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.

 

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 #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.

Fodder & Shine – Tampa, FL

People sometimes don’t understand why we love food so much. It’s a great debate that I don’t usually have a well-constructed position on, save for one exception. Unlike anything people involve themselves in that isn’t a form of secular work or family time, things considered as hobbies, extra-curricular activity, even time wasters aren’t a basic human need the way eating is. We just choose to survive in a more taste conscious manner. Everyone in the world has to eat, but not all take it in as a possible existential experience. I will never share the philosophy that life, whether free or not, is just about three hots and a cot.

This leads me to my own personal heritage. I’ve lived smack dab in the center of Florida my entire life. According to our tree and the U.S. Census, my father’s side migrated to Polk County from Georgia in the early 1800’s. Before that was South Carolina for a stint. Before that we landed in Virginia around 1665. It’s safe to say I have deep seeded roots planted in the South. As any self-respecting son of a Florida cracker (my Dad actually worked much of his early life on different farms and cattle yards, raised his own livestock and studied veterinary medicine, so he was the real deal), the cuisine I love, the food I crave like a magnet are the things my mother fed me, the recipes she learned from my dad’s mom, who was taught by his grandmother, the person we affectionately referred to as little meemaw due to her slight stature. I think there’s only one photo I have of us together as she died shortly after my birth, yet I think of that photo every time I eat cornbread and black-eyed peas as she was the touchstone for the cooking history of the Crumpton family in the modern era.

I can’t speak for them, but I do know a bit about Greg and Michelle Baker. Not enough to be a stalker but almost enough to be a newspaper restaurant reviewer. They too are Florida natives and hold their history and that of each of their families history very dear to their hearts and stomachs. I don’t mean to speak out of turn regarding family matters I know nothing about, but I can’t help to think they might share a similar fondness for each of their Meemaws home cooking. If I had to wager a bet, I would guess much of it was done on well-seasoned cast iron skillets.

FS Logo

Obviously, Florida cracker cuisine is dear to them. They just opened a shrine to honor the cuisine that I feel has been recreated oh so poorly in our area over the course of my adult life.

I had to leave the Raschke brothers sitting at the table immediately after the inaugural meal on opening night at Fodder and Shine. They without question were probably still debating old school punk rock and hardcore, wondering if there were other punk rock foodies in the Bay area other than ourselves.

While they were still seated, I walked to my car and just sat there for a couple of minutes in silence, thinking mostly about my dad and how much I was still missing him after nearly 2 rough years without him. Wondering how much he might have liked eating all the food of his life encapsulated in this single restaurant, and how he definitely would not have written this place off his list. He introduced me to fried gizzards, smoked mullet roe, frog’s legs and many more things F&S have added to their repertoire. I began to drive away with tears in my eyes, moved by the thought of food and how it has been such a large part of what I hold near to remember all those loved ones who have passed away.

Fodder Spread

Our recipes are sometimes the only thing we have that helps keeps those memories alive. I’ll never be a wealthy person because I don’t come from money. I don’t plan on having some large inheritance somewhere down the line, yet I feel rich with recipes that have been passed down through my family. Now that I finally pried it from my mom’s hands after about a decade of begging, I sure as heck will never be without my meemaw’s chewy cake recipe or the way my Nana makes her neck bone spaghetti.

The Bakers have captured the feel of centuries old Florida cooking with every keystroke of that menu, and they’ve succeeded in executing the cooking process, even in things that might seem small to the untrained eye. Right down to the perfect coloring and doneness on a side of sautéed zucchini squash, it’s all as I remembered it. It’s not 100% old school though and it shouldn’t be. Greg is still a chef for goodness sakes, and for me, good cheffing is about three key things, which he possesses moreso than almost anyone I’ve met.

1. Constant progression

2.Teaching others what you know

3. Respect for tradition.

Fodder and shine is the perfect place to use as equilibrium.

Fodder Spread 2

The feel and size of the space is our main and only concern. It’s massive and feels like a modern restaurant and not a place my meemaw might be cooking back in the kitchen. I think this kind of restaurant really belongs in a more intimate setting, more like in a house turned into dining establishment. My idea is flip-flop The Refinery and Fodder.

