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Sparkman Wharf: A Fresh Take on Food-Truck Culture

Sparkman Wharf is quickly become a popular destination for live music, craft beer and gourmet-style dining.

Just over a month ago, the eclectic venue took over the downtown spot formerly known as Channelside. In addition to a biergarten, it features a unique concept—a “dining garden” where restaurant vendors are housed in shipping containers, similar to food trucks. There’s quite the variety, from classic American-style food to French-Vietnamese fusion, and so my dining partner and I decided to take one for the team and sample something from each spot. Since these places were new to both of us, we decided to go with the most popular or signature dishes.

We started with the half dozen oysters from Boat Run Oyster Co. with two each of their daily “fresh catch” selections, served along with a lemon sriracha basil sauce ($2.50-$2.80 per oyster). The oysters were delicious and definitely tasted fresh. The sauce was excellent and just enough to add a zest of flavor without overpowering the taste of the oysters.

As a New York pizza snob, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the “Detroit-style” pizza from The Corners Pizza, which was described as having a thicker crust. We ordered the Ezzo Pepperoni ($7) and I was pleasantly surprised. The dough was light and airy with cheesy edges and for a thicker crust, didn’t feel too heavy. They top each pizza off with fresh marinara and the serving size is easily enough for two to share.

For something a little lighter, the Shrimp Fresh Rolls from BT In A Box were perfect. A generous serving of two rolls of steamed rice paper filled with shrimp, herbs and rice noodles are served with a chili peanut dipping sauce ($8). You can also order them with chicken, pork or tofu lettuce. We both loved these. The menu is French and Vietnamese inspired and also includes items like curry noodles and a “bahn mi” sandwich.

Another shrimp dish we tried was the Piri Piri Shrimp from Edison’s Swigmajig ($12). Three pieces of grilled crostini toast are topped with avocado and spicy shrimp. These had good flavor, though we both agreed that the toast was a bit too charred. They were also a bit small for the price. However, I did see some of the other items they serve such as fish and chips and grilled octopus salad, which looked like generous portions.

From Montados, we tried the Tostones—plantain cakes topped with mojo pork ($8). They were small and not too heavy. We both thought the plantains should have been sweeter, but the pork was very good. They have a few other “small bite” options such as a charcuterie board and chocolate bread, as well as a good selection of sangria.

We tried the Carne and Chicken Tacos from Gallito; unfortunately, these were our least favorite. The flavor was okay but we felt the portion size was small for the price ($4 per taco). They have a few other flavors that you can order as a taco or tostada ($6 each), including duck and pork.

Saving the best for last, the shining star was the Dixie Chick Sandwich from Flock & Stock ($7.99). I decided to step out of my comfort zone and order a fried chicken sandwich, and I’m so glad I did. Fried chicken is served on a potato roll with pimento cheese, maple bacon, and bread and butter pickles. This sandwich deserves a medal, it’s that good. The chicken wasn’t greasy or overly breaded; the serving of pimento cheese was generous and had a nice kick to it; and the pickles and maple bacon added a perfect touch of sweetness to balance it out. Both my dining partner and I agreed that this was outstanding. The menu also includes several other chicken sandwiches, burgers and a meat-free option, the Beyond Burger. This was also the only place that had a kid’s menu.

For something sweet, Whatever Pops serves up gourmet popsicles, acai bowls and gelato. Although my 4-year-old’s palate doesn’t expand much past chicken nuggets and Goldfish crackers, he does love a good popsicle and gave the Sparkman Wharf (fresh strawberry, pineapple and pomegranate, $4) a big thumbs up.

If you’re looking for a place to go on a nice day, I highly recommend Sparkman Wharf. It’s family friendly and dog friendly, and with waterfront views, an Astro-Turf lawn and plenty of places to sit and relax, it’s definitely a win.

Sparkman Wharf
615 Channelside Dr., Tampa, FL 33602
Hours: Wed-Sun, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

By Brie Gorecki


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Positano’s is Perfection

A recent poll on Westchase social media asked which type of eatery our area needs: seafood, Italian, or barbeque. With more than 200 comments, the favorite seemed to be Italian, with many residents bemoaning the fact that we don’t have a good Italian place close to home. Participants also offered suggestions for nearby Italian eateries, resulting in myriad options for those looking to try something new.

One of those options, Positano’s Ristorante, is a welcoming and authentic Italian eatery that lives up to its claim as “the best kept secret in Palm Harbor.” Situated in a strip mall on Tampa Road, the restaurant stretches over several separate rooms and has a small bar in the front. Though the décor is dark and a tad dated, it adds to the charm (and authenticity).

We arrived early on a Sunday evening, and it was already quite crowded. We were ushered into a back room that held a few families who were having a family meal. I took it as a good sign.

The wine list was decent, and fresh bread and oil started the meal off right.

For starters, we selected the Mozzarella Caprese ($9). Plump sliced tomatoes were topped with fresh mozzarella (quite good) and dressed with balsamic and basil. The Stuffed Mushrooms ($13) featured a house-made sausage stuffing and were topped with oodles of gooey cheese. The portion was generous, and quite honestly, they were the best I’ve ever had. 

For my main course, I selected the Seafood Pompeii ($24). Seriously, this meal could not have been better. A succulent sautéed whitefish (along with either scallops or shrimp) is served atop a mound of shredded crisp veggies (carrots, squash, zucchini), topped with crabmeat stuffing, and doused in a delicious garlic wine—and somewhat lemony—sauce. Everything mixed together quite nicely. It was fantastic!

My dining partners went full-carb with Penne Bolognese ($14), Fettuccini Alfredo with Shrimp ($19), and Pizza Margherita ($14). All of the sauces (including the salad dressing) at Positano’s are made in-house, and you can tell. The Bolognese was meaty and thick and served over perfect al-dente pasta. The alfredo was creamy, rich, and buttery. Both were devoured with gusto, and my dining partner, who lived in Italy for several years, claimed it was “one of the best Italian meals I’ve ever had.”

The pizza was wood-fired, and there were a variety of options (only one size for dinner, however—12 inches). House-made sauce, a thin, crunchy crust, fresh tomatoes, and a generous heap of cheese made it a winner.

For dessert, we shared a plate of Tiramisu ($6). The ladyfingers were soaked in booze but not mushy, and the texture throughout was light and fluffy. Another winner.

The service was spot-on and also authentic—in other words, it’s relaxed. There’s no pressure to finish your meal quickly and hurry out to make room for the next diners. Take your time and enjoy, Italian style.

If you are craving Italian, I highly recommend Positano’s. It’s a little out of the area, but not too far—and so, so worth it. I do recommend making a reservation, especially on a weekend (you can make it on the website or via Open Table). I can imagine during the season it’s difficult to find a table, so book early.

3309 Tampa Rd.
Palm Harbor, FL 

By Melanie Casey


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A Speakeasy with Talkies

During the prohibition era, when alcoholic beverages were illegal in the U.S. (can you even imagine?), the term “gigglewater” was code for alcohol.

So it makes perfect sense that Gigglewaters Social Club and Screening Room in Safety Harbor features the speakeasy vibe of the roaring 20s and 30s. The outside is deceptively plain, but inside, warm tones, dark walls, Edison lighting and an old-timey bar (built from circa 1890s Biltmore doors and wood, according to the Gigglewaters website) give the place an authentic speakeasy vibe. Images of tatted-up movie stars on the walls add a modern, hipster twist.

Gigglewaters effectively ties together the vibe of a jumping speakeasy with a hip, urban joint then adds some cinema-and-drafthouse appeal to make it even more unique. That’s right: nosh on nibbles like Giggle Dogs and Giggle Dippers, wet your whistle with unique craft cocktails, and watch a movie – all right in downtown Safety Harbor. September showings included classics like The Big Lebowski, Mad Max, and The Princess Bride (check the website for the latest lineup; the cost is $5.

The screening room is located in a separate room in the back).

While you watch or hang out in the bar area, munch on appetizers such as Frito Pie ($10) or loaded Bootlegger Fries ($10) or opt for some Giggle Dippers—you select a dipper and two sauces. We went with Fried Green Beans ($9) and Pretzel Loaf ($8) paired Thai Chili, Beer Cheese, Garlic Aioli, and Kicked Up Queso sauces (there are lots more). The pretzels were warm and soft, and we got a mound of green beans that was more than enough for a table to share. The sauces were all tasty.

For the main course, my dining partner went all in with the Double Cross Giggle Dog ($13). Wrapped in bacon and deep fried, this isn’t your regular hot dog. It’s slathered with chili, cheddar, scallions, jalapeños, and sour cream and topped with Fritos. Definitely not low cal. It was juicy with a smoky taste and, served with a heap of fries, was way too much for one person. 

I went with the Sonny Corleone Giggle Burger ($14). Made with Wagyu beef and topped with swiss, mushrooms, and caramelized onions, it was good, but it didn’t blow me away. Likewise, my other dining partner was disappointed in his Virgil Starkwell Famous Chicken sandwich ($13). Although it had great toppings, the chicken was dry, tough and clearly overcooked. When she saw it was uneaten and learned why, our server took it off the bill (even though we didn’t ask).

The Gigglewaters menu is pretty extensive, so if burgers, dogs, and chicken sandwiches aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other choices like deconstructed salads, mac ‘n cheese, and entrees (including Chicken and Waffles).

We finished our meal with a delicious Bourbon Pound Cake ($7). A slab of Joey Biscotti’s (the gourmet bakery located down the street) Bourbon Pound Cake is toasted, drizzled with bourbon caramel and served with a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream. It was fantastic—and arguably the best dish of the night.

I really like the concept at Gigglewaters. Depending on the movie, it can be a great place to take a date on a Saturday night or the kids on a Sunday afternoon—or forego the movie altogether and just enjoy the speakeasy vibe and some great craft cocktails with friends.

Gigglewaters Social Club
. 737 Main Street, Safety Harbor.
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

By Melanie Casey


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Westchase Newbies Get High Marks

In recent months, the Westchase area greeted two newbies: So Fresh and Grain & Berry.

Both are Tampa-area franchises that specialize in fresh ingredients and healthy eats.

First up is So Fresh. This casual spot opened a few months ago in the Publix shopping center alongside McDivot’s and features a variety of bowl, wrap, and salad options. Everything is cooked to order with fresh ingredients. There are plenty of gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options.
Bowls are served hot and start at $11. They include a base (superfood, stir fry, barbeque, and skinny are among the options), and one protein (or you can stick with veggies). Wraps start at $8.25 and salads start at $10. The same concept applies: choose your base, then select a protein. Yes, it’s a little pricey, but you get what you pay for – fresh (and often organic) ingredients, made to order.

I’ll admit I wasn’t wowed by my selection (the power bowl, which features quinoa, brown rice, carrots, kale slaw, goat cheese, almonds, raisins, and homemade kale-basil pesto; I topped mine with chicken). It was … how do I put this nicely? Earthy is a good word. Pungent. A bit overpowering. Hard-core healthy eaters know the flavor, which, while distinctive, is not altogether bad. I think it’s an acquired taste.

My dining partner opted for the more mainstream Boca Fiesta wrap (cooked onions, corn, tomatoes, jalapenos, and mushrooms mixed with big gobs of goat cheese, spinach, and a sweet chili sauce. He topped it with chicken). It was a good size and quite tasty, if somewhat spicy for my tastes.

If nothing on the set menu strikes your fancy (or if you’re new to this whole healthy eating thing), you can create your own meal concoction. I like that So Fresh has this option. It makes it so much easier to find something you know you’ll like instead of taking a gamble on something that may be a bit foreign to your palate. Some of us clearly need to ease into it. 

I knew I had probably chosen poorly on my first visit, so I returned a few days later to try something different. I’m so glad I did. The Homemade Broth bowl was a savory soup stocked with all kinds of goodies (carrots, corn, onions, and zoodles) and was fantastic. I’ll admit it: I picked up the bowl and drank every last drop. My advice? Go.

Next up is Grain and Berry, which fills the space formerly occupied by Five Guys on Countryway Boulevard. This is not a café in the true sense of the word. There are no sandwiches or salads on the menu here. What is on the menu is frozen fruit-laden deliciousness. Acai bowls, pitaya (dragon fruit) bowls, kale bowls, oatmeal bowls, and yogurt bowls (and smoothies) round out the menu. Except for the oatmeal bowls, everything at Grain and Berry is served cold—think frozen yogurt but without the dairy (and a lot healthier). Much like So Fresh, you select the base you prefer and can choose from a set menu or create your own.

Word to the wise – you can totally share one of these bowls. They are huge. I tried the Carpe Diem option ($9.81; a little steep, but for two it’s not bad) based on my server’s suggestion and wasn’t disappointed. The pitaya base is topped with fresh strawberries, bananas, and granola, then drizzled with Nutella and peanut butter. De-lish.

My dining partner selected the Magic Dragon smoothie ($5.99; pitaya, peach, pineapple, OJ, strawberry and almond milk). Compared to the Carpe Diem, it was actually a bit bland.

Her words, “It was okay. Three out of five.”

Yet overall both Westchase newbies are healthy, fresh, local … five stars for both!

So Fresh
10712 Countryway Blvd., Unit 211.
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Grain and Berry
11622 Countryway Blvd.
Open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

By Melanie Casey


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Spice Kitchen Delivers Distinctive Flavor

I have a confession to make: Until last month, I had never eaten Indian food.

When I heard Spice Kitchen was opening in the old Enzo’s spot (and the old Nabruzzi, and the old Zerillo’s before that), I admit I was a little intimidated. How could I provide a valid review with no frame of reference? But then I saw a few comments on Facebook from other Westchasers who had never eaten Indian food either, so I decided to take one for the team.

Let me say this – it’s definitely distinctive. There’s a smell, a taste, a consistency that is like nothing I’ve eaten before. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way at all… but it’s good to know going in (particularly if you are an Indian food newbie). It’s different. 

The space, however, is much the same. It’s still one big room with a bar in the front, this time decorated with a tasteful rustic look. Real tablecloths and napkins and fresh flowers on every table add a nice touch. The names of the menu items at Spice Kitchen are all Indian, but the ingredients for each dish are listed, so I kind of knew what I was getting. I did rely on our server, Kristin, for information and recommendations. She was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful and suggested the Pakoras ($6) and Samosa Chaat ($7) for starters.

Both were an entirely new experience. The Pakoras reminded me of fritters – dense, packed with veggies and quite filling. They were served with a sweet tamarind dipping sauce and, although a tad bland, were good. The Chaat looked like nachos but tasted nothing like it. However, it was a nice fusion of textures and tastes and was surprisingly good.

There are plenty of choices for the main course including sizzlers, seafood, curries (including lamb and goat), vegetarian dishes and Biryani, which is described as “a standard in Indian cuisine.” However, we opted for items that had been recommended by friends: half a Tandoori Chicken ($13) for my dining partner, boneless Butter Chicken Curry ($16) for me and garlic Naan bread ($4) to share. 

Several dishes have adjustable spice levels (from 1 to 5, Kristin explained, along with “Indian hot”). My dining partner likes his food about as spicy as ketchup, so he went with level 1. Still, it made my eyes water. I can’t even imagine what a 3 or 4 would be like. The butter chicken was a bit more mellow (even though I opted for level 2). It’s served in a bowl, almost like a soup, and is accompanied by a heap of fluffy white rice (which I really loved). The chicken was fall-apart tender and flavorful, and when spooned with the sauce over the rice it was really delicious.

For dessert, we tried the Gulab Jamun with ice cream ($6). Essentially a fat deep-fried donut hole, it’s smothered with a warm, super-sweet syrup and served with vanilla ice cream. Everything comes in a separate dish, and it was kind of fun to dump it all together. I also had to try the Masala Chai ($4), which is a spiced tea with milk. It comes unsweetened and hot in a small glass and I’ll be honest, it smells a little weird. However, by the time I finished it, I had decided I liked it better than my usual chai go-to (Starbucks).

Spice Kitchen won’t be for everyone. But if you’ve never had Indian food and are on the fence – go. You might be surprised.

Spice Kitchen
4 Stars
11653 Countryway Blvd.
Closed Mondays; lunch special Thali (vegetarian and non-vegetarian) available weekdays; brunch available weekends

By Melanie Casey


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Filling the Zerillo’s Void

Leave it to Facebook to tell me where to eat.

Seriously, how many neighborhood posts have you seen asking, “What’s a good restaurant in the area for kids?” or “Where I can I go for a romantic dinner?”

This population never fails to impress—there are usually lots of great suggestions and (spoiler alert!) I get a lot of my review ideas from these types of posts.

So when the conversation turned to the sudden closure of Enzo’s (formerly the much-loved and missed Zerillo’s), Westchase Facebookers turned to each other for ideas about how to fill the void. 

Many recommended a place called Joey’s in Palm Harbor. I had never heard of it, so my interest was piqued. I’m always up for a great pizza (and hopefully a great review to share with you), so I dragged my dining partners out and off we went.

Joey’s New York Pizza and Italian Restaurant is tucked in a strip mall at the corner of Curlew Road and Highway 19 that you’ve likely passed many times on your way to Honeymoon Island. It’s pretty nondescript except for the life-size pizza guy out front. Once inside, you’ll find a large open space with plenty of seating (and most likely packed; expect to wait on weekends). The décor is a bit rustic, but nothing fancy, and there’s a decent wine list with good prices.

We started the evening with garlic rolls, which were doused in parmesan cheese and heavy on the garlic—but quite delicious. Next up was the Caprese ($8.95; don’t call it ka-pres or ka-pressay, it’s ka-pray-zay—my dining partner will be sure to set you straight). Though it looked pretty tasty and the mozzarella and balsamic dressing were good, the tomatoes were green and tough. The waiter even apologized when he noticed a few of them stacked up, uneaten. Since ripe red tomatoes are not difficult to find right now, we were a bit surprised. My dining partners said they’ve had better at pretty much any restaurant, anywhere.

Next up were the Stuffed Mushrooms ($6.95). If you’re used to a crabmeat stuffing, you’ll be a tad disappointed. These are stuffed with sausage; however, the overall flavor, enhanced by lots of cheese and a tangy sherry sauce, is good.

For the main course, I wanted something more traditional, so I ordered the Stromboli (a steal at $7.95). The portion was huge—bigger than my plate, in fact—and it was packed with lots of gooey cheese and served with a house-made marinara that was very good. My dining partner also went traditional (and inexpensive) with the Italian Combo hero sandwich ($6.95 and easily enough for two), which was packed with several types of meats and topped with provolone, all the fixings, and Italian dressing. It hit the spot.

There are a handful of daily specials on the menu at Joey’s, so we ordered one of those as well—the Ribeye ($22, with two sides and a house salad). Served with a burgundy sauce that my dining partner declared a definite “no go,” it was otherwise fantastic: moist, perfectly cooked, and accompanied by a huge mound of house-made mashed potatoes and broccoli with mild garlic cloves.

I also ordered a cheese pizza for my daughter to go, because it was cheap ($10.95 for a large, Neapolitan style). It was just okay, but I’d like to go back to try a more adventurous pie (maybe the Sicilian) and nosh on some of the other menu options, like Lasagne ($10.95), Chicken Parmesan ($13.95), Linguine with Clam Sauce ($13.50), or Shrimp Alfredo ($14.95).

Joey’s isn’t around the corner, but it’s close enough for a weeknight dinner. It certainly fills the void left by Zerillo’s (and Enzo’s… and Nabruzzi) for those in the neighborhood looking for tasty Italian.

Joey’s New York Pizza & Italian Restaurant
30681 U.S. Highway 19 N., Palm Harbor

By Melanie Casey


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In Pursuit of Tantalizing Tacos

I’m always on the lookout for good Mexican food.

Señor Tequila satisfies, and its sister store, Victoria Tacos y Cerveza Co. (recently reviewed here in the WOW), isn’t half bad either. But you know how it is. There could always be something different.

Something better.

Enter Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar. Located in Tampa adjacent to the International Mall (where the Blue Martini used to be), Rocco’s has been open since late last year. I only heard about Rocco’s recently (and heard good things), so, even though it is a bit far from home, I figured I’d give it a try.

After a nearly one-hour wait, my dining partner and I were seated at a spacious booth. Festive Mexican décor, lots of leather and wood, two expansive bar areas, and a nice outdoor patio give it a definite Tex-Mex vibe. If you are looking to drop $5,000 on a bottle of tequila (or stick with $9.75 for a house margarita), this is the place. With more than 250 specialty tequilas, they serve an array of margarita varieties and other tropical tequila concoctions, but also mojitos, frozen drinks, and house-made sangria. On weekends, bottomless mimosas or Bloody Marys are just $13.

My Pama-Rita (delicious) went down quite well with the Totopos (chips and salsa, $4.50). Chipotle powder-dusted chips accompanied three salsa varieties—house, verde, and rojo. We added on the queso for a few bucks more. All were good but not great. If you want great chips, salsa, and queso, I’d recommend the Green Lemon in Soho instead.

Next up was the Chicken Tortilla Soup ($4.50; $5.50 on dinner menu). I was expecting a light, traditional broth-type of tortilla soup; instead, I got a thick tomato-based dish that was more of a bean dip consistency (we actually did dip our chips in it). Disappointing. I’d recommend the tortilla soup at Chevy’s instead, but you’ll have to drive to Orlando for it.

Thankfully, the California Fish Tacos ($17.50; $19 on dinner menu) delivered. Crispy fried mahi-mahi was served in a soft flour tortilla and topped with a tangy avocado salsa and an interesting pineapple cabbage slaw. A great combination, and quite delicious. The accompanying rice and beans left a little to be desired, however.

My dining partner chose the Wet Burrito con Rojo ($13.50; $14 on dinner menu), which was more like the size of a lasagna. It was stuffed with chicken, beans, rice, and cheese and slathered with a red sauce and more cheese. It was huge, Tampa, huge! And it was good, but way too much for one person.

The menu at Rocco’s Tacos has most of the items one would expect from a Mexican restaurant—lots of taco choices, combination dinners, enchiladas, fajitas (served on a sizzling rock, naturally) and burritos. There are also a few “healthier” options, such as a Mexican Cobb Salad ($15) or Quinoa Bowl ($16). If you are in the mood for Mexican, I’m sure you’ll find something that strikes your fancy. However, if you are in the mood for Mexican and don’t mind a drive, do the Green Lemon instead. If you want good fish tacos, go to Rubio’s (also by the International Mall and not as fancy, but their fish tacos rule). Otherwise, stick close to home with Señor Tequilas or Victoria Tacos y Cerveza Co.

They’re closer, cheaper, and, in my opinion, better.

Rocco’s Tacos
2223 N. Westshore Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33607  

By Melanie Casey


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Noble Crust Dishes up a Taste of Italy

The Southern-inspired Italian eatery delivers tasty nibbles, fantastic service and a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Always on the lookout for a fresh, new place to dine, I happened upon Noble Crust recently in Carrollwood. Open since December and located on Dale Mabry where the old Outback used to be, Noble Crust is outside of the Westchase area but close enough for a midweek meal.

