The bargaining chip pho me were the gushing reviews from my friends. I think pho the most part, I surround myself with people who have great taste and true discernment. If they like it, I should too.

Pho Tan spread 2

We ordered a plate of steamed chicken dumplings; a rare starter at most Vietnamese places. They came with an out of character dipping broth. Pho the most part we got them pho the kid; he likes stabbing them and making dim sum lollipops. It was mildly pleasing, yet I considered it somewhat a precarious start as they were highly fragile. I like the flavor but wasn’t ready to give up on Anh Hong. The brothy sauce was so noteworthy, we held on to it pho the duration of our meal, no matter how many times our sweet waitress tried to pull it from the booth.

We loved the Com dia, with grilled beef & shrimp, a perfect fried egg and the best stuffed shrimp paste in fried bean curd I’ve honestly ever had. It was light and crispy with a mousseline of herbaceous shrimp paste stuffed inside. I can’t imagine finding a better version anywhere else. It was a shame that my wife’s lemongrass chicken and spring roll bun, didn’t hit a ground rule double with her. She didn’t like the cold noodles intertwined with the hot chicken. Whatever they do to the lemongrass chicken is impressive, yet the dish itself was let biggest let down. They also need to give us a holy trinity of herbs (cilantro, Thai basil and mint), as only a few are co-mingled, with only sprouts and nước chấm on the side. If they could tweak that slightly, I think it would be passable in her eyes.

We also ordered a grilled chicken bánh mi, not realizing it would come with the same lemongrass marinade. I may have opted pho the grilled pork had I known, as I was suffering from lemongrass overload. Nevertheless, there were wonderful flavors on the inside from the jalapeño, cilantro, mint, pickled vegetables and lemony mayo. However they used a large segment from a whole baguette which caused an uneven bread to filling ratio, unfortunately favoring the bread. This could easily be fixed by buying mini baguettes over whole loaves. Get them at Publix! That’s how Saigon Deli does it!

Pho Tan spread 1

I knew Lakeland had a small Vietnamese community somewhere out there, as a large group showed up as we were just finishing our meal. By the time we left, the place was packed full of happy eaters. I wonder how those who migrated from Vietnam feel about a place that undoubtedly reminds them of home? Imagine moving to the opposite side of the world without access to your favorite Cuban joint, and then one day, Arco Iris opens down the street. I would cry. We need to support this place so it sticks around.

Comparing Pho Tan to the other place is like comparing Tartine Bakery to Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s really a great spot pho Lakeland, with better ingredients and way more authenticity than any other spot in the area. Just look in the kitchen. You’ll likely see a sweet looking old man painstakingly stirring a 20 gallon pot of pho with what appears to be a canoe oar. While It doesn’t beat my favorite places in every category, as you know, I wasn’t really expecting it to. Even the best Vietnamese I’ve eaten in other parts of the country have their particular strengths and weaknesses. Pho the price and overall experience, I think I speak pho everyone who desires good Vietnamese food; “Welcome to Lakeland, please stay!”

Born + Bread Bakehouse – Lakeland, FL

As cooks, we steal. No one in the field can claim to be 100% original all the time. Maybe Escoffier? I’ll ask around. Someone had to teach us basic technique, perhaps peppered with a few tricks here and there to make us what we are but not what we can become. A good cook doesn’t stop at simple thievery, no, he borrows, gains inspiration and makes it his own. In the immortal words of Frank Black, try this trick, and spin it…yeah.

Here is the difference between us and them. We don’t usually open a cookbook or periodical of note and recreate a recipe verbatim. If you’re in that habit, the results are generally poor. We all have different palates and taste buds. We also live in different unique climates. Then again, when we find a recipe or interesting combination of ingredients, we steal it anyway. When you steal, you should do so for only these three reasons.

1. To learn a technique
2. To spin a plate you love while using your own style
3. To make something better than the “original”

Born & Bread logo

The moment you sink your teeth in the mignon of Jennifer Smurr’s interpretation of the baked good known nationally as a  morning bun, you’ll instantly realize that this form of appropriation is perfectly acceptable. This city is at long last progressing. I’ve campaigned for competent bakers in town ever since my first real adult trip to New York City, when I finally experienced a real baguette, not to mention pastry and now we have them. To taste a thousand flaky layers all in one bite is the result of science, math and art all being tied together like a perfect braided apple strudel. It takes a special set of hands to delicately craft baked goods in a way that can change the landscape of an entire community. To sustain people and make them smile in the same bite. I have a feeling the hands attached to Jenn have the passion to achieve these things.