If you are a Florida native, I hope you have your own wonderful food registry that’s been passed down from generation to generation. If not, take a trip over to Fodder and Shine to see what you’ve more than likely been missing. And if you are a transplant just putting down roots down here, or maybe you’re just passing by, I sincerely hope you get it, even if these traditional preparations are not in your taste memory bank.

Sushi Pop – Oviedo, FL

I’ve noticed a trend recently of small towns, that less than a decade ago offered nothing more than aging diners and fast food chains, are sprouting innovative restaurants serving stunning cuisine on par with the best in the country (i.e. Indigenous, Red Door and Rooster & the Till). It could be that these youngsters are tired of killing themselves trying to compete with the heavy hitters in the big cities, or maybe it’s a desire to bring their talent and creativity to a new and less obvious markets. Whatever it is, these little towns are not only benefitting, but reciprocating the trust shown by these restaurants with their patronage.

A great example of this trend is Sushi Pop, a high energy, day-glo wonderland of Japanese cuisine that’s more Omotesando than Oviedo. On an otherwise sleepy street, the bright pink signage serves as a beacon to the hungry masses…in a town of less than 50,000 people. Yet when you cross the threshold, it seems as if the whole town simultaneously had a hankering for hamachi.

Sushi Pop sign & interior

For the better part of two years, a certain sibling who will remain nameless (Lobe) had been pestering me to visit Sushi Pop.  Every month or so I’d get an email detailing their latest uni shipment or some other enticing menu creation by Chef Chau (can you think of a more perfect name for a chef?). However Oviedo is not exactly convenient to get to from Miami or Sarasota. I’ve been known to travel insane distances for great food, but I was having a hard time getting in the car for a multi-hour road trip for sushi.

After finally getting the chance to visit, I am humbled. The food being created at Sushi Pop is the real thing, this ain’t some Nobu knockoff, peddling the same “high-end” Japanese that has become so tiring. Even when you see similarities, like local rock shrimp tempura with tobanjan aioli, Chef Chau and his Chef de cuisine Cesar Cruz put their own spin on it. The crudos offer a glimpse into the Valhalla of fish that is Tsukiji market where Sushi Pop sources much of their seafood. Flavor packed scallops from Hokkaido give a nod to Korea with a punchy kimchee salsa that elevates the succulent bivalves. The ominous sounding hamachi hara kiri takes the bygone samurai tradition to heart with tender cuts of yellowtail belly, fresh from a jaunt through Southeast Asia with chili garlic sauce, Thai basil, shallot oil and toasted peanuts.

Sushi Pop small plates 1

The tour of Asia’s finest cuisine isn’t confined to seafood, as is demonstrated with Sushi Pop’s take on KFC (Korean fried chicken). Sweet and spicy gochujang lacquers the crispy wings which give way to the moist meat below, spiked with toasted white sesame and scallion. You want veg? Sushi Pop executes on that front with a beautiful plate of hibachi grilled asparagus, meaty garlic braised mushrooms and soy glazed pea shoots.

Sushi Pop small plates 2

Perhaps the miso braised short rib open faced ravioli is more your speed? And why not, what with a truffled brown butter quail egg under an avalanche of tome cheese. Of course pork belly is always an option. That night the dish was a superb trio of Kurobuta tacos with braised Berkshire pork belly, hoisin bbq sauce, scallions, micro cilantro and avocado.

Sushi Pop small plates 3

It’s easy to get caught up in the early stages of the menu and forget all about Sushi Pop’s namesake. Naturally there’s an extensive list of maki rolls, many with touches of Korea, France and Porkbellistan, but the initiated will know to sample the nigiri and sashimi section first. All of the usual suspects are here, fresh from Tsukiji and priced to move, even the Otoro and Uni remained attainable. However the nigiri specials beckoned.