The rustic open-concept interior lends itself well to the mostly hipster crowd—at least in the bar area, where we grabbed a first-come table to avoid an hourlong Saturday night wait. There was a smattering of young couples and families in the dining area and outdoor patio as well, so it is a nice mixed crowd. The house music is a bit loud, and there’s a buzz of activity due to the open kitchen and lack of interior walls, so I wouldn’t call it cozy and romantic. Still, it works.
Because it is farm-to-table (many of the menu items are grown locally) and selections change seasonally, Noble Crust has a surprisingly small menu. There are only a handful of appetizer options and 10 main course entrees (not counting pizza) from which to choose. But what’s there is predominantly house-made, fresh and fantastic.

We started with the Ricotta Gnocchi ($10.50). House-made potato dumplings are stuffed with ricotta and doused in a light cream sauce flavored with pancetta and pecorino. To me, it was reminiscent of my Mom Mom’s chicken pot pie. The dumplings weren’t dense, as gnocchi can be, and the sauce was creamy and light.

Next up was the Bronzed Salmon ($19), which was topped with a tangy sauce and served alongside grilled cauliflower and fabulous garlic whipped potatoes. The fish was cooked perfectly and the potatoes were smooth and delicious. My dining partner had the Rigatoni and Short Rib Ragu ($18.50). It featured chunks of tender rib meat in a tangy tomato sauce over pasta topped with a healthy dollop of burrata cheese. Primo!

Since it’s an Italian-inspired restaurant, we felt obligated to try the pizza. This was the single disappointment of the evening. Though not bad by any stretch of the imagination, the Pizza Margherita ($12) left a lot to be desired. The pizza sauce was tasty, but the crust was a bit lifeless. We did see several diners order pizza with a fried egg on top – maybe that’s the secret ingredient.

One downside to the open kitchen is that you can see all the dishes as they come out, and everything looks so good, you’ll want to try it. This is how we ended up with Strawberry Shortcake ($8) to end our evening. Fresh sweet strawberries, crumbly cheesecake and a mound of homemade whipped cream pair together perfectly—and it’s plenty to share. 

The service at Noble Crust was, in a word, superb. Our server was knowledgeable, patient and personable. The wait staff completes an extensive training program, and it shows. She knew all of the ingredients, made wonderful suggestions and delivered excellent personal service.

Though it’s not around the corner, Noble Crust is an excellent option for dinner (or, on weekends, brunch). “People from Westchase will make the trip,” proclaimed my dining partner. And they should.

Noble Crust
11618 N. Dale Mabry Highway
Hours: Open at 4 p.m. Tue-Fri; 10:30 a.m. Sat and Sun; closed Mon

By Melanie Casey


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Make it Your Lucky Dill Day

If like many Floridians you are a New York City transplant, then the Lucky Dill Deli in Palm Harbor will feel a bit like going home.

Like NYC, it’s busy – lots of people, lots of stuff, lots of hustle and bustle. I’ve only been to New York City once, but it does capture the vibe. There are brick walls, subway station signs, and lots of flair throughout.

Don’t be fooled by the name. The popular nosh spot is much more than just a deli. It offers sandwiches and soups, of course, but also myriad other options including flatbreads, baskets, seafood, steaks, wraps, burgers, paninis, pasta and so much more. Breakfast is served all day, and daily specials augment an already overwhelming menu.

If you are in the mood for classic deli fare and gigantic sandwiches, look no further. Your options are practically endless – corned beef, egg salad, roast beef, tuna, and chopped liver (truly) are included in the “The Original” sandwich lineup. But there are also “Skyscraper” options with names like “Superfly” and “When Harry Met Sally” along with a variety of reubens that are so massive you won’t be able to get your hands around them.

Making a decision was difficult. So while poring over our choices, we started with an appetizer sampler, The Ritz Blitz ($12.99). It was definitely enough to share – meaty chicken wings were served alongside crunchy fried green tomatoes that were drizzled with deliciousness, and giant (what else?) mozzarella sticks with a tangy tomato dipping sauce.

After much deliberation, I opted for the Turkey Reuben ($13.99). Toasted rye bread was filled with a mound of sauerkraut and a mound of turkey and topped with Swiss cheese. It was served warm with thousand island dressing (they call it Russian), a crisp dill pickle and your choice of side. The cole slaw is a little on the mayonnaise-y side, but good. I’m fairly certain this was not a low-calorie meal, but it was pretty fantastic. Bonus: it was so huge, I had lunch for the next day.

My dining partner went with one of the day’s specials, Guinness Beef Stew ($12.99). Fresh carrots, peas, onions, and potatoes were mixed with tender chunks of beef and served in a rich but not overpowering broth – hearty and delicious.

Shaved roast beef and melted provolone made up the Classic French Dip ($13.99), which was served open-faced on crusty bread, old-school style. The accompanying au jus added just the right amount of savory. Finally, the Brooklyn Burger ($10.99) was a better-than-average burger served on a Challah roll to make it unique and very NYC.

If you order a drink of any kind (even soda or tea) at the Lucky Dill, you get a free dessert. Since you will likely be stuffed to the gills by the end of your meal, they will box it to go if you’d like. Most of the desserts are made from scratch at the attached Brooklyn Bakery, and it shows. We chose the cheesecake, which was rich (but not too heavy) with a heavenly graham cracker crust.

The service was spot-on. Nicole, our waitress, was enthusiastic, personable, helpful and very efficient even though she was clearly busy.

The only downside (if you can call it that) to this place is that you just get too much food. I don’t have enough space to get into what else the Lucky Dill offers – in short, there’s the aforementioned bakery, great specials, a hip little bar with live music six nights a week, craft cocktails and more.

Go check it out for yourself!

The Lucky Dill Deli
33180 US 19
Palm Harbor, FL

By Melanie Casey


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Mexican Food without the Frills

Looking for a Mexican restaurant with good food and a casual atmosphere?

Look no further – Victoria Tacos y Cerveza Co. has what you need. Located on Sheldon Road where the old Gondolier pizzeria used to be, Victoria Tacos offers a good variety of Mexican fare in a super casual setting. Unlike its cousin, Senor Tequila (they have the same owners), Victoria is less sit-down restaurant and more grab-a-quick-bite bistro. Bistro might be overdoing it – there’s a very small bar area/entrance and one big room with 16 tables or so spread out. There’s not a lot of intimacy, but odds are that’s not really what you’re looking for in this place. It’s definitely no frills and is almost fast-foodish in the setup – think plain tables and plastic cups.

However, the restaurant does have staff that is available to seat and to serve you. On my visit, the place was slammed (a good sign, I thought), so our service was a bit slow. However, chips served with fresh salsa, a mean queso (an extra $4.25) and a pretty cheap beer kept us quiet and patient.

One complaint – I get that it’s trying to be authentic, and I appreciate the effort – but the majority of the dish names are in Spanish. While I’m sure there are many Spanish-speaking Westchasians out there, I’m not one of them. The dish details are in English, but it can be a little overwhelming to try to read through all the descriptions to figure out what to order, especially if you are trying to wrangle kids.

As is probably to be expected, the food we sampled tasted similar to the dishes of the same name at Senor Tequila. Still good – just not that different of a flavor. The steak fajitas ($14.99) featured a mound of grilled meat, peppers, onions and tomatoes on a sizzling platter along with the usual accompaniments. Like its namesake at Senor Tequila, the chicken chimichanga ($9.99) is stuffed with seasoned and shredded chicken, topped with queso and served with shredded lettuce and a dollop of sour cream. It tasted pretty much identical, too. However, it is served à la carte, so no beans and rice for you (not that you’d have room for them, anyway).

The real winner at Victoria Tacos y Cerveza, in my opinion, is the fish taco (a steal at only $3.50). Since moving to Tampa, I have found very few fish tacos that I would say are “delicious.” I’ve tried quite a few – California Tacos (too greasy), Rubio’s (pretty good), and several at local Mexican eateries (almost always blech). This fish taco, however, was honestly the best I’ve had in my six years here. Piping hot fried fish is served atop a fresh warm tortilla and dressed with cabbage and a tangy fish salsa. As he brought the dish out, my waiter said it was his favorite item on the menu – and for good reason. If you’ve never tried a fish taco, this would be the place to do so. I highly recommend it.

To finish, we shared a plate-sized sopapilla ($4). Arriving warm, dusted with sugar, drizzled with honey and decorated with whipped cream and cherries, tt was a nice finish to a satisfying meal.

Victoria Tacos y Cerveza Co.
3.5 Stars
11625 Sheldon Rd.
(813) 328-4094

By Melanie Casey


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Romance is Alive and Well at Donatello

It’s February. That means romance, roses and maybe some diamonds are in store.

It also usually means planning a special Valentine’s Day dinner for your significant other. There are lots of great choices for a romantic meal in Tampa Bay, including several that I have reviewed previously like Eddie V’s, Sacred Pepper and Nabruzzi. This month, I add one more to the list: Donatello.

Located just north of Kennedy on Dale Mabry, Donatello is a bit of a hidden gem. When you enter, you’ll be greeted effusively by the Maître d’, who will seat you and chat with the tuxedo-clad staff in Italian. The service is high-class all the way.

This is a place where the waiter puts the napkin on your lap for you, and your glass will never be empty. Enough said.

The ambiance at Donatello definitely fits the bill if you are looking for romance – low light, crisp pink linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, pink paint on the walls. Much of the framed art even falls into the “Romance” category. Don’t expect a lot of privacy, though. There are a few booths along the walls that allow for some seclusion, but for the most part the room is open. However, low ceilings and Romanesque arches help break up the space and give it a bit of a European, old-world feel.

Begin with a glass (or bottle) of wine from the expansive wine menu, which I’m pretty sure is bigger than the actual menu. For appetizers, we went traditional with Bruchetta ($4.95). Two pieces of toasted Italian bread are topped with fresh garlic, tomatoes and basil. Simple, but delicious. Next up was the Tortellini in Brodo Di Pollo ($15.95), a chicken broth–based soup with fresh sausage and ham tortellini. Top with some grated parm, and you’ve got a winner. Again, simple but tasty.

For the entrée, my dining partner selected the Cannelloni Donatello ($28.95) – I call it lasagna with a Donatello twist. The presentation is a bit enchilada-like, but the flavor is all Italian. Hand-rolled pasta is stuffed with veal and mozzarella and topped with Donatello’s delicious house-made tomato sauce. It was cheesy and amazing – and just the right amount.

I tried the Pollo Piccata ($27.95). The sauce was buttery and lemony and teeming with capers, but it wasn’t overpowering and the chicken was tender. It was served with the most amazing green beans I have ever had along with a tasty croquette.

We shared a fantastic piece of house-made tiramisu ($12.95) and a foamy cappuccino ($5) to cap off an amazing meal. There is no denying the food at Donatello is authentic, and really everything we tried was terrific. It is a bit pricey, but for a special occasion (or even just a random Saturday) you should splurge.

Donatello also has a jazz/piano bar area adjacent to the dining room. I didn’t get a chance to visit, but it looked exactly like you would expect a jazz bar to look, and there’s live music every night, making it the perfect place to stop for a nightcap after a delicioso meal.

232 N. Dale Mabry Hwy.
Reservations via Open Table or call 875-6660

By Melanie Casey


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Marina’s: Simple, No Frills and Delicious

A local pizza shop offers a taste of Italy in our own backyard.

Most of you have already heard of Marina’s Pizza & Pasta. Located adjacent to Publix, it’s convenient enough to stop in for a quick dinner or pick up takeout on your way home from work.

But there are surely neighborhood newbies (or not-so-newbies, like myself) who haven’t tried it yet. This was a great excuse for me to finally take the plunge after living in Westchase for more than 5 years. I have friends who rave about it and get takeout at least once a week, but for one reason or another, I had never made it in.

Now that I have, I can tell you that I will be back.

The décor at Marina’s is simple and no-frills, but if you opt to dine in (on my visit, there was a steady stream of takeout customers but not many sit-down diners), it’s clean and welcoming. The servers are attentive, prompt and thorough.

We started with the Mozzarella Sticks ($5.95). They’re breaded and fried, and honestly not much different than most other mozzarella sticks you will encounter at any Italian restaurant. What makes this version stand out, however, is the accompanying tomato sauce. Clearly house made and fresh, it was really good.

On the suggestion of the waitress, I selected the Penne Alla Boscaiola ($13). A mound (and I mean mound) of penne came smothered in a delicious creamy tomato sauce containing ground sausage, sautéed mushrooms and peas. Tangy and very filling. My dining partner went traditional with the Lasagne Napoletana ($12.95). This is the stuff… so cheesy and meaty. Baked and still bubbling when it arrived, it was, as the Italians would say, incredibile. And enormous. Like my entrée, this dish can easily serve two. Finally, we tried the Linguini Alfredo with Chicken ($14.99)—another rich, creamy and filling dish that tasted amazing.
Our choices were all from the dinner menu. Marina’s also offers traditional pizzas (small cheese starts at $8.75; large supreme goes for $21), which I have on good authority are quite delicious; specialty “Brazilian-style” pizzas; hot subs, including Meatball ($6.99) and Philly Cheese Steak ($8); cold subs; and salads. The dinner options are served with bread and a dinner salad (with a fabulous house dressing) and as noted are likely enough for two.

To wrap things up, we shared an order of Tiramisu ($3.99). I’m not sure if it’s house made or not, but I could not stop eating it – it was that good. Other dessert options include Cannoli and Chocolate Cake ($3.99 each).

One interesting tidbit about Marina’s is that it doesn’t serve alcohol; however, customers are invited to “BYOB,” including wine and beer. Conveniently, there’s a liquor store (and a Publix) right next door. Marina’s has also recently added a delivery option (with a three-mile delivery area). You can even order takeout or delivery online.

If you’ve lived here for ages or are new the world of Westchase, stop by and give Marina’s a try.

By Melanie Casey

Marina’s Pizza & Pasta
12121 W. Linebaugh Ave.


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Seafood Exchange: A Good Start to Build On

I know what many of you are thinking: “Let’s see how long this lasts.”

After all, in the past few years, the location of the new Seafood Exchange Bar & Grill in the Westchase Town Center has housed Patio 6, The Great Spiedini, Little Greek, Bollywood and a Quiznos. It seems like such a primo spot that it’s difficult to imagine why anything located there would go under. Yet lately, that seems to be the rule.

Based on a recent visit, coupled with online reviews and neighborhood Facebook feedback, I think this place might just make it. It’s got a little bit of work to do (more on that in a bit), but the foundation – good food, a good atmosphere, pleasant servers and good prices – is there.

The Seafood Exchange Bar & Grill touts itself as New Orleans/Cajun/creole, and like Mardi Gras, the atmosphere is welcoming and pleasant. My dining partner said it reminded her a bit of Pat O’Brien’s, the famous Bourbon Street watering hole.

This is a place where you should sit outside. The patio area has been expanded a bit with a longer bar, more tables and a few games of cornhole.  It’s casual, comfortable, kid-friendly and, with a full bar and a fantastic weekday happy hour, it could become a Westchase go-to.

The menu weighs heavily toward seafood with options like oysters, shrimp, catfish, salmon and grouper. But there are plenty of choices for landlubbers, too, including Andouille sausage, roast beef, burgers, pork, steak and chicken.

Seasoned and in the shell, the Peel and Eat Shrimp ($12.99) is a safe starter choice. It comes hot with drawn butter and a terrific tangy cocktail sauce, and there’s plenty for a table to share. We also tried the Fried Gator Bites ($10.99), which my server assured me are, indeed, made from actual alligator. Surprisingly tasty, they were flavorful enough not to need the accompanying Creole dipping sauce. 

My dining partner opted to try the Seafood Gumbo ($8.99 for a bowl), which she said was flavorful with a bit of a kick. It was undeniably hearty. Also up was the Blackened Cajun Burger ($10.99). Well-cooked without being dry and topped with cheese, onion straws and jalapeños, it was definitely different! I tried the Grilled Salmon ($16.99). The portion was huge, and the Asian-inspired citrusy glaze was delicious. The accompanying red beans and rice were not at all mushy (as they can sometimes be) and good.  We also tried the Roast Beef Po Boy ($11.99), which was more like an open-faced sandwich but enjoyable nonetheless.

While the food and the prices at the Seafood Exchange Bar & Grill are pretty good, there were a few hiccups during my visit. Our server was attentive, but the wait for our food was agonizingly slow. Let’s just say it’s a good thing there was a decent happy hour to keep us occupied.

Said server also forgot to put our appetizers in first, so everything came out at once. In addition, other wait staff tried to deliver someone else’s order to our table at least four times (they clearly need a table numbering system), and I was charged twice for the same item.

I will say this – give the Seafood Exchange a chance. It needs some time to work out the kinks with the kitchen and the service. But the food is good, the prices are reasonable, and the atmosphere can’t be beat. If in six months it still has the same issues, I would wager the countdown to closure has likely begun. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

The Seafood Exchange Bar & Grill
3.5 stars
9648 W. Linebaugh Ave.
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sun, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

By Melanie Casey


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Get to the Grind

Not sure why it’s taken me so long to get to The Grind.

The popular coffee spot is conveniently located in the heart of “downtown” Westchase across from Maloney’s. I’ve overlooked it for far too long.

A recent weekend visit proved that The Grind is the go-to breakfast joint for locals who want to stay in the bubble.

There’s good reason for its popularity. First, there’s the convenience factor – many a Westchaser can walk to it. Next, there’s the cost factor – it’s not pricey, and you get a good bang for your buck. Finally, there’s the coffee factor. The Grind offers quite a selection of joe, including lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos along with Chai and other teas. You can make it your way with soy, almond milk, coconut milk or rice milk.

I went with the café con leche ($4.15), and it was beyond fantastic. Creamy, sublime, and perfectly sweetened; I didn’t want it to end. I can say with confidence it was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had (and I’m quite the coffee snob, so that’s quite a testament). I could stop right here and give The Grind a five-star review.

But there’s more.

The Grind serves breakfast all day and has a good-sized menu that includes typical morning fare like eggs, pancakes, omelets and breakfast potatoes (more on those later). Yet it also offers a variety of unique breakfast sandwiches for less than five bucks each, including a breakfast burrito and a veggie wrap.

Make sure to check the specials board on every visit. There’s a daily frittata ($6.95) and weekend specials like the Grind Breakfast Bowl and my choice – the Country Breakfast Special ($13.90). It was a tad pricey compared to some other items, but worth it. It came with two eggs; two soft, fresh biscuits smothered in house-made country gravy; a slab of fried ham, and breakfast potatoes (it comes with grits, but I substituted the potatoes for no charge). They were crispy outside, soft inside and seasoned just so. They were terrific!

My dining partner wasn’t in the mood for breakfast, so she went for the Grown Up Grilled Cheese ($5.95). There was not so much grilling going on, but it proved delicious nonetheless. Provolone, gouda, and parmesan cheeses were melted inside warm, soft ciabatta bread. It was hearty and homey – and very filling. Probably not the greatest for your LDL levels, but sometimes you need to live a little.

Other lunch options include salads, flatbreads and a good variety of sandwiches. There are also options for those who eat gluten-free or vegan.

The ambiance at The Grind is friendly and inviting. On my visit, lots of customers seemed to know each other as well as the staff, so clearly there are a good number of regulars. The service is friendly and quick. You order at the counter, then sit at the bar, a high-top table, a booth, or a comfy arm chair and your order will be out in no time. Ample seating outside makes it a perfect place to linger when the weather is cooler.

Do yourself a favor. Skip Starbucks or Dunkin one of these mornings and give The Grind a try. You will be glad you did.

The Grind
5 Stars
9532 W. Linebaugh Ave.
Hours: Mon-Fri, 6 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat-Sun, 7 a.m.-4 p.m..

By Melanie Casey


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The Cantina That Can…Succeed

I wanted to review Suegra Tequila Cantina when it opened a few months ago, but bad press and some negative online comments kept me away.

I honestly worried it was going to go under.

But Suegra Tequila Cantina in Oldsmar was clearly going to stay in business. So I owed it to you, Westchase diners and margarita drinkers, to let you know if it was worth your time and your dime.

I was pleasantly surprised with both the experience and with the food. I can confidently say it was worth the wait.

Suegra has a very different vibe from the previous occupant of that space, City Fish. The atmosphere is very wooden and Southwestern. The cool round bar, generous seating and open-concept kitchen lend to an upscale ambiance, but not overbearingly so. 

I started the evening with (what else?) a margarita. Our server was amazingly helpful and knowledgeable about the nearly 150 (yes, 150) varieties of tequila available (including a $3,000 bottle of anniversary edition Jose Cuervo). I stuck with the "El Jefe" ($13) a top-shelf concoction that was delicious. Very smooth, not too much bite – and bonus, no headache the following day.

Next up were the appetizers. Feeling a bit frisky, my dining partner and I opted for the Charred Octopus ($11). The meaty octopus tentacles were indeed well-charred, giving them a bit of smoky taste that was paired with a lemon and cilantro sauce. Not at all spicy but a tad fishy.

We also tried the Queso Fundido ($10), which is essentially cheese baked in a tiny adorable skillet. The edges were perfectly crispy, but after sitting for a few minutes the cheese got pretty greasy. Served with warm tortillas, it's probably best to eat it quickly before it cools.

Also note that if you order appetizers, your house-made chips and salsa (served with a salsa verde, a delish black bean salsa and a typical tomato salsa) will come after your appetizers have been cleared.

For the main dishes, we went to our excellent server, Nicole, who had already wowed us with her knowledge of all things tequila, for a recommendation. I wasn't really in the mood for tacos, and the Drunken Shrimp ($21) piqued my interest. In a word – amazing! Several huge shrimp were flambéed in tequila (what else?) and served atop smashed plantains (which tasted a lot like mashed potatoes to me). A tangy, tasty, really good dish.

My dining partner selected the Blackened Salmon ($20), also served atop mashed plantains along with deconstructed Mexican street corn (deconstructed = off the cob). Mixed up with peppers and citrus butter, it was really good. The salmon was a little bland, but mixed with the corn and accompanying salmon ceviche, it was quite nice.  

Though our bellies were getting full, we had to try the Flan ($8) for dessert. A beautiful presentation and a sweet-but-not-too-overpowering flavor wrapped up a delicious meal.

I was impressed with Suegra Tequila Cantina. The menu is expansive, the prices are actually reasonable, the service is fantastic and the food is great.

Oh, and don't forget the margaritas!

What else do you need?

Suegra Tequila Cantina
4022 Tampa Rd., Oldsmar

By Melanie Casey


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Honk! Honk! Ford’s Garage Opens in Westchase

The Westchase area was abuzz last year when we heard a new Costco was coming to the corner of Sheldon and Linebaugh.

When we heard new restaurants were on their way, too, we were pretty excited. We do seem to be a people that like to wine and dine (or be wined and dined).