Born & Bread 1

A classic American beauty with hair adorned in golden braids like something you’d read about in Greek mythology, the life of a model would be an easy career choice for her to make. One that actually played out to fruition. There was one problem. The passion, the spark, and the desire to create something she wanted to create just wasn’t there. By no means is modeling an easy career. As an outsider, due to my grotesque physical prowess, I can assure you that field is as cut throat as it gets. As a friend and ex-postal supervisor of her delivery area, I have had the opportunity to sample some of her early experiments. From the sweet potato biscuits with bacon jam, to the all the pastries and breads, she has totally immersed herself into the art of baking, taking cues from her travels all over the world. Nothing depicts her individuality better than the triumphant spin on the classic morning bun made famous by San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery. An item she fell in love with during recent a trip to the west coast. She made it her own and made it better than the original in my opinion. There are artisans who have created empires based on one thing. If that were the case in this instance the morning bun would be her rise to power.

 There is a flawless bite nestled into each one to help focus your oral aperture. In what is in theory, a croissant shaped to mimic a cinnamon roll perfection is found. The lead up to that one perfect bite literally unwinds like a king cobra striking its prey, and like a king cobra, this French pastry has an enormous range as it is flaky, buttery, crisp, chewy, bright, spicy and sticky sweet all in the same bite. And like a king cobra they can be deadly. Really if you think about it a certain way, these are more weapon than breakfast item. This perfect representation of a classic morning treat reminds me of one the best of the very best NOFX songs, “And Now For Something Completely Similar” from the album – Pump up the Valuum. Compare the progression of the bun with that of a song. Better yet, get a bun and play the song in unison while eating. Whatever you do, do not play the song backwards or you run the risk of pulling yourself into a Faul McCartney-esque vortex.  As it starts off with the singular driving force of a guitar track. As the song unravels (physically start eating your bun by pulling apart the pieces from the outside in) you are greeted with the harmonious beat of a double kick pedal on the drums in time with the lead (the cinnamon sugar swirl with a hint of orange zest). As you reach the crescendo, right before the lyrics come in, a pulsating slap of the bass bombards your speakers (taking a bite from the center in all its ooey goodness). Finally, Fat Mike’s angelic voice comes in (savoring the combined efforts of all flavors involved) and everything begins to move so fast you can barely stand it!

Born & Bread 2

Fast forward through a stint in an intense 3 month-long training program in Miami at ZTB Bakery, and then another few more months working on her business plan. She has zero need to carry the persona “Jenn the apprentice” any longer. She’s got her technique down to rival any patisserie in the country, with flavors that are going to leave few heads unturned. After a few more months of business planning has passed, she is ready to knock you down and make you curse all the days in which you unknowingly went without her goods. “Born + Bread,” her first foray into public legitimacy as a professional baker has finally risen. If you can breathe you should go find it.

And find it you shall, in two incarnations. She will be setting up a spot at the Lakeland downtown curb market on Saturdays to give people a taste of what’s in store. Secondly, look for her work showcased prominently at another exciting endeavor coming this spring to the Dixieland village. Concord Coffee is soon to be Lakeland’s truest version of a craft coffee shop, with Born + Bread on full display.

The Bread Pedlar – Lakeland, FL

We rarely speak about a place unless there are heaps of dishes to discuss. Regularly, the routine is to sink into a few meals worth of content before giving our devoted approval. This time is different.

The Bread Pedlar

For years, maybe a decade even, I’ve complained about the lack of a true bread artisan within a reasonable driving distance. Sure, I’m the first one that’s willing to round-up a flock of associates to head out-of-town for good pho, dim sum or a nicely cooked piece of beef. However for bread, well, don’t we all deserve a proper loaf in every city, township and municipality throughout this great land? If you polled Will McAvoy, I’m sure lack of stellar bakeries is one of his most prominent contentions with America being the greatest land of them all. Well, that along with the number of incarcerated citizens per capita, the amount of people who believe umami is real and defensive spending to avert war. None of this is our fault of course, unless you’re the kind of person that believes America is just a place to be – no better and no worse than any other place. The variance is how much room for opportunity we have. We can literally be anything we want to be. You can be an information technology expert, a hydroponic gardener/designer, a baker or all of those combined. Ask Adrian Lucas. He is all that and probably even more. As for his drive to create greatness with his own hands, I doubt we’ve even floured the surface of his potential.