It’s one thing to fly in high-end fish from Japan and call it a day, it’s an entirely different thing to take said fish and start riffing. It’s a bold move, one that could easily lead to over sauced, sickeningly sweet concoctions that waste the beautiful protein. Thankfully these Oviedo otaku display incredible reverence for the seafaring treasures they serve, bestowing each with complimentary flavors that only elevate the fish. A belly duo seemed appropriate, in both salmon and yellowtail varieties. The former, adorned with Chinese ginger, shallot salsa, white soy and radish sprouts was revelation. The fat striped salmon, with it’s subdued, buttery flavor was countered with the fantastic acid from the ginger and shallot. The yellowtail, took a page out of Mr. Matsuhisa’s Peruvian inspired book with jalepeño, lime zest sauce and cilantro sprouts, fantastic.

Sushi Pop sushi

Ah it’s the end of the post, you all know what that means, dessert. Granted, Japanese restaurants aren’t typically known for their desserts, but I think we’ve established that this isn’t a normal Japanese restaurant. This is the kind that takes Japanese sweet potatoes and makes bread pudding out of it. Toasted marshmallows and a reflecting pool of Saigon crème anglaise join a nice scoop of praline ice cream, complete with a bacon hat. Not to be outdone is the P.M.S., the diabetus (sic) inducing combination of peanut butter crumbles, molten chocolate cake and salted caramel ice cream.

Sushi Pop desserts

It’s rare for a restaurant to deliver dish after stunning dish with such consistency, especially with a packed house on a Saturday night. I just hate that Sushi Pop is so far from me, or anything else for that matter! Hey Chef, keep us gulf coasters in mind when you open up your next outpost. I know a bunch of serious sushi savants who’d love a chance to savor your Tsukiji fare…just saying.

Sushi Pop on Urbanspoon

Indigenous – Sarasota, FL

Sarasota, Florida. It’s not exactly at the top of my list of food-centric cities, but it is the place where I happen to call home at the moment. So as always, before I made the move, I did my research to see what kind of eats my new town had to offer. My wife has joined me in this task the last two times we had to move, and I’m proud to say she’s growing quite adept at sniffing out the good stuff. After three months, her discovery of Indigenous, a rustic little place just south of Main St. in Sarasota, has taken the proverbial cake.

Like me, chef and owner of Indigenous, Steve Phelps, can’t seem to sit still. After paying his dues at a family run restaurant in Ohio and making his way through the food scene in Cleveland, he found himself in Sarasota. In a few years he saw his shot to open his own place and took it. Seven years later, I arrived and booked a table at Indigenous before my last box was unpacked. My urgency was rewarded with a meal that could stand up against some of the best restaurants in the country. I get the feeling Chef Phelps would be too humble to say this himself so I’ll say it for him, Indigenous is single-handedly raising the bar for quality eats in Sarasota and the town is better for it.

Indigenous sign

The menu is at once worldly, taking cues from New Orleans to Southeast Asia, and distinctly regional with ingredients sourced from nearby Providence Cattle Co. and Open Blue Sea Farms in Miami. A cozy wild mushroom bisque spiked with truffle croutons was enticing despite the balmy weather. Chef Phelps’ take on a BLT, an attractive composition of pork belly, tomato marmalade and jus aioli, is a clear display of his love for Sarasota. Chefs often make the false assumption that small town demographics are less sophisticated than in the city. It’s nice to see him flex his culinary muscles a little!

Indigenous apps

The workout continued with a glistening plate of cobia crudo. Crisp sea beans and sesame quinoa played it crispy opposite the supple fish, while sweet soy and ginger crème fraîche seamlessly wove Asia into the dish. (Something about supremely fresh raw fish makes me rhyme, who knew)

Cooked fish on the other hand, is rarely an area of the menu I spend much time on. Strangely though, as our waiter explained the Hook to Fork special that night, I was caught…well you know. Red grouper was the star, perched (I’m sorry about the fish puns and clichés, I’m not sure what’s come over me today) atop a corn cake with a luxurious pea tendril remoulade. The depth of flavor in the grouper was unparalleled. As strange as it sounds it had the unctuous mouth feel reminiscent of pork belly at times. This dish has joined hamachi kama and miso glazed black cod in the rarefied air that is my cooked fish pantheon.