One of those new eateries is Ford's Garage. In anticipation of its grand opening in mid-August, I headed up to the location in Wesley Chapel (also located near a new Costco – coincidence?) to check it out.

I was pleasantly surprised.

First off, the restaurant’s theme decor is on point. From its replica Model Ts in the entryway and mounted from the inside ceiling to its oil rag-replica napkins, Ford's Garage embraces the 1920s service station vibe.

With its bright yellow and red exterior, it comes off a bit Main Street Magic Kingdom at first. But inside, it's pure nostalgic motor works. They've really thought through the details here – wood paneling, gas pump door handles, old timey gaslight fixtures and copper accents stand out among a plethora of vintage car paraphernalia. The wait staff (who were superb) even dress like mechanics.

But enough about the style. What about the substance?

I'm happy to report that Ford's Garage delivers. Billing itself as a "prime burger bar and craft beer joint," it offers 12 standard burger options with names like the Model "A" ($13.95, with pico de gallo and a fried egg), the Distinguished Gentleman ($12.50, with caramelized onion and garlic aioli), and the High Octane ($12.50, with chipotle ketchup and jalapeños).

If you prefer, build your own burger. Choose from meats like Black Angus, Portobello mushroom, chicken breast, ground turkey, Ahi tuna, Kobe beef or bison and load up with toppings like dill pickle planks, grilled shrimp, and spicy "boom boom" sauce among the standard burger condiments. You can even pick the bun. (European pretzel burger, anyone?)

I went with a pretty standard choice – the Ford's Signature burger ($12.50). Served with sharp cheddar, lettuce, red onion and bourbon BBQ sauce and criss-crossed with two thick slices of Applewood smoked bacon, it was a hot mess. But it was delicious. Whoever decided to put barbeque sauce on a burger was inspired. It's served with fries, which are thick, skin-on, and perfectly cooked (and served in adorable baby deep-fryer basket).
Before the burger, I had a bowl of jalapeño corn chowder ($5.95), which was thick and creamy and served up a nice kick.
If burgers aren't your thing, Ford's has plenty of other options, including salads and comfort foods like Mama Ford's Homemade Meatloaf ($12.95) and Maine Lobster Mac 'n Cheese ($16.95). Top the meal off with Mom's Secret Recipe Rum Cake or Funnel Cake Fries (both $5.95) or an old-fashioned malted milkshake.

"Prime burger bar" is just half of the Ford's Garage story. It's also a craft beer bar with local brews like Cigar City and Tampa Bay Brewing Company on tap and a pretty extensive list of bottled brews, including IPAs, wheat beers, ciders, stouts and fruit beers. 

Like many of you, I'll likely be a regular at the Westchase location. I'll see you there.

Ford’s Garage
10413 Sheldon Rd., Tampa, FL 33626
(813) 616-3673

By Melanie Casey


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A Lower Priced, Family Friendly Italian Option

The much-anticipated Nabruzzi Trattoria in Westchase is no more.

A few months ago, after little more than a year, the upscale Italian eatery shuttered its doors.

Not long after, it reopened with a new menu and a new name – but the same owner.

The new Enzo's Pizzeria & Pasta, located at the corner of Race Track Road and Nine Eagles Drive, is a more casual, family friendly facility than its predecessor. The menu still features classic Italian fare like lasagna, pizza, and eggplant parm, but at about half the cost. I heard many complaints about the previous prices at Nabruzzi, and clearly its owner, Westchase resident Massimo Sabetti, was listening.

On first glance, not much has changed. The decor and layout are essentially the same, with a bar in the front and open floor plan in the back featuring several booths and tables. The atmosphere is less date night and more family dinner, which I think is what Westchase wants for this location.

We started with mozzarella sticks ($5.95) and garlic knots ($4.50 for 12). The mozzarella sticks were on point — simultaneously crispy and cheesy — and the fresh, clearly house-made marinara dipping sauce sealed the deal. The garlic knots, however, seemed stale or perhaps a tad overcooked, but dipped in the marinara they were nonetheless tasty.

Next up were the entrees. The price is right and you do get good-sized portions at Enzo's; unfortunately, everything we tried was a bit disappointing. The Chicken Marsala ($12.95) comes with soup or salad and is served atop a bed of pasta. I opted for the salad, which was pretty sparse. A house-made dressing (instead of bottled) would have made it better. The marsala was just okay – not bad, but not great. The lasagna ($11.95) is a good size, very cheesy and clearly house-made, but the meat mixture of ground sausage and ground beef was a little strong. My dining partner declared it "not as good as yours."

I'm Irish, not Italian, so that's saying something.

The Shrimp Scampi ($15.50) started off promising. Five jumbo shrimp, served on a bed of angel hair pasta, were drizzled with a lemon garlic sauce. Unfortunately, once the shrimp were gone, the sauce was overwhelmingly strong and lemony mixed with just pasta.

The saving grace for this meal was dessert – house-made Tiramisu ($5.95), which was absolutely divine.

The marinara sauce at Enzo's is actually very good, so I'd recommend a pasta dish like Stuffed Shells ($9.95), Spaghetti and Meatballs ($9.95) or even a Calzone ($6.95; extra toppings are $1.95 each).

Although my menu choices on this particular trip didn't impress, the service was fantastic. Our waitress was knowledgeable, attentive and prompt. With fabulous service, excellent prices and a proximity that can't be beat, Enzo's is sure to become a Westchase favorite.

Enzo's Pizzeria & Pasta
3.5 stars
11653 Countryway Blvd.

By Melanie Casey


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A Sizzling Night Out

There are some restaurant gimmicks that work.

The Melting Pot for fondue. Hooters for wings. Now the Black Rock Bar & Grill for a rock.

That's right – a rock, literally. More like a brick actually. Ok, I guess technically it's a volcanic stone.  No matter the semantics, it's one really hot rock.

Why would want you go to a restaurant where you have to cook, you ask? I'll tell you why: a) it's delicious, and b) it's super fun!

At Black Rock Bar & Grill in Carrollwood (there's another in Brandon), you can cook your dinner atop your own private sizzling 755-degree square black brick. Note that if this isn't your cup of tea, there are plenty of entree options (like Black Rock Chicken, $16.99; Potato-Crusted Mediterranean Sea Bass, $23.99; and Wasabi Pea Crusted Ahi Tuna Salad, $14.99, along with a good variety of burgers and sandwiches) that don't require you to be your own chef.

But at Black Rock if you want steak, you're going to work for it.

We started our night with the Crab Stuffed Mushrooms ($12.99). This one was cooked for us, but several starter options are cooked on the stone. Expecting a few stuffed button mushrooms, I was pleasantly surprised by two hamburger-sized Portobello caps packed with tender crab meat stuffing and dusted with Parmesan cheese. They were quite delicious and enough for two to share.

Next up – the fun stuff. We both went for the signature six-ounce sirloin ($15.99) and I paired mine with scallops for an extra $9. You can also add shrimp, lobster and Burgundy mushrooms. Other cuts like ribeye and filet are also offered, and all are served with two generous sides.

The steak arrives to your table in one big piece and already cooking. Basically, it's a slab of sizzling meat. The server will give you the run down on how long you should cook it to get it to your liking. I cut off bite-sized pieces and guessed, but it couldn't have been longer than a minute per piece for medium. It cooks faster than you'd think.

Make sure to take advantage of the accompanying sauces – Casino butter and Louisiana Dream Sauce. I added a generous dollop of the butter to each morsel as it cooked, then dipped the result into the creamy dream sauce. The word that comes to mind is "yum." Probably not calorie-free, but so worth it.

We topped off the meal with the Black Rock Brownie ($6.99), a black, rock-sized square of brownie topped with ice cream and whipped cream. Nothing fancy or spectacular (you'll need to try the flaming Black Rock Volcano for that), but it was good.

The gimmick at Black Rock Bar & Grill pays off. The steak and seafood are tasty, the sides are generous and the service is superb. Make it a date night by having dinner and drinks and then walking over to catch a movie at the nearby Villagio theater or strolling around the Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Or make it a crazy, sizzling night and do both!

Black Rock Bar & Grill
11702 N. Dale Mabry Hwy
(813) 321-3577

By Melanie Casey


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Authentic Italian at Russo’s

A few months ago, WOW ran a profile of Amy Daner, a Westchase resident.

Along with her brother and sister-in-law, Amy recently opened a pizzeria in Clearwater. I like pizza (who doesn't?) and I'm happy to support a local family, so I headed over recently to give it a try.

Russo’s is located in a strip mall on the corner of Belcher Road and State Road 60 – not far from the Clearwater Costco. It's a tad tucked away and, I'm not going to lie, a little bit of a hike from our ’hood.

However, although we have nearby pizza places like Mellow Mushroom (good) and Grimaldi's (overrated), I'm happy to say Russo's is worth the trip.

It's not a huge space, but the open concept, including a large brick oven and bar area, is inviting. It's nice to watch your pizza being freshly prepped, and the kids will enjoy watching the dough fly through the air.

Russo's is definitely more than just pizza, and I wanted to get a real feel for the menu. First off was the Mozzarella Fritti ($9.95), a huge serving of fried mozzarella sticks served with house-made marinara sauce featuring chunks of fresh tomatoes and onions.

"Amazing," claimed my dining partner. "Perfectly crisp and gooey."

Next up was a House Salad ($4.95, served with balsamic vinaigrette dressing) and Tortollini Brodo Soup ($4.95 for a cup).  The salad was good but nothing special (I actually would have preferred a more authentic Italian dressing), but the soup – wow! Amazing! The broth had a rich, earthy flavor that complimented the adjacent cheese tortellini, bits of spinach, and chunks of chicken.  I was pleasantly surprised.

Now on to the pizza.

We went basic – Pizza Margherita ($14.95 for a medium), because if you make a mean pizza margherita, you can make a mean anything.  And it was fantastic. The rich, buttery crust was perfectly crisped and topped with mozzarella cheese, juicy Roma tomatoes and slivers of fresh sweet basil. If the margherita was any indication, Russo's other pizza options like Pesto Chicken, New York Village, and thin crust Paesano Napoletana must be divine. I will definitely be back to find out. 

I was surprised how expansive the Russo's menu is. Lots of Italian options like calzones, flatbread sandwiches, pastas and signature entrees were available. Any pasta could be made gluten free or whole wheat, and signature pizzas were available with gluten-free crust.
I wanted to try something a little different, so I selected the Chicken Piccata ($14.95), one of the signature entrees. This was another dish that surprised me. The sauce was lemony but not overpowering. The chicken was pounded thin but wasn't dry. And the fettuccine was perfectly al dente.  It was a good-sized portion, too, with lots of capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and big Portabella mushrooms. Definitely enough for lunch the next day.

Our final stop on the tour of Russo's menu was dessert: house-made Tiramisu ($7.95) and Italian Cannoli ($3.95) with Cappuccino ($3.95). It proved a delicious end to a delicious meal.

The next time you have a hankering for pizza or anything authentic Italian, head out to Clearwater and give Russo's a try. You won't regret it.

Note: My 4.5 star rating includes a half star deduction for being outside of the Westchase area.

Russo’s New York Pizzeria
2233 Gulf to Bay Blvd.,
Clearwater, FL 33765

By Melanie Casey


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It’s Long Past Time to Enjoy Flamestone

Odds are you've driven past Flamestone American Grill in Oldsmar on your way to somewhere else and thought, “I really need to try that place.”

Yes, you really do.

Flamestone offers the entire package – posh but not stuffy; fast, friendly service; and fabulous food – and it's practically right around the corner!

Aesthetically, the open-decor concept at Flamestone works well with its dark features like black booths, wooden tables and stone accents. It's very chic, dark and romantic, but not at all snooty. It would suit a ladies night out, a family dinner or just a quick mid-week bite.

Although appetizer options like farm-to-table tableside Guacamole ($12.90) and Oven Flatbreads ($9 for a Margherita) were tempting, we opted instead for the Colossal Scallops ($13.90). While you only get three, they are in fact, colossal, so there is plenty for two to share. They're lightly grilled, then topped with sweet caramelized onions and served atop an amazing saffron lemon aioli and chili oil concoction with just the hint of a kick.

For the main course, I had difficulty deciding between the Chilean Sea Bass ($32.90) and Fresh Grouper ($27.90). Ultimately, the parmesan risotto served with the sea bass sold me, but I'll be back for the grouper.

Seared to perfection with just the right amount of seasoning, a good-sized cut of bass is served over a rich, roasted tomato fondue sauce (which tasted, oddly enough, a bit like pureed sweet potato) and a generous helping of the aforementioned parm risotto, which was neither sticky nor runny. It was quite tasty. The whole thing was drizzled with a basil-infused olive oil. I'm not sure who thought up this taste combination, but it is genius. Lightly crisped, mild and flaky, the bass mixes in your mouth with the fondue and risotto to create, dare I say, a taste sensation.

My meat-eating dining partner selected the Wrangler's Cut top sirloin ($20.90) despite options like BBQ Baby Back Ribs ($14.90 for a regular rack), Mile High Meatloaf ($16), and Chicken and Waffles ($17.90) Cooked exactly to order, his steak was served with clearly homemade mashed red-skin potatoes and buttery, crisp-tender veggies.

We saved a bit of room for dessert (Grand Canyon Chocolate Cake, $11.90). Featuring seven full layers of chocolate cake and a pudding-like, not-too-sweet filling topped with chocolate icing and served with a few dollops of whipped cream, it would have been enough to feed an entire table.

For those so inclined, Flamestone offers a decent array of wines by the glass or bottle, beer, hand-crafted cocktails like Homemade Sangria (red or white pineapple – yum!), and signature martinis with names like Bubbles and Berries, Purple Nectar, and Espresso.

Yes, an espresso martini.

In its location in Oldsmar (near the Brass Tap and Moe’s) for about nine years, Flamestone will soon expand to a second location in Trinity.

Flamestone American Grill
4009 Tampa Rd.
Oldsmar, FL 34667
(813) 814-7779

By Melanie Casey


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A Special Place for that Special Someone

Perhaps a birthday looms on the horizon.

Or maybe an anniversary. You're looking for a special place to take that special someone. Where do you go?

A lot of people would think of Bern’s, or maybe Charley's, or maybe a new Soho hotspot. But I'll tell you where you should go: Eddie V's Prime Seafood.

The seafood and steakhouse, located on Boy Scout Boulevard across from the International Mall, is home to the best steak I've ever eaten, hands down. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say it's the best meal I've ever eaten.

Superb service, fabulous food, and an elegant, upscale (yet not snobby) vibe give Eddie V's the whole package.

As soon as you walk in, you know you're somewhere special. The lighting is dim, the music is low and everyone's dressed up. The wait staff wears tuxedo-like uniforms to give the atmosphere that high-class feel, but it's not just window dressing. The service at Eddie V's is fantastic. Each table has two servers, so you never want for anything. Yet they don't hover and aren't at all pushy.

I did take the server's advice and tried the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake appetizer ($19). Let me tell you, it was the best crab cake I've ever tried (and I lived in Maryland for four years). It wasn't fishy, had lots of fresh lump crab and a nice texture flavored with a mild, buttery spice. So good! And, at the size of a good-sized burger, it's plenty to share.

For the second course, we both opted for a fresh salad: Caesar for me ($11), Iceberg BLT ($12) for my dining partner. The Caesar was quite unlike any Caesar I've ever had. Fresh leaves of romaine were covered by what I can only describe as slabs of parmesan cheese. Tangy and tasty, but if you don't like parmesan, it could be a bit overpowering. The BLT Salad featured crumbles of bleu cheese, bacon, tomatoes and a creamy buttermilk dressing.

Next up was the entree. Of course, we had to try the center-cut filet. At $40 for 8 ounces and $48 for 12 ounces, it's not cheap. But you get what you pay for. Perfectly cooked, crispy and seasoned on the outside while tender and juicy on the inside – perfection! I added a side of tarragon béarnaise ($4) that was well worth it.

We shared a large side of au gratin potatoes ($10) that was decadently cheesy and rich and still bubbling hot from the oven.

We were too full for dessert, and I'm not going to lie – my wallet was getting pretty light by this point as well (a meal with a few courses will set you back at least $200).
For a celebration or special occasion, though, throw caution (and your paycheck) to the wind and head for Eddie V's.

You won't regret it.

Eddie V's Prime Seafood
4400 W. Boy Scout Blvd. Tampa

By Melanie Casey


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Cuban Breezes is Muy Bueno

If you’re looking for a no-nonsense, local joint with a relaxed atmosphere and great grub, look no farther than Cuban Breezes.

Located at the corner of Race Track Road and Hillsborough Avenue in Oldsmar, Cuban Breezes offers up a variety of Cuban specialties, about many of which, I'll admit, I'd never heard. Luckily, those I tried were quite delicious.

I started with the sampler platter ($7.99), featuring croquetas, yucca fritters, an empanada and a huge portion of pan con queso, which honestly was the most delicious grilled cheese I’ve ever experienced. The bread (Cuban, of course) was warm and pressed, and the cheese inside was melted just enough to be gooey but not messy.

Next up was the main course. I took the waiter’s suggestion and went for the Pollo Empanizado ($10.99) which came with not one but two seasoned and fried boneless children breasts. The chicken was juicy and the seasoning was tasty – it’s especially good dipped in Cuban Breezes’ Havana sauce. The beans served on the side were the only letdown of the entire meal. They were bland, runny, and uninspired.

My dining partner opted for the Arroz con Pollo ($9.99), which is a mixture of yellow rice with chunks of tender chicken. It was a little sticky (I think it’s supposed to be), but very tasty. A little sweet, and not too spicy. It may not be true for some dishes, but I find that Cuban food leans more toward sweet than spicy, which is the way I like it.

Of course you can’t eat Cuban without trying a Cuban. The Big Havana ($6.99) is a huge portion of ham and turkey served with cheese, lettuce, tomato, bacon and Havana sauce. Maybe not a typical Cuban (that’s usually ham, pork, cheese, pickles and mustard, and at Cuban Breezes it's cheaper than at Publix). Order the Boatload of Fries ($2.99 and chock full of shoestring salty deliciousness), and you definitely will not leave hungry.

It was already a fantastic meal – and quite reasonable – but the cherry on top was dessert. The price was right (just $2.99 each), so we had to try the regular Flan and the Coconut Flan. Both were amazing and feature creamy custard topped with sticky sweet caramel. The coconut version had toasted coconut bits on top, which were crunchy and paired well with the creamy flan and sticky caramel. Served alongside an amazing Café con Leche ($2.99 – I mean, who has Cuban and doesn’t order one of these?), it was a fitting end to a pretty amazing meal.

Since my stomach was only so big, I will definitely be back to try the Lechon Asado ($9.99). According to the waiter, the marinated pork is one of the most popular menu items. I’ll also be back to try the Hawaiian Cuban, a new item, which more than one person has recommended.

Great food, great prices, fantastic service, and a casual, laid-back atmosphere – I'd say we have a winner!

Cuban Breezes
135980 Hillsborough Ave.
Tampa, 33635
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11 a.m.-9; Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Melanie Casey


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Not Exactly Turkish Delight

With a five-star review on Trip Advisor and 4.5 stars on Yelp, I was prepared to be blown away by Cafe Mezze, a new Mediterranean eatery in Oldsmar.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed and a bit disappointed.

I won't lie. My experience with Mediterranean food consists mainly of Greek salads from Little Greek and hummus from Publix, so I'm no expert. I was, however, willing to try something new for the sake of my WOW readers and was hoping I could introduce you all to a fabulous new cafe.

Sadly, Cafe Mezze isn't it.

With the restaurant tucked away in a nondescript strip mall near Tampa Road’s FedEx office, we almost missed it. Walking in for dinner on a weeknight, the place was practically deserted (never a good sign). It was, however, clean and adorned nicely. The café had a Mediterranean flair consisting of warm yellow walls, tile floors, wooden seating and a smattering of decorative colorful ceramic plates. Instrumental music was playing in the background, creating a soothing atmosphere.

Since I don't know a lot about Turkish cuisine, I figured a sampler platter was in order. We ordered the Small Appetizer Sampler ($15.95 ) to start. Consisting of hummus, baba ghanoush and stuffed grape leaves along with ezme, tabuli, labne, pinto beans and eggplant with sauce, it did provide an overview of Turkish tastes. I'm not sure what most of those are, but I did try them all using the slivers of cucumber that served as dish dividers. Mostly, my dining partner and I played, "What spice is that?" while trying to figure out the ingredients. She determined the ezme was the best and that it tasted like salsa.

Still wanting to get the best overview possible, I opted for the Mixed Grill Kebab ($26.95) as my entree. I will say this: Cafe Mezze does not skimp on portions. This dish was piled high with meat, including a grilled chicken, lamb and Adana (ground lamb with peppers) kebab along with shaved gyro meat, which was tender and very tasty – a bit like non-dried beef jerky. Surprisingly, the best part of the dish was the side of rice pilaf, which was buttery and delicious.

My dining partner selected the Steak Sauté ($15.95), which featured chunks of ribeye with tomatoes, onions and green peppers in a sort of tomato-based sauce.  Again, it proved heavy on the meat. And again, the side of rice pilaf was the best part.

Cafe Mezze's saving grace is in its Baklava ($7). Fabulous! It was sweet but not too overbearing; sticky but perfect. It would probably go great with the Turkish coffee ($3), which I didn't try.
Maybe Turkish food just isn't for me. Maybe it was the pre-visit hype, but Cafe Mezze wasn't nearly what I thought it would be. Though the prices are high and the taste didn't impress me, the service is fantastic and the atmosphere is pleasant. Plus, there's a $10 off coupon up right now on the website ( that's good through April.

Cafe Mezze
4103 Tampa Rd., Unit 19
Closed Mondays.

By Melanie Casey


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No Boat Required

If you're already familiar with Ozona Blue, odds are that you have a boat or know someone who does.

Tucked between the Home Port and Island Harbor Marinas off Orange Street in Palm Harbor, Ozona Blue at first glance seems like a "members only" type of place. Pull up and you’ll find a pool (which may or may not have swimmers and sunbathers around it, depending on the time of year), a hot tub, and an expansive open-air patio with ample waterfront seating and picturesque views. Nautical decor, a laid-back attitude, and an expansive, seafood-rich menu tie it all together as a quintessential Florida hangout.

But rest assured, membership is not required to swim, play, or eat at Ozona Blue. All paying customers are eligible to partake. 

Ozona Blue offers a good selection of appetizers ranging from wings, firecracker shrimp and crab cakes to calamari, sesame Ahi tuna and what seemed to be a customer favorite, tableside guacamole ($11.50). The potstickers ($10.50) were crisp, tangy and beautifully presented with carrot shreds, scallions and a spicy sweet and sour sauce.

The entree menu is seafood rich, with selections like snow crab and shrimp, lobster, cedar-plank salmon and tuna teriyaki. But there are lots of options for the meat eaters in your party too, including prime rib, ribeye, skirt steak and ribs. Also available are salads, burgers, pasta and sandwiches. Take your pick. You can't go wrong.