Bread Pedlar croissants

Adrian is the kind of guy who saw a gap and filled it. I recall the conversation we had one morning, standing together waiting for our weekly beignet fix. As always the topic had meandered it’s way toward food and restaurants, what the city needed. I requested a good butcher and charcuterie shop, Robyn from poor porker sounded in from her lofty perched with an order for a tasty cheese monger. Adrian asked us both “What about bread?” I could sense both Robyn and my knees kind of turn to jelly as we went weak realizing both our desires could be filled perfectly with the inclusion of a crusty piece of bread. We must have been part of some sort of secret focus group because not long after, the freaking guy was off to Europe to attend a masters class on artisanal bread making. When he returned, he got to work developing his style with a legitimate small bread oven he brought across the pond. He began putting his practice to good use by selling small quantities of his wares at the market, which is sort of where we stand today. I give a huge tip of the cap to anyone that can master this nearly lost art. I’m honestly scared of yeast. I’m afraid that if I have it in my house, it will activate and form into a Voltron-like character and destroy me while I sleep. So, you can clearly see, someone who has the power to manipulate and harness this unpredictable living being that is a ball of dough and turn it into a slice of edible art, I give a great deal admiration toward.

Don’t let all this talk of bread sway you into thinking that he is limited to a singular focus. There are a few other options, hopefully with more to come. I’d love to see something like a Pithivier. We are the ones that can make it happen if we continuously show support for this tiny, tight-knit group of artisans, until it’s obvious that they’ve filled a noticeable void in the market. They are the custard to the empty profiterole that is our town.

Bread Pedlar bike n' bread

For now, to enjoy a taste of the real life, you can only find his small bicycle drawn cart once a week. Look for a proper charming Brit with rugged good looks and calloused hands meant for baking, sporting the most authentic “Newsies” cap you’ll ever see. Do not delay. As I said before, this operation can only pump out a small sampling of amazing baked treats. He usually pumps his peddles to arrive just before 10 am at the downtown Lakeland curb market Saturday mornings, and from my experience, he will sell out of the pain au chocolat and various country-style bread loaves in less than 30 minutes.

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?

Red Door Wine Market – Lakeland, FL

Let’s be honest, late night dining has never been Lakeland’s forte. Let me rephrase, quality late night dining. Recently, Logan and I found ourselves in the familiar situation of wanting something tasty long after the sun had faded. Had this been any time in the last ten years, we would’ve had to either make the trek to Orlando or Tampa, or suck it up and go to sleep hungry. This time though, a freshly minted eatery, with the curious ability to transport us somewhere with cooler weather and colorful leaves, was there to sate our hunger.

Red Door Exterior

Red Door Wine Market was anything but expected to this jaded Lakeland visitor. As soon as I stepped through the door (yes it is actually red), I felt like I had just walked in out of a blustery nor’easter. It’s an indescribable quality that some restaurants have, that ability to transport you, with either food, atmosphere or both.

Red Door Interior

After a quick introduction with Chef Jason Boniface, a legit looking dude to be sure, I took my seat and was immediately struck by the items on offer, marrow bones, oysters on the half shell and scallops ‘n bacon, in particular, caught my eye, “I am still in Lakeland right?”, I thought to myself. Sure enough, Lake Morton was just down the street. We wasted no time ordering the marrow and the scallops straight away. I was giddy. I realize it must sound like I’m insulting Lakeland with my surprise, and I mean no disrespect, but seafood isn’t normally what you’d want to order anywhere else in town, and forget about finding split marrow bones with beef marmalade and gremolata.

Red Door Menu

The dishes arrived and once again I had forgotten my surroundings as the aroma of braised pork belly and beef marrow filled my nostrils. The marrow was thick, shiny and slightly pink. These may have been the heartiest marrow bones I’ve ever had. The gelatinous protein spread like room temperature butter. A dab of gremolata and a pile of marmalade on a crostini comes together for the most ridiculous mouth feel. This dish is to my mouth what a squirt of oil is to the Tin Man.

Roasted Bone Marrow

Scallops are one of my favorite types of seafood. Crown a few slivers of jiggly, braised pork belly with the pearly white shellfish, and you chef, deserve the Nobel Prize. You could stop wars with this dish. The scallops were perfectly seared, just enough to color the outside, yet little enough to keep the insides translucent. The sweet scallop, enhanced by the maple gastrique, paired wonderfully with the savory belly. Given the chance, I’d have eaten these quicker than Lucy on the chocolate conveyor.

Scallops 'n Bacon

Jason must have peered deep into my soul in the few seconds we locked eyes, because an ice bowl with five enormous Louisiana oysters appeared without request. We here at Eat a Duck never expect freebies, but when the planets align and you’re bestowed with one, you respect the gesture and devour it! A squeeze of lemon and small slather of cocktail sauce prepped the succulent bivalves for their short journey down our gullets. Sweet to the extreme, meaty and just briny enough to remind you of the ocean, they were the perfect ending to our late night jaunt.