Red Grouper

 Dessert was no less impressive than the savory dishes. Lavender is a fickle ingredient in my opinion. Incorporating it into a cupcake and cream can be a tight wire act as the line between floral and hand soap is razor-thin. Thankfully the chef knew exactly where that line was, deftly navigating the flavor with the same confidence he displayed throughout the meal. The cupcake had the consistency of a fresh, buttery madeleine, one of my childhood favorites.

Indigenous Lavender Cupcake

I never truly feel at home in a new city until I’ve found the great spots to get a meal, after all, that’s where some of life’s greatest comfort is found. I have Chef Phelps and Indigenous to thank for much of the comfort I feel now, so early on. Indigenous isn’t just a great restaurant for Sarasota, it’s a great restaurant in general. So if you want a break from the Tampa food scene but don’t want to skimp on quality, get down here and give Indigenous a shot.

Indigenous on Urbanspoon

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. III: Feast Through the Eyes of Gluttons

The ballots are in, our Herculean task, accomplished.  Twelve Cuban sandwiches, four men, one day (along with a handful of beers, chicharrones and deep-fried key lime pie, which you really must eat. We even had a salad halfway through if you can believe it. Sure, it was layered with meat and cheese, but it was a Salad! It still counts!). Our bellies were swollen to twice their normal size, which is already large to begin with, all to bring you this, the top 6 Cubans in Tampa. Since then, our Cuban sandwich cravings have become a full blown addiction, worse than cigarettes, but short of Beliebers.

Now we share the good and juicy bits, and by juicy we mean the succulent roast pork that was ever so prevalent in this group. These were the Cuban sandwiches we wanted to nom on a daily basis (and if my doctor is reading this, I am not eating Cuban sandwiches on a daily basis).

There was an implicit method to the madness of our sandwich judging. The basic ingredients, laid out in our previous post, varied in importance. For example, good Cuban bread was unanimously voted a must. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tampa Cuban, Miami Cuban, Cuban Cuban or even an Island Cuban, the bread is the tie that binds. Otherwise it’s nothin’ but a stinkin’ hoagie. In our ever so complex rating scale, a sandwich earning a combined 550 points would mean a perfect score. No sandwich got any closer than 40 points from that mark, as no sandwich is truly flawless. With that in mind, I think I speak for all four of us when I say, out of the top 6 there isn’t one in the lot that I wouldn’t make frequent return trips for.

The Four Courseman of the Apuercolypsephoto: Dan Schuman Photography

Some of these tread the traditional line loosely, others held fast to righteous Tampa Cuban love and lore. All of them assaulted our stomachs with gusto, vying to be the sandwich worth recommending to our readers. And now, the top 6. For the sake of future generation’s, we hope they provide no more than half as much enjoyment to you as they did to us.


6. Bodega

J: Last of the bunch and still delicious, that’s a big deal. It was missing a couple of necessary items which kept it from reaching the top 5. The pork was succulent and delicious, but the tang from the mustard and nutty salami layer were glaring omissions in a Tampa style Cuban competition, ’nuff said.

K: I say yum to this unholiest breed of Cubans.  It was a great sandwich, but no salami and no mustard.  Wah wah.  This was our last stop and I was so full of Cuban sandwich at this stage I could barely stand up, and yet, I still wanted to finish this sandwich and would have cut someone if they tried to take it from me.

L: Right off the bat I was forced to deduct points due to the exclusion of mustard and salami. I’m not sure if the owner has strong ties to Miami or not, but it’s kind of baffling to think of a Cuban sandwich without those two key components. The ratio of mojo-ocity was way beyond the 10th degree. There was an in credible amount of roast pork flavor, but something was absent. Maybe add mustard and salami, then we’ll talk.