My dining partner opted for a daily special, Fish and Chips ($12.90). The fish (flaky and mild) was battered and fried and, unlike most fish and chip meals, served in easy-to-eat, bite-sized pieces instead of a giant slab. Thick steak fries and a tangy cole slaw rounded out the meal.

I opted for the Bimini-stuffed grouper (market price – it was a little pricy on my visit at $29.90, but worth it). A hearty portion of grouper was breaded and fried and topped with a mound (and I mean mound; it's enough for two) of shrimp, scallops and mushrooms in a creamy, light and lemony sauce. Delicious!

I will say, however, that the vegetables served alongside my entree (a concoction of julienne-sliced zucchini, squash, and mushrooms in a light tomato-based sauce topped with parmesan cheese) was amazing. Seriously, I could have just eaten a plate of that and been satisfied.

I could have stopped right there and easily afforded Ozona Blue four-plus stars. But what put it over the top, in my opinion, was the Key Lime Pie ($5.95). I'm not going to lie: this pie is to die for. It's made in house and served with a creamy, homemade whipped topping. The filling is not too sweet, not too creamy, not too thick, and piled atop a crumbly graham cracker crust. Sublime.

If you are looking for a new and unique experience in dining – and let's face it, now is the perfect time to dine al fresco – make sure to give Ozona Blue a try.

No boat required.

By Melanie Casey

Ozona Blue Grilling Company
125 S. Orange St., Palm Harbor


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Mother’s Pros and Cons

I wanted to like Mother's. I really did.

The location (in the Publix shopping plaza, where the old Stonechase, Panini’s and Tap House used to be) is great. I'd even heard good things about it from neighbors. I was fully prepared to be blown away.

Sadly, I wasn't.

I did find some things to like about Mother's, but first, let me tell you what I didn't like.

The price: It can be expensive. For most of us, this isn't a place you will pop into on a weekly basis (unless you're taking advantage of a stellar happy hour – more on that in a minute). But $27.99 for a ribeye? And $20 for a pork chop? Seems a bit steep.

If you are content with a salad or sandwich, there are a few affordable options, like the Famous Grilled Cheese ($8.99), but if you're opting for a main course meal, expect some sticker shock.

Next, the taste: I wasn't impressed. To start, we tried the Smoky Chipotle Gouda Mac and Cheese Bites. You get six balls of breaded and fried mac and cheese for $7.99 (but we got them on happy hour for five bucks). My dining partner said they tasted like nothing. "Like fried batter," I think she said. The truffle oil they were served with was smoky and good, but I think sauces and dips should enhance the flavor, not make it.

Further, the Italian Prosciutto Flatbread ($10.99) wasn't bad, but it wasn't spectacular either. The same can be said of all the items we tried. Nothing was particularly bad, but nothing left us wanting more.

For the main course, the Crispy Duck ($18.99) was tender and moist, but the portion size was small. Also, there were no side dishes included to complement the meal, unless you count the three or four finger carrots, which to me seemed more like a garnish. It felt like an appetizer.

It was more of the same story with the Prosciutto Wrapped Scallops ($24.99) – five decent-sized scallops are wrapped in a slice of prosciutto (which made them too salty for me) and served with a creamy (but quite tasty) sauce. Again, it was served with no sides. If we hadn't started the meal with appetizers, there's no way we would have left Mother's full and satisfied.

So now the good:

The service is fantastic. We could not have asked for better care. Our waitress was knowledgeable, prompt and attentive. The manager (could have been the owner) stopped by to check on us personally.

The atmosphere is rustic upscale, so with its new booths and renovated patio, it's a different feel from both Tap City and Stonechase. The round bar is still in place, though, and there is a great selection of craft beer like Motorworks Lavender ($7) and Unholy ($7); wine (the Gancia Moscato, $9, was divine); and craft cocktails.

Finally, happy hour: From 3-7 p.m., their selection of beer, house wine and shareables could make Mother's an affordable and convenient weekday stop for the Westchase crowd. To be sure, I was there on a weeknight, and by the time I left, the joint was jumping.

On one hand, Mother's is the type of place you would take a visiting older relative. On the other, it could appeal to young professionals who enjoy a good happy hour, upscale decor and superb service.

Either way, I hope my honest review doesn't sway you from trying Mother's at least once –as a new Westchase eatery and locally owned business, we all owe it that.

12227 W. Linebaugh Ave.
Hours: 11 to 3 a.m.

By Melanie Casey


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Going Wild Over an English Pub

Several months ago I heard some scuttlebutt about a new English pub coming to Westchase.

It wasn't new exactly as it had been in its original location in Odessa since 2013. But it was new to us. Then, a few months ago, after no fanfare or noticeable construction, the Wild Rover Brewery just appeared.

Tucked in an industrial area off Lynmar Avenue, well behind the Dunkin’ Donuts on Race Track Road, the brewery seems a bit out of place. But once you go in, it's clear that you're in an British pub. Aside from the lack of brick walls, exposed wiring, cramped quarters, and hazy layer of smoke that seems to permeate every pub in England, the Wild Rover Brewery seems authentically English – surely as English as you will find in our little corner of paradise.

Wood accents line the walls, along with a few TVs and dartboards. The furniture is wood, as it should be, and much of it is weathered, which only serves to capture that "lived in" and welcoming vibe. Though much bigger and brighter than any pub I've ever been to in England, the Wild Rover Brewery manages to capture a similar intimate and homey feeling – what the Germans would call gemütlich.

And the food is as good – maybe even better – than anything you'll get across the pond. My very first Scotch Egg ($6) was surprisingly tasty. A hard-boiled egg is wrapped in sausage then breaded and deep fried. The Sausage Roll ($6), another breakfast food masquerading as an appetizer, was a bit like a sausage croissant – flaky, hearty and full of flavor. Both were served atop of bed of greens dressed with a tangy, almost spicy, aioli sauce. We scooped together the lettuce, mixed up the sauce, and had ourselves a nice little salad. I'd recommend it.

Everything at the Wild Rover Brewery is made in house (including the beer), and it shows. The Steak and Ale Pie ($12) was loaded with chunks of tender steak, carrots, and onions and mixed in a hearty gravy (made with the Wild Rover's own Bell Porter Ale) and served with a flaky, buttery puff pastry on top. The Shepherd's Pie ($10), featured minced ground beef, carrots, and onions in a tangy sauce topped with mashed potatoes and cheese and baked to perfection. The Chicken Curry ($10), spooned over a mound of basmati rice, was surprisingly spicy with a strong pepper flavor. The Fish and Chips ($15), which I had on a separate visit, are fabulous as well. Truly, every dish I've tried at the Wild Rover has been fantastic. We also shared a lemon meringue pie ($6), which featured thick, fluffy toasted meringue over a creamy lemon base. A bit sweet for my palate, but still good.

One of the things I love about the Wild Rover is its laid back atmosphere. Everyone – from the patrons and the servers to the owners – is casual and friendly. There's no rush. No one is scrambling to serve you and get you out the door so the next table can be seated. In fact, all orders are taken at the bar. Carry your drinks yourself; your food will be delivered (and rather quickly, I've found) to your table. Don't expect to be coddled and catered to here – and I mean that in the best way possible. The service is fantastic, but they let you do your own thing, and that's refreshing.

A quick note about the beer: Several varieties are available, all are brewed on site (year round, seasonal, and limited release): porter, red, blonde, wheat, stout and IPA. Even if you're the Bud Light type, don't worry. You'll find your brew. Wines and ciders are also available.

If you are looking for a relaxed, casual atmosphere with great beer and great food, you can't beat the Wild Rover Brewery.

Wild Rover Brewery
13921 Lynmar Ave.
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily

By Melanie Casey


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Breaking for Breakfast

This month, I'm mixing it up a bit.

There are several great places in Westchase to get a drink and grab a bite (and I've reviewed a lot of them!), but I've never before tackled the morning meal.

Keke's Breakfast Cafe, which is located in the Plaza at Citrus Park across from the mall, piqued my interest when it opened several months ago. Many times on a weekend morning, I've noticed groups of people milling around outside while waiting for a table. Clearly, the place is popular. Still, I have often wondered, "Is it really worth the wait?"

I mean, Village Inn is right around the corner on Race Track, and Ellie's is just down the street from that. Both decent choices, but – let's be honest – neither will knock your socks off.

So I ventured out recently to give Keke's a try. The chain began several years ago in Orlando and is named after two brothers, Kevin and Keith. It's expanded to more than 20 locations in central and south Florida, and the Citrus Park location has been open since February.

The decor at Keke's is typical diner: lots of spacious booths and a colorful, warm decor. But to the point:  "Is it worth the wait?"

The answer is a resounding: "Yes!"

First, make sure you go hungry. The portions are enormous. We opted for two traditional breakfast go-tos and one not-so-traditional: a Western Omelet with home fries ($10.49) and a side of sausage (an additional $3.99); a two-egg, two-bacon, two-pancake combo ($8.99); and the Apple Cinnamon Stuffed French Toast ($8.49).

The omelet was like nothing you'd make at home (well, you probably could, but who wants to?).  It was packed with ham, green peppers, onions and gooey cheddar cheese. If you want to expand your omelet repertoire, Keke's offers omelet options like Hawaiian, Greek, Southwest, Barbeque, Fajita and more. All are about the size of your plate and are served alongside sliced red-skin potato home fries and toast. Like I said, bring your appetite.

My two-two-two combo, although admittedly a pretty boring choice, was cooked to perfection. The over-medium eggs were just the right amount of runny, the bacon was crispy, and the pancakes, well, they were not only fluffy and perfectly cooked, but also the size of the plate. (That's huuuggee!)

The dessert breakfast of Apple Cinnamon French Toast was decadent. While not something I'd want to eat in place of a normal meal (although I guess people do that), it features a sweet apple-cinnamon filling layered between crispy French toast and sprinkled with powdered sugar – almost like a warm apple pie. "It doesn't get any better than that!" my dining partner exclaimed. "I'd eat that again anytime."

Top all of this great breakfast grub with amazing service, decent prices, and surprisingly good coffee, and I'd say you have a new breakfast joint to try. I can't attest to the lunch, but I would wager it's just as tasty. And with choices like paninis, burgers, wraps, and salads, you can be sure to find something to please your palate.

Keke's is open only for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast is served all day; lunch options are available after 10:30 a.m.

Keke’s Breakfast Cafe
12883 Citrus Plaza Dr.
Hours: 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily

By Melanie Casey


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The Best Barbecue in Town

Looking for meaty, flavorful wings or delicious barbeque?

Look no further, Westchase, because we have some of the best in the business right here in our own backyard.

Patio 6, which opened a few months ago in the space formerly occupied by The Great Spiedini (directly across from Zen Bistro) started off slowly. Honestly, I was a bit worried it wouldn’t even survive. Most of the places in that seemingly ill-fated location haven't lasted long. Plus, I heard some feedback around town and on social media that it was "too expensive," "didn't have a happy hour," and the "service was subpar."

Thankfully, all of those speed bumps seemed to have been addressed and cleared. On a recent visit, live music was playing outside, there was a BOGO happy hour on all draft beer (sweet!), and our server was attentive and on point. The place was packed.

The prices still seem a little high on some items ($16 for a burger and almost $30 for 20 wings), but reasonable on most. Besides, you get what you pay for. And if you want meaty, flavorful wings, Patio 6 is worth the extra few bucks.

My dining partner noted that the wings offered at Patio 6 are made for flavor, not necessarily heat. You can choose from 42 varieties, including Sweet Mango Habanero, Raspberry Chipotle, Orange Chicken, Lemon Pepper, and yes, even Salted Caramel Cheesecake. 

I think it's fair to say that the wings are the number one draw at Patio 6.  It is a wing bar, after all. Coming in a close second, though, has to be the Smokehouse Menu barbeque.
Only offered on weekends after 3 p.m., the barbeque offered at Patio 6 is some of the best in town.

Possibly the best.

It's smoky, succulent and full of flavor. Offerings include ribs, pulled pork ($10.96 for a sandwich and fries and $15.96 for a platter with two sides), sausage ($9.96 for a half pound and two sides), and brisket ($15.96 for the platter with two sides). Six Cheese Macaroni and Cheese (which is delicious), Baked Beans, Collard Greens, and Cole Slaw round out the side choices.

Seriously, this is good barbeque, and it's offered at a great price.

In addition to its wings and barbeque options, the menu at Patio 6 is pretty diverse. They offer a variety of burgers, salads, wraps, sandwiches, crab cakes and fried shrimp. I decided to try the Mushroom Swiss Burger with Applewood-Smoked Bacon ($13.96 plus an upcharge of $1.96). Although good, it was a little dry, but the fries were tasty and they gave me a huge portion. The Honey Mustard Chicken Wrap ($10.96, with fries) was packed with crispy chicken, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese and bacon. Again, a huge portion and probably enough for two. 

Of course, we had to sample the wings. (10 for $11.96-$14.96, depending on the variety, and 20 for $21.96-$24.96). We tried the Signature Mango Habanero (not quite spicy enough, but delicious nonetheless) and Lemon Pepper. They were declared to be "meaty and tasty, with unique flavors you don't see anywhere else."

I think the real winner of the evening, however, was the pulled pork dinner – a huge pile of slow-cooked, seasoned and shredded pork served up with a heaping portion of two scrumptious sides. I’m pretty sure I'll be going back every weekend until I've tried it all.

Featured on Fox 13 with Charley Belcher, nominated for two Creative Loafing Best of the Bay 2016 awards – Best New Restaurant and Best Wings – and holding a 4-star rating on Yelp, Patio 6 is clearly going places. 

Make sure you don't miss it.

Patio 6
9648 W. Linebaugh Ave.
Tampa, FL 33626
Hours: Mon-Tue, 3-10 p.m.; Wed-Thu, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-Last Call; Sun, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

By Melanie Casey


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Second Time’s the Charm

Señor Tequila was a long time coming.

Westchase residents have long been clamoring for a full-service Mexican restaurant close to home. A few months ago we finally got our wish in Señor Tequila Mexican Grill. The new eatery occupies the former Golf Club in the shopping area at the corner of Nine Eagles Drive and Race Track Road.

I waited a bit to give it a try and first visited at the end of June. I should have waited a little longer. Clearly, they were still working out the kinks. The Fish Tacos ($12.99) were dry and nearly burned, the refried beans were cold and the service was almost non-existent.

Recently I gave it a second chance.

This time the service was much better – and the food was fantastic. The chips were a little heavy for my taste, and the salsa seemed like it came from a bottle, but my server assured me they make it fresh in-house. But get the Queso Dip ($3.99) and all will be made better. Delish!

The menu at Señor Tequila is pretty expansive, with the usual suspects – fajitas, carne asada, pollo Margarita, flautas, burritos, quesadillas and, of course, tacos. I'm pretty sure if there's an authentic Mexican dish you have a hankering for, it's on this menu. They also offer a decent spread of steaks, seafood and salads.

A vegetarian menu is available as well, but it lacks official gluten-free options, so do your research if that's what you need.

I love a good fish taco, but I was a little gun shy after my disappointing first visit. On my second try I therefore opted for the chicken chimichanga ($10.50). It came packed with tender, perfectly seasoned meat and dressed with creamy queso, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream, and fresh guacamole, which was declared "delicious" by my guac-loving dining partner.

While the Tacos Mexicanos ($10.50) were overcooked on the first try, this time they were perfection. Tender pork (chicken and steak are other options) was served on soft corn tortillas alongside fresh cilantro and onions. My dining partner, who is from California and therefore claims to know good Mexican food, declared them equal to or better than California tacos and "extremely good." He literally (literally!) licked his plate clean.

A good choice for dessert (if you have room) is the sopapillas ($4.50), a flaky pastry served with cinnamon, honey and whipped cream. Break it apart with your fingers and enjoy!
The ambiance at Señor Tequila is typical of Mexican restaurants, but with some weird "Day of the Dead" decor thrown in. Service on my second visit was a little slow, but still competent and attentive.

One complaint I have heard (and I agree) is that there is no drinking allowed on the patio outside. On weekends there can be quite a wait for a table, so it would be nice to grab a margarita or Corona and sit outside to wait your turn. Alas, it's not to be – at least not yet. A license is forthcoming, but it may be a few months. In the meantime, Bad Willies a few doors down will continue to reap the benefit of hungry (and thirsty) diners awaiting a seat.

The bottom line? I'm glad I gave Señor Tequila Mexican Grill a second chance.

I will definitely be giving it a third.

Señor Tequila Mexican Grill
12950 Race Track Road
Tampa, FL 33626
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

By Melanie Casey


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Spicing Up a Special Evening Out

When I drove by what would become the Sacred Pepper restaurant earlier this year, I thought it was going to be a hipster furniture or cooking store.

Maybe because it's in Carrollwood and not Soho, and the facade didn't scream "upscale dining establishment."

Rest assured, though, Sacred Pepper would fit right in in Soho. Or St. Pete. Or on Boy Scout Boulevard alongside the likes of Eddie V's, Roy's and Cooper's Hawk.

Luckily for us, it's fine dining and it's close to home.

With cozy, padded chairs, rounded booths with tall backs, a super cool bar top and finishing touches like wood sculptures hanging from the ceiling, the decor at Sacred Pepper is definitely on the modern side. Although upscale, it's not stilted and stuck up. I like the fact that if I wanted to wear jeans and a blouse, I could. But I'd much rather dress up, because Sacred Pepper is a true dining destination.

The menu has a bit of a Mediterranean flair, with appetizers like Honey Goat Cheese Baklava ($12.90) and Crispy Polenta ($9.90), but includes plenty of traditional options like an Angus Burger ($12.90),Grilled Pork Chop ($17.90) and Bone-In Rib Eye ($38.90).

I started with what seemed to be quite a popular appetizer – the Sacred Meatballs ($13.40).  Three fist-sized meatballs are served atop a generous bed of fresh ricotta and house-made marinara sauce.  They're so tender they practically fall apart, perfect for scooping up the cheese and sauce. Throw in some house-made pasta and this is a meal! (Actually, it is – the Pappardelle Piccolina, $16).

Next came the main courses – the Center Hand-Cut Filet ($28.90) and Seared Chilean Sea Bass ($34). The filet – eight ounces of certified Hereford Angus – is truly amazing. Despite the thickness of the cut, it was cooked to perfection, and the cabernet reduction topping was divine. My dining partner proclaimed it "the best steak I've ever had," and that's saying something.

The sea bass was also quite tasty. Served with a ginger glaze and Asian-inspired quinoa side, it was flaky but not dry and, like the steak, perfectly cooked. I'm guessing most of the other main dish options, such as Chicken Burratta ($20.90), Baked Lobster and Crab Rotolo ($24), and Oak-Grilled Norwegian Salmon ($20), are equally as impressive.

To wrap things up, we shared a piece of Killer Chocolate Cake ($7.50). That's its real name and it lives up to it. The portion is so huge, I can't imagine how one person could ever eat it all. Served with a side of raspberry sauce and dollop of sweet cream icing, it is as rich and chocolaty as it gets. De-lish.
The food is perfect and the service at Sacred Pepper is outstanding, but I wish the designers would have left the TVs out of the decor and spaced the tables out a bit. It can feel a bit cramped (especially for a party of two).

Sacred Pepper opened in April, and word is quickly getting around. I highly recommend making a reservation, which is quickly done through the Open Table website (the link is available on Also, while you certainly could bring the little ones with you (they do have a children's menu), I'd recommend leaving them at home this time.

Keep the "sacred" in Sacred Pepper and save it for special occasions.

Sacred Pepper
15405 N. Dale Mabry Hwy.
(813) 609-8000
Hours: Open Sun, 3-10 p.m.; Tue-Thu, 4-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 4 p.m.-midnight. Closed Mondays.

By Melanie Casey


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Nabruzzi Trattoria is Fantastico

The anticipation of the new Nabruzzi Trattoria in Westchase has been building for months.

Word came early this winter that Zerillo’s, a beloved family owned and operated Italian restaurant and Westchase staple for 14 years, was closing for good. Neighborhood Facebook pages were abuzz with what would take its place. It wasn't long before we learned that Zerillo’s would become Nabruzzi Trattoria – another beloved, family owned and operated Italian restaurant located in Lutz.

In advance of the opening of the new Nabruzzi, scheduled for May 17, I visited the original location on Van Dyke Road to get a preview of what was to come.

Situated in an indistinct strip mall across from the Lake Carlton Arms apartment complex, the original Nabruzzi Trattoria presents as a no-frills establishment. A good-sized pizza oven dominates the entry, and brick accents and wood floors give it an appealing rustic feel.

The menu at Nabruzzi is expansive, and with dish names listed in Italian (no worries—mostly everything else is in English), it definitely emits an "old country" vibe.

Not long after being seated, our server brought out a basket of warm bread served with a dish of olive oil mixed with a thick paste of roasted red peppers, green olives and kalmata olives topped with shaved parmesan cheese. It was a delicious beginning to an authentic Italian meal.

Next came our primo (appetizers). First was a dish called Fiocchi Di Enzo ($8) that featured cheeses and pears stuffed into little pasta bags tossed with olive oil, basilico, prosciutto and rosemary herb sauce, then beautifully plated and served up with sweet sauces for dipping. In a word – delizioso.

Our other primo, Carpaccio ($9), featured slivers of tenderloin piled with arugula, drizzled with a tangy dressing and topped with the ubiquitous shaved parmesan. While not as good as the Fiocchi, it was tasty.

For the main course, my dining partner opted for one of the evening's specials, house-made lasagna with Bolognese sauce ($26). Now, I make a pretty mean lasagna, but this dish was amazing. Plus, it was big enough for two, or at least leftovers.

I had a difficult time choosing – so many choices! Tagliatelle alla Vodka ($14), Vitello (veal) Saltimbocca alla Romano ($18), Scallope di Amalia ($22), or pizza (several varieties available, $10-12)? 

Ultimately, I ended up with a chicken dish – Pollo Valentino ($15), which features chicken breasts pounded thin, panko breaded and crisped, stuffed with pesto and prosciutto and served atop fettuccine with garlic sauce. Yummy.

Desert was a no-brainer – house-made tiramisu, which was as creamy and delicious as I've ever had. Other traditional options include cannoli ($5) and limoncello cake ($7).

The new Nabruzzi Trattoria location in Westchase will have the same menu as the original location, assures owner Massimo, but it will offer something the Lutz location (which will remain open) doesn't – large pizzas to go. This will make fans of Zerillo’s happy, as its take out pizzas were popular with the Westchase crowd.

Though completely renovated, the new Nabruzzi will be somewhat familiar – one of Zerillo’s cooks and a few of its servers will remain on staff.

Versatile enough for a romantic dinner out or a quick pizza with the kids, Nabruzzi Trattoria in either location is sure to be a winner.


Nabruzzi Trattoria
6062 Van Dyke Rd.
Lutz, FL
(813) 304-2583

By Melanie Casey


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Mexican Food Worth the Drive

Admit it.