Louisiana oysters on the half shell

I heard rumors of an amazing brownie, alas, it’ll have to wait for my next visit. There are so many people to thank for this experience, Logan and Jason immediately come to mind. I live for these unplanned food-ventures, and if Red Door Wine Market is the beginning of a trend in Lakeland, you’d better believe I’ll be there to follow it.

Red Door Wine Market on Urbanspoon

This is how we roll: Nouveau Stuffed Cabbage

Ever heard a serious intellectual utter the saying “This is how I roll?”

The term can not be found dating back nearly a millennium, originally written as a grand piece of poetry categorizing the “great men of yore” and their subsequent indulgences. The Kaiserchronik is a 12th-century chronicle of emperors. Though much of the material is legendary and fantastical, suggesting that large sections were compiled from earlier works, most of it is made up of short biographies, full of striking truths and even more striking similarities. For example the succession of the Romans from Julius Caesar (possibly the inventor of the 44 B.C Salad) all the way through Conrad III, the first king of Germany of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty all had an affinity for meat and grain, encased in leafy green biennials. On his deathbed, King Conrad might have used his last breath of sweet, sweet air to make a declaration of complete cabbage dependence as the last crop had finally been bitten by frost. He would have said something slong the lines of ” Countryman…if it is so that my meals have ceased from being presented in a totally tubular manner, then let me die. This world has nothing left for me. This is how I roll”.

I would have to say about 50% of my meals are not planned. They are wonderful accidents made up from scraps and remnants of other groceries, searching for purpose.

For example, on one late afternoon, we started getting hungry and did the old rapidly open and close the fridge trick. Hoping that every time we took a peek, something worth eating would magically appear, such as a pair two-inch thick ribeye’s and a 1905 Salad. Then maybe we might mosey up next to the oven to find a batch of buttery Potatoes Anna, blissfully bubbling while browning under a white-hot broiler. It wasn’t going to be that easy. What we did find was a perfectly suitable dinner for any man-child or world ruler. I give you a gift, in the form of an updated version of every child’s nightmare, the cabbage roll. No longer will you be subjected to grainy ground beef, mixed with maggot-like, gloopy rice, let alone the actual cabbage part of a cabbage roll. Usually when I have eaten this dish, the cabbage turns out to feel more like fresh skin peeled off a leprosy victim. Hungry yet?

Cabbage Rolls

To make this more appealing, we made a sort of mousse with chicken thighs, brown rice, and a ton of spices. And we didn’t pre-cook the cabbage leaves like some Bulgarians I know. If you roll your filling with raw cabbage, you might actually end up with a palatable texture. Lastly, we made a light tomato sauce to cover the rolls, using organic tomato bisque, lemon, and some heavy cream and butter from grass-fed cows. It makes a difference! This is really easy as you only have two stages of throwing stuff together and then some rolling. That’s it.

Try it tonight. While you’re at it, why don’t you challenge me to update one of your least favorite dishes from the olde country.

Preheat Oven to 375º F

Chicken Mousse (to be made ahead of time):

1-1/2 cups cooked brown rice

6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

3 green onions, quartered

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sweet paprika

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

1/2 tsp. ground sage

1/2 tsp. ground coriander

1/2 tsp. dried parsley

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend on high for about one minute or until everything has been pulverized! Cover with plastic and set aside.

Cabbage Roll Process

Peel off 10-12 whole cabbage leaves from a good-sized head. Cut out the thick part of the rib and discard. Set aside leaves.

Tomato Sauce:

1 17.5 oz container of tomato bisque or a can of high quality tomato soup

1 stick of salted grass-fed butter

The juice of one lemon, plus zest

2 small tomatoes, finely diced

1 small onion, finely diced

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan on medium heat, put everything in and cook until well incorporated. Set aside.

To roll the Cabbage, take a nice scoop full of the Chicken mousse (about 1/2 cup worth) and put on one side of the cabbage leaf. Roll once, then tuck the sides in and finish rolling up. Place seam side down on a 9×13 baking dish, no need for toothpicks youngster. Repeat process. Pour the tomato sauce over rolls and cover with foil. Bake covered for 30 Minutes, then uncover for a last 15.

They will be as hot as magma so give it a couple of minutes to pull itself together before noshing. If you have leftovers, it’s pretty amazing to eat one heated up on a buttery toasted sub roll with a little homemade garlic aioli. Just sayin’.

Oh and for an added bonus if meat wrapped in moist cabbage isn’t your thing, Cabbageman himself Mr. Crumpton whipped together some chicken and rice patties which were then pan-fried until golden! You can thank him later.

Chicken & Rice Patties