T: Bodega makes a darn good sandwich.  Their coconut mango chicken sammie is probably my favorite in Pinellas.  The Cuban, although not traditional due to the exclusion of mustard and salami, was still excellent.  The roast pork was the star of the show, the bread was well a great combination of crispy/fluffy, the cheese was melty, and even though there was mayo, it was in subtle proportion.  I love these hipsters.

Bodega Cuban

5. Kooky Coconut

J: Tradition be damned, this was a great sandwich! I detected a touch of jerk seasoning in the pork, which, along with the copious amounts of gooey cheese, was the definition of drunk food, or sober food for that matter. This was #11 of twelve and I still found it delicious, that says it all right there. It’s way, and I mean way out there, as far west as you can get, but it’s worth the drive.

K: Another great sandwich that’s not really a Tampa style Cuban.  Caribbean seasoning on my Cuban, what the heck.  That blasphemy aside, holy moly was this a wet greasy mess of please give me more.  It was a great sandwich.  If I’m on Indian Rocks Beach, I’m totally going here a lot.  This was an artery clogging spread of roasted pork, super melted cheese, perfectly pressed buttered bread greatness.

L: The place was backed by various beach bum families in varying degrees of roundness. Almost everyone was ordering the Cuban sandwich. Now, I really hate when people tout their product to be the best because they are almost always wrong. Strike that. They are always wrong. And shame on me for not doing extensive detective work, nonetheless, when Kooky says “We are the best Cuban sandwich on the beach,” you should believe them. Look, I don’t know how far said beach stretches, but either way, it’s a correct statement! It was not a tight, neat little package like some of the others. It was downright messy. But the jus, which pooled onto the wrapper from the excess of melted butter and Caribbean, jerk spiced mojo, made for a positively divine soppin’ sauce for my bread. This sandwich strayed from tradition to the point where it really wasn’t a contender for this type of contest. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t absolutely marvelous.

T: I was seriously pissed we had to drive out to bum fudge beach nowhere to go to this place. Until we got to eat the sandwich, which made me pause and rethink Cuban sandwiches for a moment. It was rich, savory, almost comforting.  The kind of sandwich I would enjoy on a warm day, but absolutely crave on a cold one.  There was a generous layer of cheese (almost a bit much for my taste) and it was properly melted and gooey.  The bread was buttery, crisp, and had soaked up a considerable amount (at least on the bottom) of the jerk mojo jus (again, not traditional, but dernit it was good), and made the sandwich anything but dry.  The flavors go together and threw a little surprise party for my mouth, it was really a treat, and nice to have a different paradigm of thought on a Cuban.  If I ever find myself in proximity to this little beach hut of a restaurant, I doubt I’d eat anywhere else.

Kooky Coconut Cuban

4. Cigar City Brewpub

J: All of these Cubans were new to me, but the last place I expected to find the #4 Cuban in Tampa was a pub. CCB did their homework on this one and started by sourcing high quality ingredients. I prefer my pork shredded not sliced, and while the flavor was nice, it could’ve used a touch more mojo, and mustard for that matter, a common note at most of these establishments. Slather that mustard people! The bread was crispy but not dry and had a slightly sweet note that was a welcome addition to the savory soirée.

K: Cigar City Brewpub surprised me with this Cuban.  I remember a period right after they opened up when I was very disappointed with their Cuban.  They have come back with a vengeance. This is a perfectly researched traditional Cuban.  Baked ham, not sliced.  That’s where they got my heart.  The rest of the sandwich was right on point as well.  I didn’t get one of the amazing pickles everyone else had on my section of sandwich which made me want to cry, especially since the guys taunted me about how good they were after the fact.  I do love me a traditional Cuban sandwich and this is the one the Columbia should have made.

L: The ham was unrivaled. It was the best of the day in my opinion. For how ever good the roast pork and salami was, they were both lost against the glazed ham, reminiscent of apple pie spice that is tucked inside. The chef must have had a Hattori Hanzo sword in the back because this sandwich was cut on such a perfect angle that I wanted to give extra points for presentation. The layering on the sandwich was an architectural feat made possible only by a chef with the appreciation for sharp lines and the work of Daniel Libeskind. The pickle was made in house, which is something that not many competitors do, but makes a huge difference in quality. Cigar city balanced the filling to bread ratio (60/40 is the perfect mix) better than any other. The only downside on this sandwich is that the mustard wasn’t speaking to me. They are basically doing everything in house except baking the bread, why not use that excellent beer mustard you got sitting in the kitchen and blow this whole competition out of the water?