When you heard several weeks ago that A-Rod and his new billionaire girlfriend enjoyed lunch at an "amazing Mexican restaurant in Tampa," you thought to yourself, "Wait, what? There's an amazing Mexican restaurant in Tampa?"

This led me to explore said eatery, Green Lemon. Located in the Soho, it's a bit of a hike for Westchasers. But seriously, I'd drive to Orlando for good Tex-Mex (and have), so South Tampa is no big deal.

And it's totally worth it.

Since moving to Tampa a little more than four years ago, I've been on a quest to find an amazing fish taco. I've tried a lot, and hands down, Green Lemon has the best. Grilled (or battered and fried, the way I like it) mahi mahi is dressed with a generous portion of cabbage, red onions and cilantro and served up in your choice of a crunchy corn shell, soft corn or flour tortilla or lettuce wrap (and a steal at $3.50 a la carte). Add some of the house-made lime salsa – so delicious – and you have yourself a winner!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

An absolute must at Green Lemon is the chips and salsa. I know, it seems basic, but you must, must, MUST try the aforementioned lime salsa ($3) and the queso ($6), both served with endless house-made chips that are dusted with a delicious chipotle-lime powder.
Better yet, go for the My Trio Dip ($10),  which includes house-made guacamole as well.

The atmosphere at Green Lemon is typical hipster Soho – you know what I mean. Essentially, it's an open space (and not very big, so expect a wait during peak dining hours) with brick accents, a few high-top tables here and there, and assorted booths and other seating plus big windows, so you can people watch as you sip on a giant 60-oz margarita ($24-32 depending on your tequila choice).

There are, of course, more sensible drink choices, like the Soho House Margarita ($6 during fiesta hour),  sangria ($4 during fiesta hour) and a drink I wasn't familiar with until I visited the Green Lemon, the Margarona ($12 during fiesta hour), which is a 24-oz margarita with a bottle of Corona beer dumped in. I don't get it, but to each their own.

My mahi taco was part of "the Street Trio," which includes three tacos of your choice and one side for $11. I stayed traditional with the Carne Asada taco, Ancho Chicken taco, and rice and beans. Both the chicken and steak were a tad dry for my taste, but the toppings (and lime salsa – did I mention it's delicious?) made everything OK. The black beans and rice were surprisingly tasty, too. My dining partner had something called The Chompton ($11), essentially a giant burrito stuffed with rice, beans, chicken and all kinds of goodies.

For those with a more adventurous palate, Green Lemon offers quite a selection. Consider the Taco Rosa, which features "avocado-glazed crispy cauliflower florets, sliced radishes, queso crumbles, and drizzled blue cheese dressing" ($3), or the Sesame Crusted Tuna bowl ($13), featuring "sesame-crusted rare tuna, pickled red onions, diced mango, diced cucumbers, cilantro and avocado over brown rice with Mexican sriracha aioli."

Sounds intriguing.

All in all, I'd say there really are no losers at Green Lemon.

Just don't forget the chips and salsa.

Green Lemon
915 S. Howard Ave.
Open weekdays at 11 a.m., weekends at 10 a.m.

By Melanie Casey


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Smokin’ the Competition

The tea is sweet, the okra is fried and the portions are massive.

Oh, and it's likely the best barbeque you'll ever eat.

4 Rivers Smokehouse on North Dale Mabry is one of about a million restaurants located in the bustling Carrollwood area. This might be a slight exaggeration, but it usually feels that way when we're trying to figure out where to eat in that part of town.

Located across the street from Grillsmith, Pincers and Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, 4 Rivers is tucked into one of many innocuous strip malls in the area. It occupies the space once inhabited by Arigato. 

The decor at 4 Rivers is particularly and purposefully low-key. It's essentially a rustic Southern room, complete with the Texas state flag and a giant steer head mounted on the wall. A smattering of individual tables is available, but the dining area is dominated by two large tables that can seat about 50 people each. When it's crowded, or maybe even when it's not, feel free to join the party. 

There are no plates at 4 Rivers; your meal is served atop a paper-lined cafeteria tray. Side dishes are loaded into Styrofoam cups and utensils are plastic.

4 Rivers began in 2004 when (according to its Web site) founder John Rivers "hosted a cookout fundraiser to support a local family whose young daughter was battling cancer." The event ignited a passion for fundraising. Eventually, that passion grew too big for his garage.

By 2009 the first of 13 (and counting) 4 Rivers Smokehouse restaurants opened in Central Florida.

The Carrollwood location (there's a new location in South Tampa, too) hasn't been open long, but clearly word is getting around.

As it should.

This is delicious, slow-cooked, southern smokehouse goodness. The menu offers lots of options, from dinner plates (including burnt ends) and sandwiches to wings, ribs and even salads. Side dish options include staples like baked cheese grits, smoked jalapeños, mac 'n cheese, baked beans, coleslaw and more.

My choice was the Brisket Dinner, with a pulled pork side added for fun ($16.98 with both meat selections). It came with cornbread and three oversized sides. I went for the fried okra, corn and green beans. Seriously, this one meal could probably feed my entire family, so make sure you go hungry.

First, the brisket: It was smoky and tender – and literally fell apart on its way to my mouth. The pulled pork was equally delicious. Both were smoky, moist and flavorful. The signature barbeque sauce, available on tables and in bottles to go,  offered the perfect touch of tang. A spicy version is also available if you are one of those who like it hot.

The corn was clearly straight off the cob. Mixed with spices, tomatoes and peppers, it offered a crisp, delicious roast flavor. The green beans, as they should be, were slow cooked with bacon and onions. Soft and flavorful – really, perfect. And the okra...fried, salty, eat-with-your fingers crispy.

I've never had better.

A quick taste of Crispy Cream Bread Pudding ($2.49) sealed the deal. An entire separate sweet shop offers your fill of cupcakes, cookies and other treats. You'll probably need it to go, though.

If you have had a hankering for southern barbeque, 4 Rivers Smokehouse can't be beat. It's casual, great for families and big parties.

In short, it offers the best barbeque in the area.

4 Rivers Smokehouse
14330 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., Carrollwood and
623 S. MacDill Avenue in South Tampa.
Open at 11 a.m. Mon-Sat. Closed Sun

By Melanie Casey


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Not Just Another Microbrewery

When first driving by the new Craft Street Kitchen and Drinks in Oldsmar a few months ago, I thought, "Great. Just what we need. Another microbrewery."

I hesitated to visit the spot, because, let's face it, there are plenty of places to get a good beer right here in Westchase.

As it turns out, Craft Street Kitchen (which has a sister site in Trinity) is not a microbrewery at all – it's a new eatery with a self-described "playful and fun" menu and collection of creative craft cocktails.

The open floor plan is decidedly rustic, with a bit of a mountain-cabin feel. There's lots of wood, brick and flannel. Vintage-looking pendant lights sway over the tables, and metal accent pieces dot the walls. A few TVs are scattered about, so you don't have to worry about missing the game when your spouse drags you out of the house on a Sunday afternoon.

The whole place is airy and welcoming, and that vibe translates to the service as well. The hostesses were delightful, and our server was fantastic – attentive, prompt, knowledgeable and friendly. Plus he had a cool accent. Really, can you ask for more?

The drink menu, as promised, is crafty. Libations include concoctions such as Blueberry Storm ($9, with blueberry vodka, fresh lime, simple syrup, ginger beer and shaved nutmeg) and Falling Leaves ($8.50, with rum, strawberry citrus, aged bitters and rosemary cinnamon syrup). Each month, a portion of sales from a select cocktail is earmarked for a local charity. On our visit, it was the Coco Loco and Oldsmar Cares.

"We like to do something to give back," our server noted.

Bonus points for philanthropy.

In addition to craft cocktails, a variety of beers is on tap, including rotating seasonal selections from local favorites such as Dunedin's 7venth Sun Brewery, Bradenton's Motorworks Brewing and Trinity's Escape Brewing Company .

The appetizer menu definitely lives up to the "playful and fun" promise, with offerings such as Buffalo Cauliflower ($7.95), French Onion Soup Rings ($8.95), and our choice, Captain Eli's Shrimp ($9.95). A pile of jumbo shrimp is drowned in a delicious Ginger Beer Butter Sauce and served with two slabs of sourdough bread. It had a bit of a kick, and the bread was great for sopping up the extra butter. (Note: Not for those counting calories.)

Next up were the entrees, and this was a difficult decision. Should I go with the Pork and Plantain Flatbread ($8.95)? The Yippie Hippie Chicken Salad ($11.95)? The Brie Burger ($12.95)? There are lots of options for lots of palates. Ultimately, we went a little more conservative with the Smoke-Kissed Salmon ($16.95) and Espresso-Rubbed Ribeye ($21.95). The salmon was flaky and tender with a true smoky grilled taste and mouthwatering maple glaze. The accompanying truffled green beans were amazing – buttery, crisp-tender perfection. The ribeye was moist and meaty, the red wine sauce was succulent, and the smashed potatoes on the side were clearly homemade and heavy on the roasted garlic.

Only a few dessert options appear on the regular menu, and each month there's a new special dessert offering. On our visit, it was State Fair Puffs. As you'd expect, they were blobs of fried dough doused in powdered sugar and served up warm in a paper bag – a bit like bite-sized elephant ear bits. They were served with a warm raspberry compote that really sealed the deal. Scrumptious.

Craft Street Kitchen and Drinks is a great place for date night, for families with kids, for when the in-laws are in town, or for when you want to hang out and watch the game somewhere other than on your couch.

I highly recommend it.

Craft Street Kitchen and Drinks
3153 Curlew Rd.,
Oldsmar, FL
(727) 314.4270

By Melanie Casey


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Bravo to Ballyhoo

You've probably driven past the Ballyhoo Grill in Citrus Park a million times and said to yourself, "I should really try that place one of these days."

Yet you're probably either on your way to or from the mall or the movies and tell yourself you'll get it another day.

At least, that's what I did for the last three years. After a friend recommended Ballyhoo, however, I figured I'd finally give it a try.

If you love a casual atmosphere coupled with delicious food and good prices, you should give it a try, too.

When you walk in, you know right away you have a winner. The smell of the grill permeates, and the casual, open atmosphere and efficient, friendly staff seal the deal.

Ballyhoo’s menu is extensive and includes soups (including a popular New Orleans Gumbo), salads, flatbreads, tacos, burgers, pasta, chicken, steaks and seafood. Kids meals are only $6.99 and come with a drink. Many items can be prepared gluten-free.

For starters, I went with an oldie but a goodie, Edamame ($5.99), which were steamed and salted just right. We also tried the Firecracker Shrimp ($9.99). Cooked in a spicy Firecracker sauce, topped with sriracha and served with chopsticks, the dish made my mouth burn a bit (I'm kind of spicy-food wimp; they weren't that hot) but I couldn't stop eating them – a sure testament to their goodness.

For our entrees, my dining partner opted for the Filet Mignon ($19.99). This was the one dish with which I didn't fall in love. It wasn't bad, but it didn't blow me away. The meat was a little tougher than one would expect for a filet. And although the taste of the grill was apparent, it wasn't quite enough of a kick. But maybe my mouth was numb from the Firecracker Shrimp. It's possible.

The seafood selections are really where Ballyhoo shines. Daily catch-of-the-day specials can be prepared with special toppings like citrus champagne, lemon garlic and mango salsa. Other menu options like Cedar-planked Salmon ($19.99), Snow Crab and Shrimp ($16.99) and Mahi Mediterranean ($20.99) may be more your style.

I opted for the Oak Grilled Scallops ($21.99), and they did not disappoint. In fact, I'd have to say it is now my favorite scallop dish in Tampa, dethroning my longtime scallop go-to, the Macadamia Nut Encrusted Scallops at Catch 23. Those are great; these are better.

Ballyhoo's dish features huge sea scallops smothered in lemon and wine, then grilled and covered with a smattering of breadcrumbs. Sublime and divine. Served with your choice of two sides (including options like black beans and yellow rice, cole slaw, French fries, and more), it's more than enough to fill even the biggest of bellies.

Ballyhoo is also a great place to take the whole family. The kids will love coloring right on the tables, which are covered with butcher block paper and invite creation. They might even put the iPad down for five minutes. A good happy hour keeps the parents busy, and on Saturdays, live music ties the whole experience together.

So stop driving by – and start driving in – to Ballyhoo Grill.

Ballyhoo Grill is located at 7604 Ehrlich Rd. near the Citrus Park mall and Gunn Highway. For more information, visit


By Melanie Casey


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Tapping a Love for German Brew and Food

O'zapft is!

Oh, it is indeed tapped, my German fest-and-food-loving friends!

The long-awaited opening of the Hofbrauhaus in St. Pete has finally arrived, and let me tell you, it was worth it. If you've never experienced the Munich madness that is "the real" Oktoberfest, after a Saturday night at the Hofbrauhaus, you will have a pretty good idea of what it's all about.

There's singing! There's dancing! (well, if you count doing the chicken dance on your chair a dance), and there's all-round revelry!

There is also plenty of beer and an array of Bavarian eats. If you’re not a beer lover, take heart. While Hofbrauhaus’ draft brews are only imported from Germany, the restaurant offers a good selection of wines and mixed drinks as well.

For starters, you must try the Riesenbrezen Combo ($13.99) or as I like to call it, the giant pretzel. And when I say giant, I mean the size of a dinner plate. Served with sweet mustard, onion mustard and Obatzda cheese dips, this delicious, soft and salty pretzel could almost be a meal unto itself. Another good appetizer option is the Kartoffelsuppe (potato soup, $5.99). It was thick, tangy and quite tasty. It’s also quite filling, so be prepared.

For a main course, many people go straight for the Jägerschnitzel ($19.99), a plate-sized cutlet of pork slathered with mushroom gravy and served with a traditional egg noodle known as spätzle. I have to say, the Wienerschnitzel, in my opinion, is the better choice here. The Jaegerschnitzel wasn't bad – it was quite good, actually – but the Wienerschnitzel ($18.99), also a plate-sized slab of pork (only this one is breaded and fried), is the real deal. Plus, it comes with Bavarian potato salad, which is an absolute must-have when you're eating German food. Order a side of beer gravy ($2.99) to make it even better.

A popular takeout meal in Germany is currywurst – a German sausage that is sliced, then doused with ketchup and dusted with curry powder. It's sold on practically every city corner (sort of like a hot dog stand). Sadly, I'm going to warn you away from the Hofbrauhaus version of Currywurst ($14.99). The sausage was dry and tough and too spicy, which in my experience isn't authentic at all. There are plenty of other sausage options, however, including Weisswürste ($14.99) and a Wurstplatte ($16.99), which features several sausage varieties served alongside sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.

If you have room for desert (and let's be honest, you probably won't after drinking a liter of beer, eating a giant pretzel and savoring a piece of pork the size of your hand) then go for the classic – Apfelstrudel ($9.99), which is imported from Germany. Rich, dense and delicious, it's served warm with not-too-sweet vanilla sauce.

Designed to mimic the original Hofbrauhaus in Munich, the St. Pete version is a bit smaller and perhaps a bit louder (a band plays practically non-stop, so be prepared to shout when speaking). Also, be prepared to dine "German-style" – that is, sitting at a big rectangular table alongside lots of other people you probably don't know. 

While you might be tempted to bring your kids along to experience this mayhem, you'd be better served leaving them at home for this one. Better yet, give them to grandma for the night, get a hotel and have a mini-stay-cay in St. Pete.

You're probably going to need it.

123 4th St. S., St. Petersburg

By Melanie Casey


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Dinner at Mee Maw’s – with a Foodie Twist

It was a happy accident that I stumbled upon Southern Fresh in Safety Harbor.

From my many trips to the sleepy little town's third Friday event, I knew it to be home to a variety of mom-and-pop restaurants located in renovated old houses off of the Main Street artery. On a recent evening I wandered up said Main Street until there, just off the beaten path on 3rd Avenue, beckoned Southern Fresh.

I'll admit I was a bit nervous going into unchartered territory. I hadn't even heard of the place until I saw its sign – but I shouldn't have been worried.

A relative newcomer to the Safety Harbor dining scene (it only opened in 2012), Southern Fresh is touted as "upscale casual" and "Safety Harbor's best kept secret." Well, the secret's out: Southern Fresh is a hidden gem.

Its expansive wrap-around porch is warm and welcoming, as is its staff, who are attentive, friendly and efficient. Owner/Chef Aaron Stewart is a Safety Harbor native who prepares all of his selections fresh in house from locally sourced ingredients.

With only a handful of tables, the inside is a casual, no-frills affair that generates a laid back, at-home, Sunday-afternoon-with-family kind of atmosphere. The deck outside has at least twice as many tables and a fire pit that will be quite inviting in a month or two.

Although its menu is a bit limited (there are only a few appetizers, two salad options and a handful of entrees to choose from), Southern Fresh does not disappoint. We started with a jumbo shrimp cocktail ($7.99) which was tasty but a bit overpriced for just five pieces of shrimp. We also tried the recommended BLT soup ($3.50), which sounded unique and intriguing. Slow-cooked tomato broth was simmered with shallots and garlic, then garnished with bacon and bits of romaine lettuce. It came off more like a hearty vegetable soup to me, but it was nonetheless quite delicious.

For the main course, we opted for two of the specials – meatloaf served with a red wine mushroom gravy ($12.99) and a seared bone-in pork chop slathered with a hearty balsamic glaze ($17.99). Both were served with homemade mashed potatoes and southern-style green beans (amazing!). This isn't your mama's meatloaf – it was tangy and tasty and seemed more like ground steak with gravy. The pork chop was, in a word, succulent. It was tender, juicy and not dried out like pork tends be. So good!

Our dining partners tried a few of the "Southern Inspired" favorites. One chose a sliced pork sandwich ($10) filled with smoky, tender pork and topped with tangy cilantro sauce. The other opted for the Pan Fried Chicken ($11.75), which was battered and fried to perfection, yet not greasy or dry. Score!

For desert we had to try the banana pudding ($3.50) and Strawberry Shortcake ($6.95), which we inhaled.

Southern Fresh gives new meaning to comfort food by combining tried and true favorites, like a pork chop, with eclectic sauces and combinations. It really does seem like a homemade Sunday dinner at mee-maw's house – but with a foodie twist.

Make a point to head out to Safety Harbor and off the beaten path to try it for yourself. It won't disappoint.

Southern Fresh
122 3rd Ave. North, Safety Harbor.
(727) 216-6341

By Melanie Casey


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TBBC: Where Beer is Your Friend

Months ago, when I noticed the "Coming Soon: Tampa Bay Brewing Company" sign on Race Track Road across from the Oldsmar Flea Market, I got excited.

How many great beer places can you name near Westchase that are kid-friendly while providing ample space and good food?

Be forewarned. Tampa Bay Brewing Company clearly underestimated the allure of a new bar in Westchase, so the parking situation is less than ideal. Fortunately, adjacent lots offer lots of parking. You just might have to hoof it or park on the side of the road, Hula Bay style.

The first thing you notice at TBBC is its expansive outdoor patio area and bar. Yes, an outdoor bar! This will be sweet come December. Wood and brick accents, coupled with hints of modern decor (like sleek red couches and a round fire pit table with cool blue rocks), invite you to come on in, have a seat and stay awhile.

Don't mind if I do.

Inside it features an open floor plan with plenty of tables, booths and even a bar side/food prep area where you can watch the magic happen.

Like its sister restaurant, open in Ybor City since 1995, the Westchase TBBC boasts a series of "beer made here," varieties, including Old Elephant IPA, Iron Rat Imperial Stout, Florida's True Blonde Ale, Full Moon Madness Subtropical Porter and my choice, Wild Warthog Hefeweizen (which delivered a light, crisp and perfectly wheaty flavor).

Sorry, no Bud Light here, folks. But there is a rotating guest tap, which features several craft beers. There's also a generous wine and spirit selection for you beer haters out there.

The menu at TBBC is expansive. If you can't find something that appeals to you, well, you're just too darn picky. From brewers beer cheese soup (I'll be back for that one) to burgers, fish and chips, big salads, pizza and a decent steak selection, there really is, at the risk of sounding trite, something for everyone.

For starters, I opted for the blue crab and shrimp cakes ($11.50). Generously stuffed with lump blue crab, shrimp and spices, then pan seared and drizzled with a green curry coconut sauce, it's a unique, but tasty, combination of favors. You only get two, but they are a good size and enough to share. We also selected the Isidros chips and salsa ($6.50). Sure, it's a safe bet, but the salsa is clearly house made with big chunks of ripe tomatoes, red onion and jalapeños. The chips were crisp and warm.

The entree choice was difficult. A bar-b-que turkey burger? Steak and bacon chop salad? Crispy stout salmon? So many choices! So little room in my stomach!

I ended up with one of the more expensive items on the menu (most are in the $10-15 range): the filet mignon ($24). It was worth the splurge for eight ounces of hand-cut, seasoned and seared premium beef. It was thick but cooked perfectly, and the accompanying green beans were crisp and buttery.

My dining partner opted for a build-your-own calzone ($10 base price plus $.50-1.50 per topping). The server, who was, by the way,  friendly, attentive and fabulous, warned us that it would be the size of a football. She wasn't kidding – it was the biggest calzone I have ever seen. It was generously stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheese plus, in this case, sausage and mushrooms, which were folded inside and then browned to perfection. To keep it from getting soggy, the sauce is served on the side. Dump or dip; the choice is yours.

Not that there was much room for it, but I had to try the apple crisp ($7). Essentially a thick slab of apple pie with chunks of crunchy apple and hints of cinnamon, it was served warm a la mode. Not surprisingly, we managed to find the room. Even though we were bursting at the seams by the time all was said and done, it was well worth it.

If you're looking for a place you can take the kids, meet with friends and enjoy a casual drink and a tasty meal, you can't go wrong with TBBC.

Bring your appetite.

By Melanie Casey


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Perfect Sunset Dining

If you've ever had out-of-town family or friends visit, odds are that you've taken them to Clearwater Beach.

The sugar sand, the glorious sunsets, and the endless dining opportunities make it a no-brainer.
But it's also a great place for locals. Since Honeymoon Island has suddenly turned into a craggy, rocky mess, Clearwater Beach has become my new go-to for casual waterfront dining.

Most people are familiar with Frenchy's Rockaway Grill – it's in all the guidebooks as a "must-do," after all. But sitting just on the other side of the parking lot from Frenchy's is Palm Pavilion.

In business since 1926, the Palm is touted as the place "where the locals hang out." It's true – the bar is typically filled with koozie-carrying, suntanned locals (and snowbirds during the season). Not nearly as lauded as Frenchy's (though it should be), the Palm is the perfect place to catch a sunset with your honey or your whole family.

The Palm’s casual, open atmosphere lends itself to the "salt life." After a day at the beach stop in for a bite in your cover up and flip flops (or barefoot; they don't mind), or stop in for a romantic dinner before a sunset stroll. Its huge patio means you likely will get a seat with a view, which is worth the wait if there is one. The kids can romp on the nearby sand while you enjoy live music, gaze out over an unobstructed view of the Gulf and sip a sangria. It's truly Florida at its finest.

The food at the Palm is always fantastic. For an appetizer, I recommend the Scallops with Wasabi and Mango Salsa ($10.99). Two skewers of tender, succulent scallops are seasoned and cooked just right, then served up with a tangy sauce that gives it just the right amount of kick. De-lish!

Other appetizer selections include Fried Gator and Coconut Shrimp (both $8.99).

For a main course, try the Grouper Sandwich ($13.99). Frenchy's always gets the good reviews on theirs, but I think the Palm's is better. Served blackened or beer-battered with cheese and lettuce, it's light, flaky and everything a grouper sandwich should be. Wash it down with a beer or one of the Palm's delicious margaritas. Other good choices include the Shrimp Basket ($12.99) and Fish Tacos ($9.99).

If you're not into seafood, no worries. There are plenty of "landlubber" options, including the Palm Burger ($8.99, served with potato chips); Buffalo Chicken Wrap ($8.99); St. Louis-style Ribs ($19.99) and Sunset Salads ($6.99). To wrap up your meal, play tourist and order the Key Lime Pie ($4.95). It's a thick, creamy, citrus-y perfection.

After your meal, stay and enjoy the sunset or head down to the shore for a stroll.


Palm Pavilion Beachside Bar and Grill
10 Bay Esplanade, Clearwater Beach
(727) 446-2642

By Melanie Casey


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Dinner and a Movie: Together at Last

The next time you head out for dinner and a movie, why not be more efficient about it?

Watching a movie in your living room is one of the most relaxing and stress-free ways to catch one of your favorite flicks. You put your feet up, preferably in a soft comfy recliner, turn down the lights and sit back.

Well now you can enjoy that same feeling at a movie theater. The Villagio Cinemas at Carrollwood is much more than just a place to catch the latest release. In addition to six theaters, which show first-run movies, it boasts an on-site restaurant and full bar.

Trust me when I tell you that once you go to the Villagio, you'll never want to go to another movie theater. It's not just that the seats are plush and so comfortable you might want to bring a blanket (it happens). It's not just that you get free refills on all popcorn and soda purchases (!).

The beauty and genius of the Villagio is that friendly and efficient servers will come to you while you're in your seat and take your order. You can actually eat dinner while you are watching the movie!

Of course, you don't have to do it this way. Many people arrive a little early so they can eat in the cozy dining area, which features a handful of high-top tables, or the generous bar area before the show.

But as you watch the latest blockbuster, if you enjoy spreading out in your recliner and having staff wait on you hand and foot (well, almost), this is the place for you.

Lest you think the menu selection is paltry, think again. This is no Cinema and Drafthouse, my friends, and diners are invited to partake even if they don't want to watch a show.

Executive Chef Stefano Addari offers a wide range of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, pizza, burgers and entrees, many with an Italian vibe. There are even specialty coffee drinks and desserts. The Villagio also boasts a full bar that offers beer, wine and cocktails, including specialty libations like The Double Feature ($11), which features Grey Goose vodka added to cranberry and pineapple juice and topped with a splash of Peach Schnapps. Heavenly.

Appetizer options include Caprese ($10), Bruschetta ($9) and our choice, chips and queso ($8). I'm not going to lie – the cheese was a little Taco Bell-tasting and the chips were somewhat stale, but my dining partner and I still polished them off.

Did I mention we were sitting in a recliner in a movie theater?

Next up were the entrees. With selections like Waldorf Chicken Salad ($12), meatball pizza ($12) and the Blue Burger ($14), which features a half pound of Black Angus beef, blue cheese, smoked applewood bacon, sautéed mushrooms, spinach and onions on a soft bun, it was difficult to decide. Ultimately, I went with a staff suggestion: the Chicken Parmesan sandwich ($12). It arrived with lightly breaded chicken coated with marinara sauce, topped with gooey mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, all served warm on ciabatta bread. The portion was huge, and accompanied by fries, I could only finish about half of it. My date selected the fish and chips ($14). Served wrapped ice cream cone-style, the fish was flaky, delicious and filling. We almost didn't have room for the cannoli ($5), which was crispy and creamy and just right.  The menu really does have quite a selection, so everyone in your party (kids included) should be able to find something they like.

Movie tickets can only be purchased in person at the Villagio, 11778 N. Dale Mabry Highway, and run $8 for kids, $9 for seniors and $12 for the rest of us.

Trust me on this – you will love it. For more information, visit


By Melanie Casey


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A Rare Gem: Dunedin’s Black Pearl Delivers

Tampa is a pirate-loving town and we all enjoy (endure?) the madness that is Gasparilla.

Seeing a wench in the middle of the International Mall no longer even warrants a second glance. So when making plans to dine out at The Black Pearl in Dunedin, I naturally assumed that this well-reviewed restaurant would have a pirate theme. It is the name of Capt. Jack Sparrow's ship, after all.

Situated across from Strachan's ice cream shop on Dunedin's Main Street, The Black Pearl at first glance seems more like a hole in the wall than an intimate, elegant dining opportunity. Once you enter and close the door behind you, however, it's like walking into a different world – and there's nothing pirate about it. The first thing you'll notice is how small it is. Only 12 tables are in it dining room, which is as big as a good-sized living room.

Linen-covered tables line the dimly lit space, and each table boasts a single red rose in a vase. Romantic, indeed. Our waiter was very attentive throughout. As we mused over the menu, he offered suggestions and seasonal specials.

The Black Pearl gets rave reviews on Yelp (always helpful when deciding where to dine, I find), and there are a few items that come up repeatedly as a "must try." One is the Maple Glazed Pork Belly appetizer ($16). Served over warm cheese grits with a blueberry demiglace sauce, the bite-sized bits were tender, melt-in-your-mouth goodness. It definitely lived up to the hype.

Next came the Black Pearl Salad ($6 a la carte but included with all entrees). I admit, this may have been the best part of the meal for me. I love a good salad, and this one delivers. Organic greens are dotted with gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts and cherry currents and – the best part – topped with a warm poppy seed vinaigrette. It was sweet, crunchy, tangy and terrific.

For my entree, I went with the Chilean Sea Bass Lyonnais ($35). The fish itself was fantastic – crunchy outside, perfectly cooked and warm and tender inside. The side dishes, however, didn't do it for me. The polenta tasted like bland grits, and the vegetable mix, consisting of artichokes and leeks, was not my favorite. Next time, I'll know to request a different side.

My dining partner went with the Filet Mignon ($42). The eight-ounce cut was pan-seared and finished off in the oven with a roasted shallot and merlot demiglace offering just the right amount of zest. It was cooked to perfection and served with crispy grilled asparagus and house-made mashed potatoes.

We finished off the nearly two-hour meal (yes, the Black Pearl follows the European standard of dining) with a delicious Tarte Tatin ($15). Sautéed Granny Smith apples and blended brown sugar and spices were artistically placed over a delightfully light and airy puff pastry. Topped with fresh whipped cream and homemade vanilla ice cream (an additional $5), it was the perfect end to an almost perfect meal.
There's a non-pirate reason the restaurant is called The Black Pearl, but I'm not going to spoil it for you. The next time you're looking for that special restaurant for an anniversary or birthday dinner (something besides Bern's), head for the charming little town of Dunedin and discover the reason for yourself.

The Black Pearl
315 Main St.
Dunedin, FL 34698
(727) 734-3463
Hours: Sun-Mon, 5-9 p.m.; Tues-Thu, 5-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5-11 p.m.
Reservations recommended.

By Melanie Casey


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Culver’s: A Tasty Midwest Transplant

What’s the deal with Culver’s?

Have you driven by the place? It’s on Hillsborough in Town ’N Country (there's another off 41 near Lutz and one in Largo as well), and it always seems to be packed. I figured, “Oh, just another burger joint,” until a friend of mine, a Minnesota transplant, posted on her Facebook page that she was excited about going to check it out.

Really? You’re going to drive all the way across town when we have a Five Guys and Burger 21 right here? Is it worth the trip?

In a nutshell (and in my best Minnesota accent), you betcha!

Started in 1984 in Sauk City, Wisconsin, the chain is definitely much more than just another burger joint. And although the service is fast, it's not your typical fast-food joint either. For Midwesterners (our area hosts more than a few), it’s definitely a taste of home.

Culver’s decor has a craftsman vibe, and the dining room is separated into smaller sections, so there is a modicum of privacy. Meals are ordered and then delivered to your table – it's a clever blend of fast food and sit-down restaurant. The service is excellent. Employees are all polite and accommodating, and there always seems to be a few floating around the dining room if you need something.

Culver’s signature items are its ButterBurger ($2.69 for the single), frozen custard ($2.79 single scoop) and Wisconsin cheese curds ($3.69). Made with fresh Midwestern beef and served on an oversized, toasted buttered bun, the ButterBurger is, if a bit greasy, nonetheless excellent. With its crispy edges and juicy middle, the burger is clearly handmade. No patty press assembly line symmetry here, folks. There are several takes on the original, including the Cheddar ButterBurger with Bacon and Sourdough Melt (both $3.49).

In addition to its burgers, Culver's "flavor of the day" custard is definitely a draw. Prepared fresh in house every morning, the creamy concoction comes in a variety of set flavors along with one of an additional 83 rotating flavors added each day, such as Chocolate Heath, Raspberry Chocolate Marshmallow and Cappuccino Almond Fudge. Each store features a different flavor of the day.

I was most curious about the Wisconsin cheese curds, which the menu claims are a "dairyland delicacy." Made exclusively from unaged yellow and white cheddar from a dairy in Stanley, Wisconsin, these little chunks of cheese are deep fried deliciousness. In my opinion, they were the best part of the meal.

Surprisingly, the Culver's menu is pretty extensive. In addition to burgers, there are sandwich options galore (such as Shaved Prime Rib, $4.69, and Grilled Reuben Melt, $4.69) as well as dinners like Fresh Fried Chicken (the two-piece dinner is $6.19), Butterfly Shrimp, (six pieces for $8.19) and, the one I opted for, North Atlantic Cod (two generous pieces for 9.49).

Though fried and greasy – some would say that's a good thing – the fish was flaky and clearly "real fish."  It wasn't pressed or processed. The fries were good, and the cole slaw (about which I tend to be picky) was pretty tasty.

In the spirit of thoroughness and dedication to food-column duty, I also visited the Culver's on Nebraska. To mix it up, I went with something a little healthier – the Cashew Salad with Grilled Chicken ($6.69). I have to say, I was a little disappointed in this. Though there was a generous amount of cashews, the salad was bland and the chicken was dry.

In fairness, however, I don't think Culver's is known for its salads. Take my advice when you visit – get a burger.

And don't forget the cheese curds.

8106 Hillsborough Ave.
Tampa, FL 33615
Hours: Daily, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

By Melanie Casey


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An Ohio Chain Turns Snowbird

With a name like Panini's Bar & Grill, you'd think you’d find a Panini on the menu.

You know, those small, smashed, Italian-style sandwiches that are like grilled cheese for grownups.

Well, you'd be wrong.

But it doesn't really matter, because what is on the menu at this new Westchase sports bar and grill is pretty darn awesome.

Located at 12227 W. Linebaugh Ave. in the Publix shopping center (in the space previously occupied by Stonechase Brick Oven Bar & Grill), Panini's opened about a month ago. The franchise started in Cleveland in 1986 as a late-night beer and sandwich stop and expanded into several locations in Northeast Ohio. The Westchase location and its sister store in Lutz are the only two Panini’s Bar & Grill locations in Florida – in fact, they're the only locations outside of Ohio.

The atmosphere at Panini's is what I'll call rustic lodge meets contemporary sports bar. The cozy bar area features wood and brick accents, pendant lighting and lots of big flat-screen TVs. The patio area is ample and airy.

Our waitress, who was attentive and thorough, recommended the "famous overstuffed sandwich" along with the just-as-famous Panini's pizza. "It's a tough menu," she acknowledged.

With its choices ranging from an array of salads, sandwiches, wraps and burgers to wings, pizza and a few highfalutin entree choices like chicken parmesan and St. Louis-style ribs, it is indeed difficult to decide.

Appetizer options are primarily of the "pub grub" variety and range from homemade onion rings with tangy Dijon dip ($6.99 and delish) and fried pickles ($4.99) to Buffalo Bleu fries ($4.99), which feature hand-cut fries dusted in Buffalo sauce and topped with melted bleu cheese. If you're counting calories, this may not be the place to start.

Healthier options exist on the main menu, however, and I opted for the "famous overstuffed sandwich" ($7.49) made with turkey. You know how most meals come with cole slaw and fries on the side? Well, this sandwich is not only layered with a good-sized portion of tangy turkey and melted provolone cheese (and tomato, if you want it. I didn't), but also features fries and cole slaw in the sandwich! It's all layered between fresh Italian bread and is a serious handful of food. Other meat options include capicola, roast beef, pastrami and even Lake Erie perch, BBQ pork and grilled chicken for an additional charge.

On the advice of our server, we also opted for a thin-crust pizza layered with green peppers and black olives ($7.99 base price for thin crust, plus $1.29 per topping. Choose a red or white garlic base). The peppers were crisped just right and the cheese melted just so, and the serving size is more than enough to fill you up.

Though sports bars aren't necessarily known for their desserts, Panini's came through with its warm apple tart ($6.99). Crisp, flaky crust surrounded melting, creamy vanilla ice cream and soft warm apples – what more do you want? Heavenly.

The one issue I had with Panini's was its false advertising – yes, I said it. False advertising. When I drove by weeks ago, I noticed a neon sign outside advertising Widmer Brothers Brewing. When I lived near Seattle a few years ago, this Pacific Northwest beer was one of my go-tos, so I was seriously looking forward to a nice cold Widmer Hefeweizen. Imagine my dismay when I asked for one and was told they didn't carry it! Please, Panini's – bring on some Widmers or take that sign down and stop teasing me!

Overall, Panini's is a great choice for families (kids' meals are only $5 and include a drink), to catch the game with friends, or to start or end an evening out. 

Go get your grub on.

Panini’s Bar & Grill
12227 W. Linebaugh Ave.
Tampa, FL 33626

By Melanie Casey


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Shining in Seminole Heights

Move over, Soho. Seminole Heights has become a vibrant, established food scene – one now featuring some added shine.

As in Fodder & Shine.

Food visionaries have taken advantage of Seminole Heights’ modest rents to establish something beyond Tampa’s reputation as the birthing ground for national Midwestern-type chains. You could spend a month hopscotching between Rooster and the Till, Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café, the Independent, The Refinery and Mermaid Tavern. Don’t be intimidated; even if you’re not wearing a fedora, plaid shirt, cat-eye eyeliner, tattoos or body piercings, you are still welcome.

I’ve been awaiting this second restaurant from Greg and Michelle Baker, my favorite chef/restauranteur duo (also of the Refinery) for quite some time. Fodder & Shine was born out of their need for more kitchen space. Converted from an old body shop, the location has proven a blessing. Both restaurants are based on local, fresh and primarily organic ingredients. While the Refinery has an ever-evolving menu, Fodder and Shine exhibits a fixed menu focused on Old Florida cuisine, which takes its influence from Southern, Native American, African and Spanish cultures. Overall, it shows great promise, but still has a few kinks to work out.

We started out with the Smoked Mullet Spread ($8), a popular appetizer served with house-salted crackers. It was amply full of fish, and had a nice flavor and crunch from scallions, Datil pepper and celery. For dinner I had the Smoked Beef Brisket off the daily meat menu. It was juicy, tender and flavorful throughout. (Greg Baker usually celebrates the pig and his next restaurant should definitely be BBQ.) The Pilau ($22) a combination of native rice, shrimp, Minorcan sausage, chicken liver, and boiled egg was cooked to order in an individual cast iron pan. It tasted like good comfort food, but the presentation was uninspiring. Rounding out the sides were Butter Charred Radishes ($7), which had a round, earthy flavor, but were weirdly dry. The Cane Syrup Beets ($8) were simple and perfectly roasted.

For dessert, the Caramel Cake ($7) was a simple, delicious Southern white cake marbled with caramel and a caramel buttercream frosting. I enjoyed that it was not too sweet and carried the browned butter flavor throughout. Dessert would be a great time to check out the remainder of Fodder & Shine’s cocktail menu.

Normally I am a huge fan of industrial architecture and love a great concrete floor. The outside waiting areas of Fodder and Shine are the former pull-in bays for cars, which is a clever use of the space. The long bar area, sectioned off and anchored by a large wooden art installation, is warm and inviting. But the main dining area is kind of cold and cavernous. After the table next to me was pulled away for a large party, my husband and I felt like we were in the spotlight for an ice dancing routine. It’s nothing that more tables and larger scale artwork couldn’t fix. Also, a few more tables might have kept our waiter from overzealously checking on us every few minutes when we clearly were looking for a more leisurely meal.

The bar area is clearly a highlight and enjoys a lively crowd. Our bearded bartender (are there any others nowadays?) was friendly and professional. He whipped up some fantastic cocktails, including a Sazerac, which I enjoyed sipping all night. This spot will be a hopping bar scene, and deservedly so. The careful attention paid to the craft cocktails, wine and beer list are reason enough to enjoy Fodder & Shine.

Fodder & Shine
5910 N. Florida Ave.
Tampa, FL 33604
(813) 234-3710
Dinner: 5-11 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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A Career of Service to His Country

For Greens resident Tim Creighton the decision to enter the military at a young age set him on a path of great success.

After a 28-year career in the army, including 10 years of Infantry service and 18 years of Special Forces, the lieutenant colonel has lots of memories.

Born in Rhode Island, Creighton grew up cheering for the New England Patriots and participating in several different sports. “Whatever sports season it was, I was playing,” he recalled.

His military heritage included his father, a Korean War veteran, and an uncle who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. “He was a full colonel and a photo of him decorated with all his medals and ribbons really struck me,” he said.

It was during a seventh grade science class that the decision to enter the military was finalized for Creighton. While reading a science publication, he noticed an army recruiting advertisement. “There was a soldier in the mud with a rifle and that ad hit me in the head. I knew at that moment I wanted to join,” he shared.

Upon completing his junior year in high school, Creighton headed down to the recruiting offices and signed himself up for the army. Once he graduated, he entered the Infantry division. He explained, “I wanted to do something tough out on the ground with a gun on the front lines.”

His first stop was Ft. Benning, Georgia for 13 weeks of basic training. From there he was stationed in Hawaii with the 25th Infantry Division. From Hawaii, he was sent to the First Calvary Division in Texas. By 1985, Creighton achieved the rank of sergeant but elected to leave the military to attend college. He entered Rhode Island College in Providence full time while working several jobs. He graduated in 1998 with a degree in Business Administration. While he was glad to have completed college, he continued to long for the military. “Every day I was out of the army, I missed it and doubted my decision,” he explained. “Once Iraq invaded Kuwait, that made my decision to go back.”

Going back wasn’t as easy as Creighton thought it would be. “I was told there weren’t any slots available for prior servicemen,” he said.

Not one to give up easily, Creighton wrote his congressman, senator and President George Bush. Finally, a recruiter called him and told him to be ready at 7 a.m. the next day to be picked up and driven to Boston to enlist.

He was ready. Because he had been out of the military more than five years, he had to complete basic training again. This second experience, he said, was far different than his first. Soldiers wore gray sweats instead of fatigues. Physical requirements were not as tough and the drill sergeants were a bit easier the recruits. Once he completed this training, he used his degree to apply to Officer Candidate School. The experience lasted 100 days and included academic requirements as well as field work. “It was a whole lot of harassment,” he chuckled. “They would come into our rooms and empty drawers, move mattresses, mess up the place and blow a whistle and give you 15 minutes to correct it, which of course you couldn’t do,” he said.

When the task was not completed, the penalty was more harassment. When asked if he had doubted his decision at that point to re-enter the military, his response was certain. “I never thought about quitting. They’d have had to kill me first.”

Creighton continued to take on leadership roles and achieve the academic and physical goals he set for himself. As he moved up the ranks, he enjoyed the opportunities he had to serve in Korea, Egypt, Afghanistan, South America and more. After achieving the rank of lieutenant, Creighton began the assessment and selection process to serve with Special Forces. “They made you do stuff physically and mentally you never thought you could do,” he said.

Only one-third of those who apply are selected and only one-third of those selected actually make it through. The phases of training included language training, patrolling and parachute operations. In 1997 Creighton became a Green Beret and spent the last 18 years of his military career in Special Forces. Much of that time was spent countering drug operations in South American regions. In May of 2009 Creighton achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He describes the time he spent in Afghanistan as a senior advisor to an Afghan Army Brigadier General as the best tour of his career and the most fulfilling, Of the Afghan leader with which he worked, he observed, “We became very good friends.”

In 2012 while stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, he was asked to put together a project that would demonstrate the interoperability between United States Special Forces, conventional forces, interagency elements and partner nations. Creighton had to figure out how to incorporate each entity. This event, the 2012 International Special Operations Demonstration, was conducted in downtown Tampa. The event featured a mock kidnapping and rescue of a local city official. It took almost six months of planning, requiring Creighton to call embassies from around the world, secure a barge to be used as a target and clear the event with the Fire Marshall, FAA and U.S. Customs. He incorporated Seals, Air Force tactics, the Green Berets and more. Nine countries were represented with use of Special Op Forces, airplanes, helicopters, boats, military vehicles, gunfire and explosions.

Creighton stood on a bridge with a radio. Script in hand, he served as narrator during the 30 minute event. The largest international military exercise ever conducted in a U.S. city, it was seen by thousands of people and proved a huge success. “There were a lot of naysayers but it turned out to be one of my proudest moments,” he said.

The demonstration was so successful, he was asked to do it again in 2014. A video of the 2012 event can be seen on YouTube at


Jan. 31, 2015, marked the end of his 28-year, 28-day career in the army. Not quite ready to settle into full retirement just yet, Creighton began a new position as a contractor for special operations with a defense contract company. When asked how he would advise others considering a military career, his response is a positive one. “Absolutely consider it. It’s the best decision I ever made,” he shared.

Creighton looks forward to having more time for family now that he has a regular nine-to-five position. His wife, Carmen Gloria, and he enjoy spending time with daughter, Sarah, at Disney as often as they can. “We hit I-4 a lot,” he chuckled.

He considers his yard work his hobby. “I spend hours out there getting everything just right,” he explained.

Many thanks to Tim Creighton for his years of service to our country!

By Lisa Stephens


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Ava: Perfect for Any Date Night

Tampa’s newest restaurant for the stylish crowd lies smack in the heart of South Howard, accessible to all of Tampa Bay. 

Ava gives a good performance all around in tastiness, ambiance and service. In short, it’s perfect for any date night.

The beautiful interior has clean lines with a lot of blonde wood and brick, but is still very warm.  Just a warning, however. Please do not wear a plaid shirt, as you will be mistaken for a staff member. 