T: I would say this was the most properly curated sandwich we ate.  One of few (if not the only one) with all local ingredients, and certainly one where a lot of thought and heavy deliberation/investigation/experimentation took place during the process of creating it. The crew at Cigar City Brewing does their homework many times over before creating a beer, most brews are named/conceived with historical significance (or a good ol’ poop joke, which is one of many reasons I love those guys) and the food at the Cigar City Brewpub is no exception, it’s steeped in Tampa tradition, but elevated using the highest quality local ingredients and paired with amazing beers. Oh yeah the sandwich. The Cuban was absolutely one of my favorite of the day, the meats were there in perfect proportion, the cheese was melty, the mustard/sauce was perfectly perceptible as a vinegar/acid element that offset the richness of the sandwich, it sat beautifully pressed, cut and presented on the plate.  Everything about it was nearly perfect, although the bread was just a bit too crispy for my taste.  It was probably a fluke because damn that was a good sandwich.  I would head back there in a heartbeat, between that and the chicharrones it’s worth the drive up to Carrollwood.  It’s also a bummer it’s up in Carrollwood, I remember telling the owner (Joey) before it opened, his biggest obstacle would be dealing with the chain-restaurant mindset in the area.  I’m very happy to see they’re doing well.

CCBP Cuban

3. Buddy Brew

J: Alright truth time. Buddy Brew may not have reached number one collectively, but it received the highest score from this judge. The ingredients were stellar (I don’t use that word often), in lieu of deli sliced ham, there was speck, they pickled a tomato instead of a cucumber. Their coarsely shredded roast pork maintained it’s juice and heat which kept the gouda (that’s right gouda) nice and soft. The mustard wasn’t as pronounced as I’d like, but the tomato filled the void. As the so-called “tourist” of the group, I didn’t find the creative tweak on the traditional formula a negative, in fact, it was a welcome change and a big part of why I rated them so highly. When I thought about which of these 12 I’d like to repeat, Buddy Brew was the easy answer. Sadly it seems to have been a one-off, so don’t go searching for this wraith of sandwich lore.

K: Oh my Buddy Brew, how you have outdone yourself.  A true gourmet Cuban sandwich using high quality and somewhat quirky (in a super-duper amazingly good way) ingredients.  Speck, green tomato pickles, garlic mojo(?) roast pork, beautiful salami, gouda cheese.  This was a great sandwich.  A near perfect sandwich.  This was high-end traditional and I’m a-ok with that.  Please make this an everyday item Buddy Brew.  It is that good.

L: You can’t say this sandwich is non-Tampa. It has everything. Just stop. Stop talking all together. This is how I want a modernized Tampa Cuban to taste. Every component is there, but it is done all together differently. I mean, speck as ham. That’s speck-tacular, and we haven’t even gotten to the pickles. Yes a green tomato pickle is still a pickle and thus deserves equal consideration as the standard pickled cucumber we all have accepted as the inspired gospel of preserved condiments. I applaud Buddy Brew for going all out and giving me something extra memorable. My only hope is that they realize what a gold mine they have on their hands and make it a fundamental part of the food board, not just a special. All points considered, this was my favorite sandwich of the day.

T: The Earl of Sandwich (the original guy, not that lame chain) would have dropped his playing cards and blinded out the next few hands, had he taken a bite of this thing.  It was absolutely no surprise to me that local whiz kid Josh Bonanno would be as interpretive as possible with a Cuban without violating the “rules”. Perfectly seasoned/marinated roast pork. Speck for ham (it was beautiful, you can believe we’ll let that shot play). Pickled green tomatoes (yep those are pickles). Gouda. Smoky awesome Gouda cheese.  Yes it’s a Suisse style cheese so it too shall pass (sorry Gandalf).  This was a near-perfect sandwich.  I would like to try it with the cheese melted, a bit more evenly distributed roast pork and maybe another tweak or two, but it’d only been on the menu for a very short time so we’ll just have to return and see how it’s progressed, won’t we?