Another reason I’m rooting for this new restaurant: Proprietor Michael Stewart is a hometown Tampan. I love to see a local work with our unique flora and fauna, even if all the food is Italian inspired.

We started out with the Warm Ricotta ($7), served with grilled bread slices.  The name does not do it justice, as the small ramekin of cheese was creamy and perfectly smooth, a simple appetizer. 

More diverse and hearty was the Salumi Tray ($22).  The wood tray of pates and house-cured meats had a wonderful rustic presentation.  It included a little bowl of pork fat over pate to spread on the grilled bread, which feels a little freaky to modern day Americans.  However, I remember stories from my mother growing up in post-war Germany, and there it was a good thing to spread chicken fat on your toast.  Regardless, it was tasty, and we all felt a little naughty for doing it.

The Nduja, a pinkish-tinged and slightly spicy, spreadable Southern Italian pork sausage was deliciously savory and did double duty flavoring the broth of the Mussel appetizer. The Crispy Pork Belly ($12), served with lentils and a soft-boiled egg, was flavorful and mercifully was not too fatty.

For main courses, we started with the La Bestia Pizza ($16), a true Neapolitan style cooked for only two minutes in their blazing wood-fired oven.  It contained spicy sausage, arugula and ricotta, and we enjoyed pulling chunks off by hand (no slicing allowed.) The house made Cavatalli Al Ragu Pasta ($22) was a perfectly executed pasta from scratch featuring fennel sausage and a complex tomato sauce. The Half Grilled Chicken ($18) was a little pink to my liking, but the white bean ragu that accompanied it was warm and hearty. The Wood Grilled Prime Sirloin ($18) was satisfying, and the roasted root vegetables accompanying it added a nice wintry touch. 

All of this sounds like a ton of food, yet all of the portions are single serving, so if you are dining “family style” it is really just for everyone to get a taste of what you’re eating. For dessert, we moved onto the tiny Caramel Budino ($8), a custard with sea salt, which was to die for, but the pine-nut cookie that accompanied it was just serviceable. 

I have to take issue with the perfect 4-star rating from the Tampa Bay Times critic.  This is a new, exciting and well-planned restaurant, but it still needs a few kinks to be worked out first.

The bread, which was baked in the wood-fired oven, was delicious, but why only provide two slices of it on the Salumi tray for a variety of meats and pates?  Then charge for a full plate of extra bread when only a slice or so is needed? Our server was knowledgeable about the offerings and did a decent job at keeping the pacing on track. However, she was a little too needy about making sure everything was the best meal we had ever had, right?

One final note: the restaurant is fine for culinary adventurous teens, but given the sometimes-slow kitchen times, it is probably best to leave the younger kids at home.

718 South Howard Ave.
Tampa, FL 33606
Dinner All Week: 5-10 p.m.
Lunch: Mon-Fri,11 a.m.-2 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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A Little Snorkeling With Dinner

Escaping from giant roast turkeys over Thanksgiving, my family stayed at the Guy Harvey Outpost, a hotel that’s part of the Tradewinds megaplex on St. Pete Beach.

I had the “opportunity” to watch Tanked, the Animal Planet show about two Las Vegas goofballs who design and manufacture immense fish tanks. It was running on a continuous loop on the hotel television. The reason for the promo, of course, was that they built a 33,500 gallon salt water aquarium across one end of the Guy Harvey Rumfish Grill restaurant and it features a variety of native Gulf species. It’s so big that guests can pay to take a dip in the tank while diners ogle them through the glass.

Once we get in vacation mode, my normally active family all turn into a bunch of slugs. My interest to see the tank was piqued, but it was located all the way across the parking lot.

In the end, we were too lazy to go anywhere else for dinner, and I really wanted to see the aquarium. Alas, the ubiquitous pictures and T-shirts featuring groups of dolphin and grouper in Disneyesque proportions did not heighten my expectations. I’ll admit it. I can be a bit of a food snob.

To my surprise, however, the food was really good. We started out with the Baked Oysters, expertly flavored with spinach, leeks, Tasso ham, and cheese. They were a nice rendition of Oysters Rockefeller.

After eating a giant hunk of delicious smoked mackerel for lunch at Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, I was kind of fished out for the evening. The Pan Roasted Natural Chicken Breast I ordered was crispy and perfectly seared underneath a brick. It did the trick. The crunchy black bean risotto cake and sautéed spinach proved great companions. The Seafood Brochette was a giant skewer of Mahi Mahi, scallops and gulf shrimp hanging from a hook, which were all nicely grilled. It came accompanied by squash and gingered faro salad, which was serviceable, but not a standout. A third meal sampled was the Pecan Crusted Mahi Mahi with creole corn succotash and pan-fried greens. It was almost as if I got in my Thanksgiving fix, but with some prime seafood as a surrogate for turkey.

The yummy dinner did not stop us from roaring through the desserts, holiday style. I rarely make my husband’s favorite, Coconut Cake, so he was delighted to try their version. The kids were smitten with the Molten Chocolate Lava Cake topped with sea salt caramel ice cream. They practically licked their plates clean. The Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding with toasted hazelnuts was decadent and delightful and came with a sticky caramel glaze. We didn’t miss Grandma’s pumpkin pie at all!

The atmosphere in the restaurant, apart from the ginormous aquarium on one end and two smaller ones on the sides, was attractive and showed more restraint than anticipated. Clientele included mostly extended families and a few romantic couples. They probably had just gotten married at the resort, so overall it’s a pretty familial kind of place.
The wine list is fairly extensive and reasonably priced. It’s kind of a metaphor for the whole resort: fun, inexpensive and not pretentious.

It’s awesome to live less than an hour away from a Caribbean style beach resort. Where else can you go snorkeling in a restaurant?

Guy Harvey Rumfish Grill
6000 Gulf Boulevard
St. Petersburg Beach, FL 33706
(727) 329-1428
Hours: Mon- Sat, open breakfast lunch and dinner; Sun, open breakfast and brunch

By Jill Chesney


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Ulele: Delicious Hometown Pride

Enter a magical world of Ulele, the true American Indian princess behind the Pocahontas story.

The Gonzmart family, Tampa restaurant royalty, has used their funds, political clout and unabashed love for the city to create an innovative restaurant that celebrates our roots.

During our recent visit to Ule, Tampa’s most heralded new restaurant, our eager beaver servers were completely knowledgeable about the building’s renovation and Ulele’s menu. So happy were they to share information they seemed like Disney cast members. Inside, the restaurant’s brick, loft-like space was scattered with interesting iron sculptures from local artists. It’s a little loud and chattery, but the energy of the diners comes from finally have scored a reservation – a hot commodity.

Due to some unforeseen but fortunate circumstances, we arrived 45 minutes early for our reservation. Sliding up to an earlier time slot was an impossibility, so we were ushered to the outside beer garden on the restaurant’s far side. We witnessed a spectacular Tampa sunset, complete with wedding party photos along the river. The adjacent natural spring, which flows into the Hillsborough River, has been lovingly restored. The place gives off a positive urban vibe, with a small water splash park and amphitheater next door. A bike tour of twenty-somethings pulled up, sampled the craft beers brewed on site, and enjoyed the mellow atmosphere. The beer garden also includes chic roof seating, but no food service is yet available.

Our dinner was a celebration of our native Florida bounty, and we tried as many of Ulele’s interesting sides as we could. We started with a small appetizer, the Oyster Cabbage Boats, citrus-glazed oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. Next, we moved on to Florida Jumpers, crispy fried frog legs in sherry garlic aioli, which brought me back to past trips to the Seminole reservation. The Okra Fries, tossed in lime juice, were very tart, and might appeal more to okra lovers like myself. Match up the Native Florida Chili with alligator, wild boar, venison, duck and ground chuck with a Jalapeño Cheddar Grit Cake for a hearty winter meal. Last but not least, the decadent Mac and Cheese came topped with generous amounts of lump crab meat.

The center of the open kitchen is a giant ten-foot barbacoa grill on which most of the meats are prepared. Watching the giant, 2.2 pound kilo Porterhouse being grilled was like watching a meat inferno. The shrimp, scallops, crab and lobster in my Seafood Special had a lovely smoky taste from the grill, which paired well with its tomato saffron bed.

Growing up on guava pastries, I had to try Fortune Taylor’s Guava Pie for dessert. With its shortbread cookie crust, whipped cream and guava reduction, it did not disappoint. Next time I am definitely trying the Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream, which sounds decadent.

Five different beers are brewed on premises. The Magbees Honey Lager, produced with locally sourced Florida honey, was smooth and featured a malty base. Three others, Ulele Light, Water Works Pale, and Rusty’s Red, will please any hop-head. There is also a Wedding Beer, a cold-brewed fruit lager. A wide variety of wines and craft cocktails are also available.

With our day-to-day prepackaged lives, it’s easy to overlook the sheer variety of native culinary items Tampa Bay has to offer. Visiting Ulele, I felt the same level of pride about my hometown as when I visited the Tampa Bay History Center.

Come out and experience the local foods our local Native Americans and settlers experienced. It’s magical.

1810 North Highland Ave.
Tampa, FL 33602
Hours: Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11a.m.-11 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Fair Food Without the Guilt

How about some nice fair food without leaving Westchase?

Great beer specials, too?

Head on over to the Great Spiedini, the latest resident of the northwest corner of the Westchase Town Center. Born a Southern girl, I was not aware of this southern New York State specialty. One of the great parts of this gig is that I get to learn about regional and global cuisines.

A spiedie consists of cubes of chicken, pork, lamb, veal, venison or beef. The meat cubes are marinated overnight or longer in a special marinade, then grilled on spits over a charcoal pit. High protein, low fat? I’m in! No frozen Tyson Grilled & Ready chicken strips here!

Please, parents, your children deserve better.

One night, for an extended family dinner with Grandpa, we ambled over to check it out. We ordered a Classic Chicken Spiedie, which highlighted the savory marinade. While many people would like the simple meat and bread combination, I personally liked the Greek, Marsala, Parmesan and Mexican options, featuring different cheeses and sauces. The Open Face NY Strip Steak with hot cherry peppers, sautéed onions and mushrooms – served with melted cheese sauce over a slice of toasted Italian bread – was a delicious heart attack. It was Florida State Fair Food elevated to art form.

Coming back down to Earth, the thick ’shroom slice in the Portobello Sandwich was grilled after being marinated in the same sauce. It was an excellent vegetarian option and comes with roasted peppers, alfalfa sprouts and pesto sauce on a ciabatta roll.

The side dishes are all about comfort carbs. Grandma’s Macaroni and Cheese was creamy and cheesy in all the right places. The Salt Potatoes were baby-sized and dressed with butter and herbs. Kind of a conundrum – they were salty on the inside, but in a flavorful way. Meanwhile the Beer Battered Onion Rings with Boom-Boom dipping sauce were crunchy on the outside and sweet on the inside.

If you want to be really good, try the Strawberry Mango Kale Salad. It’s a little incongruous in it’s virtuosity, but the kale, strawberries, mango, sliced almond, avocado and feta cheese were all top-notch fresh. It was also absolutely beautiful in its presentation. The salad was dressed in a sweet-tart mango vinaigrette that was a little overwhelming, so it might be a good choice to order it on the side. An additional light option is ordering your chicken spiedie over a bed of romaine.

The restaurant’s atmosphere is not too exciting, however. While the outside has a pleasant patio, which will become quite lovely as the temperature drops a bit, the inside offers more of a git’r’done approach to eating. It is family friendly and very reasonably priced, however. The Great Spiedini features half-price beer specials every Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m., making it a no-brainer for a weekday meal.

After an exhausting day at work or with the kids, I look forward to walking on over and getting my fill.

The Great Spiedini
9648 W. Linebaugh
Tampa, FL 33626
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thu, 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Fresh Mediterranean Bites from Your Long Lost Family

“You’ve gotta try this place,” I heard over and over from a wide group of foodie friends and friendly restaurant owners.

It took me a while to buy into the hype. The name was not sexy and the location not super-hip. But as I’ve learned it’s not the groovy, foo-foo food that sustains us in life. It’s mama’s home cooking.

Walking in to Fresh Bites, I felt like I was greeted by my (imaginary) long-lost Mediterranean family. After a stressful week of starting high school, my kids, husband and I were looking for a place to kick back and share comfort food. We found the perfect place, just down the street from Westchase. We had a happy accident of massive amounts of food because we purchased Fresh Mezza for two, plus two dinners. I can’t say the owners didn’t try to warn us, but the Fresh Mezza is more designed for a big group of party snackers.

Fresh Bites is committed to using unprocessed ingredients – they use fresh herbs and natural, organic meats while avoiding canned products. While the menu leans towards vegetables, grains and beans, all their meat comes from Niman Ranch, an organic supplier that never adds hormones or antibiotics.

The Fresh Mezza had a wide variety of vegetarian dishes, which also made cameo appearances in a lot of the meals. The standout side was the Mudardara. Rice with lentils, it had a beautifully nuanced flavor and deeply caramelized onions. The Taboule was made the traditional Lebanese way, with lots of parsley, mint, tomatoes and onions, and a tiny bit of bulgur wheat. The Hummus was ten times smoother than anything you can find at Publix, and had a lot of Tahini flavor. The yogurt cucumber dip was tasty, but a little too thin to be scooped up with the pita triangles. Roasted beets and olives were some simple counterpoints to the dips and complex spices. But wait, there’s more! It also included solid renditions of Baba Ghanouj and Stuffed Grape Leaves.

As if all that weren’t enough, we tried the Kebbeh, which is minced meat with crushed wheat, onion, pine nuts and spices. To my gringo mouth, it tasted like a lighter, flat meatloaf with a lot of savory spices. We also tried the Shawarma – thin-sliced beef marinated in herbs and spices, then roasted and served on a pita. Both of these came with a side salad that had a lovely tart lemon dressing.

Before we rolled out of the restaurant, we all partook of the in-house Baklava, which was appropriately nutty and dense, but not as sticky sweet as found elsewhere. The restaurant uses raw, unbleached sugar and stevia for sweeteners. 

This is definitely more of a family restaurant than a date place. You can order at the counter or they’ll come over if you just plop yourself down at a table. The vibe with the cafeteria tables on one side and cute wine bar on the other was a little schizophrenic, but I imagine the owners are continually trying to warm up the space.

You can feel the love they have poured into Fresh Bites, and the respect they have for their customers, providing healthy delicious food that nourishes the soul.

Fresh Bites
11665 Countryway Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33626
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sat, noon-9:30 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Pacific Thai on the Eastern Gulf

When we arrived at Pacific Thai Cuisine, we were the only patrons.

The restaurant, however, did a steady takeout business.

One guy even came in for a bowl of their Panang sauce to take home. I can totally understand the urge to shotgun the mouthwatering, coconut, yellow curry sauce in the privacy of my own home, but I vow only to eat it in public to avoid that shame spiral.

Pacific Thai Cuisine, located in nearby Oldsmar, had the typical attractive yet simple décor associated with Thai restaurants: wood paneled walls and painted pictures. An elephant fountain near the front along with soft music lent a tranquil mood. The restaurant’s service was quiet and attentive and the food was prepared blisteringly fast. Every dish was beautifully presented and garnished with an orchid.

We tried to beat the heat with a Fresh Summer Roll, but it was not a great start. While the rice paper roll was soft, and the interior shrimp, basil and lettuce were fresh, the copious amount of iceberg lettuce made it too bland and only good as a vehicle for the savory peanut sauce.

The Yum section, literally and figuratively, contained a variety of hot and sour salads served over lettuce. They all had a different protein, strong aromatic components and a spicy edge. They’re perfect for a light, no-carb meal with massive flavor. We enjoyed the Nam Sod, well-cooked ground pork mixed with ginger, peanuts, onions, bell peppers and served over lettuce. The fiery dressing poured on top consisted of shallots, fish sauce and lime juice. After ordering it at medium spiciness, I’m glad sliced cucumbers and tomatoes were served on the side to cool down my mouth.

The accompanying side salad was small, sweet, and primarily a palate cleanser from the Yum. After hearing every other person order a version of Panang, my husband and I shared the Two Friends Panang, which included shrimp, chicken, asparagus, broccoli, fresh basil, coconut and crushed peanuts mixed into the sauce. The enthusiastic use of fresh herbs and spices created a balanced dish. The massive platter dwarfed the small bowl of rice that came with it, but the saucier the better!

Panang, by the way, is a type of Thai curry that is generally milder than other Thai curries. The complex interplay of spices traditionally includes dried chili peppers, ginger, lemongrass, coriander root, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, shrimp paste and salt, and sometimes also shallots and peanuts.

For dessert we munched on Pacific Thai’s Crunchy Banana Coins, which were wrapped in rice paper, deep fried and topped with honey, sesame seeds and homemade coconut ice cream. It was a yummy, sweet ending to a satisfying meal.

Pacific Thai Cuisine really isn’t the place to go for wine and beer, but they offer a nice selection of teas. The restaurant’s prices are slightly higher than comparable Thai restaurants, from $10 for a chicken dish to $19 for a combination seafood dish.

The restaurant is open for dinner every day and open for lunch weekdays.

Pacific Thai Cuisine
4058 Tampa Road, Suite 5
Oldsmar, FL 34677
(813) 855-6633

By Jill Chesney


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Where Old School is So Cool

While Pizzaria Gregario’s name sounds like a red-sauce pizza joint with an old guy plopping ingredients out of large cans onto greasy crusts, check that notion at the door.

This little gem offers handcrafted, wood-fired pizzas using all natural, organic ingredients. On my way to a throwback 80’s Go-Go’s concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall, I needed a place that would satisfy a picky childhood friend as well as my Italian husband, Gregory, who takes his pie very seriously. Upon advice from friends, we ended up in a converted, small house in the middle of downtown Safety Harbor. We were also given a Hong Kong Phooey pose-able action figure to mark our table. Talk about throwback!

We started out with the Roasted Beet Salad, with warm golden beets tossed with a light vinaigrette on watercress. Delightful! Pizzaria Gregario also offers a variety of other salads, including Fattoush and Caesar. A definite Mediterranean influence is evident in their other offerings, which include Baba Ghanoush, Hummus, and Tabouleh.

Now on to the main attraction: pizza! First, the crust, which is made from a 140-year-old San Francisco sourdough starter that chef/owner Gregario proudly showed me. It comes out of the oven crisp and slightly charred at the edges. We tried three pizzas off the main menu: the Mushroom, the Sausage and the Lombardy. The Mushroom is a mellow and earthy pie, with roasted mushrooms, Fontina cheese and herb gremolata. The Sausage and banana peppers pie did not appear to have many toppings, but it was an instant hit because the house-made fennel sausage and pickled banana peppers were so flavorful. Finally, the Lombardy pizza with Fontina, garlic, savoy cabbage, house-made bresoala (air-dried salted beef) and pickled onion was light and refreshing.

Gregario, the affable owner, helms the kitchen while his brother and sister handle the orders and service. A niece or two were even thrown in for help. They proved a friendly and chatty bunch. Gregario is passionate about fresh and healthy food. He even talked up a few local restaurants that shared his philosophy about using unprocessed food. The menu is not large, and he has been purposefully reducing and refining it to concentrate on bringing out the best quality.

Only 32 seats exist in the restaurant, plus a few at the bar overlooking the pizza oven, so Pizzaria Gregario fills up quickly. The low-tech ordering system literally slides order tickets across the restaurant into the prep station. Once you order at the register, the food and drinks are brought out to you. Since it’s not really set up as a place to linger, the turnover is pretty quick and the wait isn’t too long, even on peak hours. Pizzaria Gregario is not fancy or slick – you won’t see any linen tablecloths, but it’s clear that a lot of thought was put into this place.

Beer and wine are available at reasonable prices along with Boylan’s soda, instead of mainstream fountain drinks. This time, a squash spice cake with homemade cinnamon ice cream was on the dessert menu. Others in rotation include Tiramisu, Zabaglione and Pot de Crème.

Part of Pizzaria Gregario’s ideology is to respect the craft of scratch cooking by sourcing quality ingredients, honoring them with traditional techniques, and finishing with love. That said, I can’t wait to go back and try their house-made fresh mozzarella and meatballs!

Old school is so cool.

Pizzaria Gregario
400 2nd Street North
Safety Harbor, FL 34695
Tel: 727-386-4107
Hours: Tue-Sat, 5-10 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Discovering a Florida Pearl

Are you a native Floridian or Floridian at heart?

If so, Pearl in the Grove will delight you with the finest bounty of flora and fauna our state has to offer. If you are up for a relaxing drive in the country, take the Veterans Expressway north past wild turkeys, sandhill cranes and cow pastures. You’ll arrive at an unpretentious, old house converted into a restaurant featuring white tablecloths and rustic, concrete floors. This isn’t your Mama’s Po-Folks, though. A lively crowd of urbanites fills the restaurant.

Pearl in the Grove’s proprietors are extremely earnest with the farm-to-table concept. They explain where all the food came from, almost apologizing for any items they had to buy from out of state.

OK, I get it. My friend drives a Prius.

Our intrepid dinner mates, Pat and Maria, helped us through our Florida cracker first course. The BLT Pork Rinds were flash-fried with smoky tomato aioli. It was more substantial than anything from a bag, and the crispy/smoky/salty combination was delicious. The fried chicken livers with sausage gravy over rice were tasty, if that’s your bag, but I’m still scarred from eating them in my childhood. The Fried Green Tomato Caprese was more of a crowd pleaser, which included home-made mozzarella and fresh pesto.

For our main course, we ate rabbit, shrimp and catfish off the special menu and steak from the regular menu. They were all modern interpretations of Southern traditions. I have never heard of Yakamein, a classic New Orleans street food, but the rabbit confit was served in a delicious broth over perfectly al dente house pasta. The wild caught Gulf shrimp were served over bacon broth grits and topped with a fried duck egg. The Alabama-farmed Catfish Meuneiere was lightly fried with cornmeal and deliciously covered with a pecan, butter, white wine and shallot sauce. The Strip Steak with scalloped potatoes and sliced okra veggies was more traditional, but received great reviews as well.

Both of our deserts capitalized on blueberries, as they were in season. The buttermilk biscuit topped with blueberry compote, home-made vanilla ice cream and a nutty granola cluster was as down home as Little House on the Prairie. I preferred the warm and dense chocolate mousse, topped with the same ice cream and blueberry compote. But even with the ingredients going double-duty, they were very different and both satisfying.

While not large, Pearl in the Grove’s craft beer list contained a good selection of Cigar City, Saint Somewhere and Abita brews. The wine list was also sharply edited, but contained just about every taste point at reasonable prices, ranging from $24-48 dollars a bottle. Almost everything is available by the glass. The 2011 La Follette Pinot Noir meshed well with many of the smoky and spicy dishes.

As you know from shopping at Publix, it’s not the cheapest to eat locally and organically. Small plates ranged in price from $5-15 and main entrees ranged from $19-40. But, really, this a quality over quantity kind of place. No country bumpkins are sitting in the kitchen here, and I’d stack this restaurant up to anything offered in Tampa Bay.