Buddy Brew Cuban

2. Stone Soup Company

J: With a slew of plaques boasting their victory in the recent Cuban Sandwich Festival, hopes were high, and rightly so. The bread was panini pressed which raised some eyebrows but it was fantastic, perfectly buttered, crisp and thin. These guys got the pork spot on, juicy not soaked, tender not mushy. Meat balance is important, and thankfully Stone Soup understands this. This was one of the few spots that offered a side of mojo, which wasn’t needed, but much appreciated as it added a delicious pork fat slick to the already enchanting flavor. At this point in the game you have to really bring it, the one thing that kept SSC out of the top spot was the subtlety of the mustard. A little more tang may have lifted this one.

K: This was my absolute favorite sandwich of the day.  It was fan-freaking-tastic.  Our waitress put up with our way too early for it silly banter and proceeded to bring us an amazing Cuban sandwich and even asked us if we would like it 4 way cut.  I did not have high hopes for this sandwich going in because I didn’t know anything about Stone Soup.  Hello, pleased to meet you, please make me a Cuban sammie every day.  So onto the sandwich, mojo roast pork that was luxurious and delicate (can you describe roast pork as delicate), great salami, yummy crunchy pickles that blew me away, and perfect bread (looked Panini pressed, but I was fine with that).  This is a great sandwich without the next fact.   As an added super bonus, they give you a side of mojo jus dipping sauce that the sandwich totally doesn’t need but thank goodness it exists, because boy howdy does it make it even better.

L: I was worried right off the bat because we weren’t asked how we wanted our sandwich. Sometimes that means lettuce and tomato. After the Brocato’s debacle it put me on edge as I didn’t want failure to be an ongoing theme throughout the day. This was our second stop on the trip, so tensions were high. Once our beers arrived, (mine in a pewter goblet) everything seemed to be brought back to an even keel. Then shortly after that, a great sandwich arrived. This place has won a lot of actual awards and not the self-proclaimed ones that are easy to attain. Hey look I just awarded myself “Most efficient drinker of La Croix!” Really, it’s an honor just to be in contention. The roast pork was incredible and tasted similar to boar or maybe even whole hog where all the good parts are intermingled. What set Stone soup apart and made the other boys fall all over themselves was the Mojo pork juice served on the side ala French dip. I will say the one drawback is how the bread was pressed. It had those Panini maker lines that really turn me off. If they used a flat press like everyone else, the bread would be uniform and toasty all the way over.

T: It’s tough for me to know if this was or wasn’t my favorite of the day, for multiple reasons. I kept hearing about this place making the “best” Cuban sandwich in town (when I hear “best” I often think of yelp in all its unholy awfulness, literally putting the rights to “best” whatever-food-item on their website for sale to restaurants for a few thousand dollars a year) and winning people’s choice awards and such, I almost wanted it to suck so we could try it and move on.  I was floored. The sandwich wasn’t our first of the day, but for most of the day it was the clear leader.  It just melted together in one fluidly unctuous mélange of flavors in your mouth.  Taking a bite was effortless; the bread was lightly crispy on the outside and beautifully soft on the inside, there was no “tearing” action involved.  Teeth sank right through it.  Everything was in great proportion, each ingredient was a perceptible in this sandwich-symphony, but none played too loudly.  It was fantastic.  I would recommend it to absolutely anyone, and it’s really nice to have a good spot to grub down in Ybor since there aren’t but a handful of great spots in the ‘bor.  I went in expecting to be disappointed and I left singing its praises, which happens to me almost never.

Stone Soup Company Cuban

1. Dochos Concessions

J: Glistening. That was the first characteristic that caught my eye. The sun sparkled off the pork and cheese medley, filling my eyes as I prepared to fill my stomach. With my first bite I had a feeling this was going to be the one. It was like falling in love, you just know. Deep pork flavor, a wonderful mustard-mayo mixture and soft, sweet bread was a killer combination. The temperature was nice and even throughout and each bite gave the perfect balance of ingredients. I went through my entire portion before I realized there was no pickled. In the end, it really didn’t make a difference in my mind, it would’ve only increased its stature. Bravo Debbie, the competition was stiff, and you still pulled out the victory, it’s a good thing this sandwich is made in a truck, or else I’d be a permanent resident of their brick and mortar as my waistline would prevent me from leaving.

K: I love a Monte Castro from Dochos.  It’s a great sandwich.  How can you go wrong with a deep-fried Cuban.  I don’t think I will ever get it again.  The Dochos traditional Cuban now ranks higher. This sandwich was packed full of traditional components and was darn near perfection in between the bread, except for the pickles. Where were the pickles?  Dochos has a great mustardy mayo combo sauce that they knock out of the ballpark.  The pork was juicy, perfectly seasoned, and I thought about taking it to bed with me. The reason that Dochos won, to me, was because of how perfectly everything went together: the pressing was just right, the ingredients were seasoned the way we loved them, the bread was crisp without being sharp and stabby.

L: When the sandwich came we began dissecting it to study each component and how it had been distributed. No matter how hard we poked, no pickle was to be found. At that point I knew Dochos was a goner. You can’t win a competition and be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle It’s like the Chicago Bulls without Luc Longley. Impossible, or is it? As unctuous as can be without going overboard the sandwich was. In a perfect three pork cord this is as strong a bond as you can get. Each protein complimented the other better than any other sandwich. Dochos is the only place that utilized mayonnaise to its fullest potential, mixing it with the mustard and spices to create a super group of sauce. There was a tiny bit of heat that lingered even after we left the table, which made me think about the sandwich for a good hour after the fact. Bread was butter basted, heavily, then placed in the press. Their timing on the pressing was perfect as it was hot enough to melt the nutty swiss all the way through without melting the outer layer of the roof of my mouth. This sandwich wins because it was as close to all around perfection in a Tampa Cuban kinda way. No one better deserves this great honor more, no matter how you slice the pickle.

T: The reason this sandwich is the deserved winner is multi-fold. Is multi-fold a word? Who cares. Anyway, Dochos’ Cuban will almost always be assembled, pressed, and served lovingly by its creator, Debbie. This to me is a crucially important luxury, akin to when Peter (the owner) is making your pizzas at Wood Fired on Bearss, you’ll never have one more subtly perfect than you will dining at his hands. Dochos’ sandwich was a big meaty beast, with perfect bread, perfect press, great proportion, balanced meats, melty cheese, nice ratio of mustard to mayo in the sauce (it gave it a rich note but still had enough brightness to cut the rich flavors), and the pickles… hey wait where are the pickles?  Sadly this was an oversight, although apparently not one  egregious enough to cause this amazing Cuban sandwich to rank below #1.  When you want a Cuban Cuban, Dochos is the spot.  It’s an excellent value (half a pound of meat on that thing!), it was crafted with love, and it’s got flavor coming out of its ears.  Congrats, Debbie.  You deserve it.

Dochos Concession Cuban


We told Debbie (the owner of Dochos) after we finished that none of us got pickles on the sandwich. You could see the life get sucked out of her face, as she realized the omission. She didn’t know she was being judged in a massive Cuban sandwich contest. No one did except for Buddy brew and that was a wonderful accident. With Dochos, You can just tell they want everything that comes out to be perfect no matter who is eating and what purpose they are eating it for. There is no trophy, this was just for fun. If you get nothing else out of this realize this, there’s so much good food out there. Don’t get stuck in a Cuban sandwich rut, eating from the same place every single time. That place that was good 20 years ago might not hold a candle to the new food truck slingin sammies like they’re going out of style. Dochos proves that you can respect a time honored classic and still make it your own. With with that we congratulate them.