Pearl in the Grove
31936 St. Joe Road
Dade City, FL 33525
Dinner: Wed-Sun; Brunch, Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Seasons 52: Healthy, Tasty and Stylish

Normally I don’t review chain restaurants.

The food isn’t that great, and I’d rather help promote independent owners. But it’s the end of the school year, my kids are wearing me out, and I’m feeling a bit lazy. Enter Seasons 52, which makes it easy to have a healthful, tasty, and stylish night out.

The restaurant’s motto is “seasonally inspired cooking with every item less than 475 calories.” They do a nice job of balancing portion size and cooking methods to accomplish this. You’ll suffer through no boring, skinless, boneless chicken breasts, however. Everything is well seasoned and sauced. Who wants to be a food martyr anyway? But if you are one, you can still look up the entire nutritional information for each item online.

We started out with the nightly special: Lamb Meatball Flatbread. The crust was cracker thin and the lamb was balanced with some diced cucumber and mint slivers. This would be great to pair with a dry Rosé or light red wine like Pinot Noir. Moving on, we ate the Grilled Portobello Mushroom and Arugula Salad. It was very fresh, but it should have been named the Boatload of Arugula and Teaspoon of Grilled Portobello Mushroom Salad.

Each of our three entrees, however, was satisfying and well-presented. The Caramelized Grilled Sea Scallops came with a creamy lemon risotto, English peas and roasted asparagus. It tasted like the essence of spring, and paired perfectly with the Sauvignon Blanc.

Seasons 52’s food, however, is not all light and lady-like. The next two entrees were ones that even my meat-and-potatoes father would enjoy. The Wood Roasted Pork Tenderloin and Portobello Polenta was very tender and sauced with a delicious roasted onion jus. All of the entrees had plenty of vegetables, and this one included sweet spring broccolini. Despite the heft of the Oak Grilled Filet Mignon with cremini mushrooms, steamed spinach and mashed potatoes, it still clocked in under the calorie count. Both of these entrees could handle a heartier red wine, like Garnacha or Zinfandel.

Since you can only make good choices throughout your meal, you are entitled – obligated, in fact – to continue to enjoy yourself through dessert. The servers come by with a cornucopia tray of Mini Indulgences, and you can pick your favorite. It’s as much fun as picking out a new puppy from the litter. They come in shot glasses, and cover the gamut from chocoholic to berries with cream. We sampled the Chocolate Peanut Butter Torte, Carrot Cake with Cinnamon Honey, Pecan Pie with Vanilla Bean Mousse, and Belgian Chocolate S’more. Our favorite, however, was the supremely creamy Salted Caramel Crème.

The entire wine menu was available by the glass, so it’s easy to mix and match with each course. Normally, I’m not thrilled about this, because you can get stuck with something that’s been open for a few days. Each time I ordered a different glass, however, they opened a new bottle, so I think they get enough turnover that it should not be a problem. Either that, or I order the unpopular varieties!

Seasons 52’s ambiance is date-worthy, and the crowd picked up in size and coolness around 8:30 p.m. on Friday night. Located on the corner of Westshore and Kennedy in South Tampa, it’s a quick hop down Veterans Expressway. A piano player performs live music nightly.

Stop by amid your summer travels. There are no wrong-turns on this menu and you’ll still look good in your bikini!

By Jill Chesney

Seasons 52
204 N Westshore Blvd
Tampa, FL 33609
(813) 286-1152


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Café Ponte: Elegant, Grown Up and Delicious

On an uninspiring stretch of Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County sits Café Ponte, a beacon of culinary civility.

Chef Christopher Ponte was the creative force behind the original burgers and unique condiments at Westchase’s beloved Burger 21. Diners can expect a different but equally well conceived experience at Café Ponte, open since 2002. The food and atmosphere are definitely more grown up, however. It’s a power lunch kind of place (for mid-Pinellas anyway) and an upscale locale for an elegant date night.

On a recent lunch visit, I sampled the Mediterranean Meat Loaf, which was a flavorful rendition with Kobe beef, Kalamata olives, parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, marsala sauce and mascarpone mashed potatoes. It was definitely comfort food, but artful and certainly not gluttonous. The Porchetta Dip, a savory sliced roasted bacon wrapped pork loin inside a ciabatta bun, was complemented with a parmesan-rosemary jus. The Chinese Chopped Chicken salad had a nice array of ingredients, like mango, avocado and jicama, but it was not very exciting on the palate.

At dinner Café Ponte’s mood is sophisticated, streamlined precision, like a delicious Swiss watch. The menu is broad, and focuses on fresh, trendy ingredients, all meticulously executed. My husband’s perennial favorite is the Espresso Rubbed Rib Eye with wild mushroom ragout and sherry shallot sauce – superb! At my last visit, I enjoyed the rich and flavorful Wild Mushroom Soup, followed by an expertly prepared Braised Chicken with creamy polenta and broccolini with smoked bacon au jus.

Café Ponte features a full bar with creative cocktails and a large selection of premium scotches. Its desserts also aim to please. The super-dense Flourless Chocolate Cake was a decadent exclamation point to our meal. It was complemented and counterbalanced by some divine salted caramel gelato on top.

The restaurant’s service has always been very professional and reserved. The portions are just the right size. Too big is uncivilized anyway.

Café Ponte is a central Tampa Bay location, yet it’s not close to any other entertainment hubs. It’s a little tricky to make it the appetizer to your evening out.

Better yet, make it the main course!

Café Ponte
13505 Icot Blvd. Suite 214
Clearwater, FL 33760
(727) 538-5768
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (lunch); Mon-Thu, 5:30-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5:30-10 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Crowing About Rooster and the Till

Raw Clams and Pork Tartar – crazy or genius?

While a pretty adventurous eater, even I was a little intimidated by some of the menu items when I walked into the compact Rooster and the Till in Seminole Heights. Since both the clams and tartar tasted out of this world (and my stomach was fine), I’ll put Chef Ferrell Alvarez in the genius camp.

The beauty of this place is the exquisitely crafted, delicious and unusual food combinations served in a casual setting. Part and parcel with the name, this restaurant celebrates farm to table freshness. Yet they don’t get fussy with listing every place from which their food is sourced.

Seminole Heights, with its cheap rents and alternative vibe, has become a mecca for Tampa’s creative culinary class.  Joining longstanding residents like Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe and The Refinery, Rooster and the Till recently put its roots down in a humble plaza next to a barber shop, where you can get a real fade. I’m an insurance company middle manager by trade, and Ann Taylor is my middle name, so forearm tattoos and ironic floral dresses don’t impress me. But if you are an unabashed foodie, this place is nirvana.

The raw seafood preparations – deemed Crudo on the menu – are simple in flavor if not in preparation and the fresh seafood stands out. Both nights we visited included oysters and clams, but also fish. To give you an idea of the furious paddling going on underneath the calm water, a recent night’s Crudo was seasoned with fresh coconut water, tamarind pulp, toasted coconut and macadamia nuts, kimchee sprouts and sweet soy drizzle and then garnished with scallions.

On the small plates, the aforementioned Pork Tartar was seasoned with miso mustard, cashew puree and crisp shallots. It slid down unsqueamishly well. Other small plate standouts were the Roast Cauliflower with walnut bread crumbs, pickled raisins and browned butter, which tasted like The Sound of Music. The Smoked Mushrooms with burnt onions and green tomatoes were musky and earthy.  If you are looking for many very small bites to share, the Charcuterie and Cheese Slates highlight delicious house-made patés, head cheeses and many California cheeses, such as a pungent Point Reyes Blue.

Moving on to the “Slightly Larger” plates (and I do mean slightly), the Rabbit Ballotine, with chicken liver and kale over polenta, was comfort food for a cold night. The House Pasta, served with broccoli leaves and tomatoes, was more perfectly al dente than anything I ever enjoyed in Rome.  The Fish, a snapper with caraway cabbage, pork shoulder and pickled radish, had pure, simple flavor that was complemented by the unlikely accoutrements.

With the overachieving perfection of the savory menu, I was a little let down by the desserts. They were layered and pudding-esque, so I’ll stick with the main menu going forward.

Rooster and the Till’s atmosphere is cozy; while eating at the bar my husband and I shared food stories with an Edison waiter.   Our seriously mustachioed bartender, Miles, was friendly and very knowledgeable about the food, craft beer and wine menu.  The owners make a big deal about the furnishings being made by local craftsmen using reclaimed materials, but I think the place gets its energy from the people, not the old wood.

Don’t, however, expect large or even mildly filling plates of food.  My skinny 14-year-old son inhaled the pork belly plate, then demanded another of the same thing as his entrée. If it were chicken tenders, I would have said no. But I get weak when my kids go out on a limb for trying new things. Yet this place can be screamingly frustrating for many people. If you like filling plates of food at reasonable prices and a quick turnaround time, don’t visit.  They also do not accept reservations and cannot seat parties larger than five.

But the beauty of Rooster and the Till is going against the grain.

Rooster and the Till
6500 C N. Florida Ave
Tampa, FL 33604
Tel: 374-8940
Hours: Mon-Thu, 5-10 p.m.; Fri- Sat,  5-11 p.m.;  Closed Sun; Limited Menu daily from 3:30-5 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Perversely Pleasurable Peruvian Cuisine

Last month we ditched the kids and went out for an evening to ourselves. 

For the last nine years, tucked into a corner of Carrollwood, has sat a jewel box of a restaurant called Terra Sur Café. It features sensuous food, an extensive wine list and flattering lighting. Whenever we visited, it seemed almost everyone in the restaurant was on a date, and we took some perverse pleasure in watching a few really awkward ones unfold.

Terra Sur showcases Peruvian cuisine, which derives its exotic influence from Spanish, Chinese, Italian, German and Japanese immigrants. The three staples of Peruvian cuisine are corn, potatoes and chili peppers – utilizing the diversity of land and sea.

We started the evening with tapas at the Cepas Wine and Tapas bar, one storefront over from the main restaurant and under the same ownership.  Our Latina servers were charming and attentive. Eating off the Happy Hour menu, offered every day from 4-7 p.m., we devoured the Piquillos Rellenos, peppers stuffed with rice, beef and feta cheese.  I also liked the marinated fresh anchovies (Boquerones en Vinagreta), which had a nice citrusy acidity as a palate cleanser. The portions are small, the prices reasonable, and a wide variety is offered, including Gulf Oysters, Seafood Paella and traditional Spanish Omelets. I would have been happy as an almeja to stay here all night.    

Alas, we moved on to the restaurant, which provides the same warm atmosphere and unique menu.  From the appetizers, we had the Papa Rellena, two potatoes stuffed with caramelized onions, ground beef, olives, raisins and hard-boiled egg.  This savory combination is the original, before Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine. The menu held seven (!) different types of Ceviche, a cold dish of raw fish or shellfish marinated in lime juice and including onions, cilantro and spices. While I didn’t have any this time around, I’m looking forward to this light, refreshing appetizer when the weather warms up a bit.

Every time I visit, I have to order Tacu Tacu with Lomo Saltado, a hearty stir fry dish with strips of sirloin, tomatoes, onions and french fries. It’s the love child of Chinese take-out and grilled steak.  I also tried the Pescado a la Chorrillana, a fried fillet of fish, topped with a piquant onion/tomato sauce.  They said it was snapper, and I say it was pretty good, but not a standout.

Terra Sur’s portions are large, so plan accordingly. Save room so you can sample the pretty desserts in the refrigerated case. We tried the Chocolate Cake, Strawberry Cheesecake and Tres Leches.  The standout of the three was the moist Tres Leches.

While the atmosphere is warm, if you’re wearing anything short of thermals, bring a sweater or coat. The temperature at both the restaurant and bar is chilly.  In keeping with its Latin heritage, this place really gets hopping later in the evening.  With a 7 p.m. reservation, (coincidentally starting when happy hour ended, no?) we were guided through dinner a little too firmly in order to free up the table for later patrons.

All together, Terra Sur Cafe is an enchanting place where you can have a family meal or an adventurous night out.  You can feel the owner’s love and pride in sharing this slice of South American heaven.

Terra Sur Café
5358 W. Village Dr. Tampa, FL 33624
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, noon-8 p.m.

By Jill Chesney


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Seafood at the Beach and in the Town

“Be a simple kind of man. Eat something you love and understand.”

With apologies to Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’d like to talk about the bounty of fresh seafood in the Tampa Bay Area. We have the luxury of low-, middle- and highbrow restaurants where we can enjoy it.

Growing up, my cheapo parents brought me to the fish huts on the Gandy Causeway, where you could get a giant plate of smoked mullet for next to nothing. This traditional and tasty Florida specialty lives on at family-owned Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish. Located on St. Petersburg Beach, it’s been an institution since 1951. Salmon, mahi-mahi and mullet are still smoked over red oak, the same way Native Americans have been doing for centuries.

Make sure you start out with a Smoked Fish Spread Appetizer, which is as traditionally Floridian as Key Lime Pie (which they also serve). For those who don’t want to tackle the strong flavor, Ted Peters also provides a juicy, one-third pound hamburger. A standout is the warm German Potato Salad, with bacon, onion and celery, available as a side or part of the fish dinner.

Beware if you order a luncheon platter. It is one ginormous piece of smoked fish, arriving with just a tomato, onion and pickle slice on the side. Unless you’re crazy about smoked fish, you might want to share with a friend and get something else as well.

Ted Peters is not a dress-to-impress or fancy microbrew place. They offer just Miller High Life on draft and their seats consist of old wooden picnic tables perched outside. Bring cash, as no credit cards are accepted. Ted Peters is nevertheless a great destination to experience Old Florida on weekend drive or after a day at the beach.

A few belt notches up on price point (but not many) is Salt Rock Tavern, located just around the corner in Oldsmar. Local chain Baystar Restaurant Group leverages their size by having their own local fishing boats provide fresh seafood.

We started with the Crab Stuffed Portabella, appropriately cheesy and creamy, but with only a hint of crab. The Truffle Parmesan Fries are a great starter or side; the truffle oil is implemented for flavor. Afterwards, you won’t feel like you’re in nutritional purgatory when eating the lovely Kale Salad, simply tossed with peanut vinaigrette. The house salad was fresh, but a pass.

Moving into entrees, Salt Rock’s grouper was the Just Caught Fish of the Day. It was well-seasoned and firm, nestled over creamy, smoked Gouda grits. My husband enjoyed the Mile High Meatloaf, with a savory red wine demi-glace and crispy onions on Texas toast. Rounding out the meal was an Oldsmar Blues Burger, with bacon and enough potent Maytag blue cheese to make your mouth water. Dessert brought the Mounds Jar, which contains Oreo crumbles, chocolate mousse, vanilla mousse, whipped cream and toasted coconut. It tastes completely like the real thing.

Salt Rock is a tavern, reflected in its smart but low-frills décor. Over 30 interesting beers are available on tap, plus some decent craft brews. While the wine offerings are fairly pedestrian, the cocktails are innovative. Plenty of televisions help make it a fun place to catch up with friends while enjoying the game.

Ted Peters Smoked Fish, Inc.
1350 Pasadena Ave. S.
St. Petersburg, FL 33707
Mon, Wed-Sun, 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. (closed Tuesdays)
(727) 381-7931

Salt Rock Tavern
3689 Tampa Rd.
Oldsmar, FL 34677
Mon-Thu, 4-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 4-11 p.m.; Sun, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Brunch); 4-9 p.m. (Dinner)
(813) 336-4977

By Jill Chesney


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Anise Global Gastrobar: Sophisticated Small Plates

When I was growing up in Tampa, few options existed for a cool night out in downtown.

My, how times have changed. Ashley Drive has a number of cosmopolitan small plate restaurants and bars. The most innovative, charming and tasty of these is Anise Global Gastrobar. Its street cred comes from its food-truck based menu, but its décor is pan-Asian sophistication. Walking into the place with its black on black chandeliers, I felt like Bond girl Wai Lin. Even though it has only been open for a short time, it was just awarded a Best New Restaurant Golden Spoon from the Florida Trend Magazine.

I’ve had the delight of working my way through most of the menu in three visits over the last two weeks. Most of the food is Asian-inspired and adventurous but accessible. Standouts include Stinky Bunz, a light pancake filled with beer-battered shrimp, braised pork belly, red curried crispy chicken, fried zucchini or Chinese BBQ pork, lightened by fresh slaw and herb condiments. Although I was a bit put off by the name, they smell great and are perfect for sharing. Another option, the Roast Pork Stack, consists of succulent meat presented over a soft jalapeño and mozzarella arepa. Meanwhile the figurative cherry on top of my Roasted Vegetable Panini was the Sriracha candied bacon: sweet, spicy and yum!

Even though I love me some pig, plenty of other options exist, including a vegan [vulgarity] Chae dish. The Duck Confit Tacos and Grilled Shrimp Tacos are also succulent and have a great counter-balance of crunchy papaya slaw and pickled daikon radish. I suggest a mix and match. It’s even fun to share the treats with friends over cocktails. To that end, the restaurant has a full bar that extends almost the restaurant’s entire length and it features a medium-sized wine and beer collection. As with their creative food, they have craft cocktails that change weekly.

A dessert highlight was the deliciously moist Banana Cake with cream cheese frosting. The bunz also show up in the dessert menu, this time deep-fried and stuffed with either strawberries and Nutella or bananas and a cookie spread. While tasty, the dessert bunz could use more filling to balance out the pancake.

Grab your honey to take to Anise before or after going to an event at the Straz Center, a classic or indie movie at the spectacular Tampa Theatre, or first-rate live theatre at the Stageworks jewel. But if it’s a busy night in downtown, make sure you give yourself plenty of time. This kitchen is not Olive Garden supersized and can be slow.  It is, however, open late – until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and 1 a.m. the rest of the week. So, if you’re looking for an exotic visual and culinary experience, get dressed and head downtown.

Anise Global Gastrobar
777 N. Ashley Dr.
Tampa, FL
(813) 225-4272
Hours: Sun-Thu: 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fri and Sat: 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

By Jill Chesney


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A New England Holiday Without All the Kennedys

I have never been to Nantucket.

I imagine everyone in Nantucket wears seersucker suits or polo shirts. I bet all the women have coordinating sweaters and shoes for their multiple pink and green plaid outfits. I do wonder if they still carry cute Bermuda bags and have multiple covers they can interchange to suit their mood for the day. I’ll probably never know because we’re more the Honeymoon Island set. Thanks to a relatively new restaurant in Safety Harbor, however, I can pretend I’m on a New England holiday (especially if you go now when my neighbor says the temperatures are similar to the hottest part of New England’s summer).

Located just off Main Street in Safety Harbor, Nantucket Bucket specializes in seafood boils, lobster rolls, and other seafood soups, sandwiches and plates. Their Web site claims they offer seafood items similar to New England but with a “Yankee Cracker Cuisine.” Having recently visited Cracker Country with a group of second graders, I’m still not exactly sure what Cracker Cuisine is, let alone what it would be if you throw Yankees into the mix, but I do now know that Ponce de Leon brought cows to Florida.

I might not be an expert on New England or Cracker cuisine but I do know that the lobster salad sliders, lobster roll and the lobster-based corn bisque that I had at Nantucket Bucket were scrumptious. The bisque was rich and creamy – perfect for a chilly Florida day when we weren’t sure if the temperature would reach 80. The lobster roll was good, replete with chunks of lobster, but I prefer the lobster salad sliders with their tangy seasoning. The hearty Portuguese fish stew – loaded with all kinds of seafood in a tomato base – was another favorite at our table. The peel ’n eat shrimp and fried clam strip sandwich were plentiful and perfectly seasoned.

As their name suggests, Nantucket Bucket has a variety of bucket entrees. If you’ve never had a seafood bucket before, be ready to work for your food. But don’t worry, it’s worth it. Typically buckets include vegetables and seafood that are boiled in a pot with seasonings. At Nantucket Bucket you have your choice of lobster, middleneck clams, mussels, opilio snow crab, smoked sausage, shrimp, Ipswich clams, green lipped mussels, dungeness crab or seasoned crawfish. In addition to your seafood (or sausage), you’ll get red potatoes, corn on the cob, celery, carrots, onion and chunks of garlic with a seasoned clam broth.

Nantucket Bucket has a huge patio in the back of the restaurant, making it a great place to go with a large group. The smaller patio in front and semi-private dining areas inside make it a great option for smaller parties as well. The décor throughout the restaurant is a clever combination of Florida beach and New England coastal, with weathered plaques extolling the virtue of beach life, plenty of shells outside for the kids to sort through and a crab trap into which they can stick their hands.

All in all it was a lovely substitute for a New England holiday.

Nantucket Bucket
519 2nd Street South
Safety Harbor, FL
(727) 724-2933
Hours: Tue-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford


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Funky, Eclectic and Hip

In an area of funky, hip restaurants and eclectic shops, Dunedin’s Casa Tina’s manages to out-funk them all – in a good way.

We have had many great meals at Casa Tina’s. The food is fresh and inventive. The margaritas and sangrias are tasty and refreshing. And the décor is colorfully over-the-top with every inch of wall space covered in crosses, mermaids, and skeletons with a few tributes to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo dispersed throughout.

We went to Casa Tina’s one Saturday night for dinner expecting a regular evening out. As we were contemplating our menus, the lights dimmed and suddenly two young ladies from a local circus arts class began entertaining the crowd with Cirque de Soleil-style acrobatic tricks much to our daughter’s delight. As they circled the tables overhead, we enjoyed our shrimp and mango quesadilla, perfectly seasoned with ginger and cilantro, and the Chalupas de Cangrejo – crispy corn tortillas layered with black beans, spinach, crab meat and cheese with a roasted chipotle sauce.

We’d been to Casa Tina’s so many times that we thought we were experts. So we headed to Dunedin one Sunday to have some lunch and see about purchasing some fresh fish from the market at the Dunedin marina. I knew I had lots of great experiences at Casa Tina’s to draw on and all I really needed was a good picture of food to accompany my article.

We didn’t realize we’d never been to Casa Tina’s on a Sunday or we would have known that they have a special brunch menu. Not being much of a brunch person, I was relieved that they had lobster tacos on the menu. Unfortunately when my plate arrived, it had some very unappetizing looking food on it. The lobster tacos looked good but the accompanying casa potatoes and papaya mojo looked – in the words of my 7-year old mini-critic (and even my open-minded husband): “Really gross.” So I ate the delicious tacos filled with big chunks of rich lobster, spinach, and jalapeno jack cheese with a slightly spicy creamy vodka chipotle sauce drizzled on top and I avoided the sides.

Yet, as my daughter sat next to me and talked about all the things she did not like food wise, I thought maybe I was not being the best role model. So I tried the very ugly looking potatoes (which were really just diced potatoes sautéed with spinach and lots of onions – not the best color combination) and the slightly scary looking papaya mojo (chunks of papaya with Mexican seasonings and herbs). And, you know what? They were pretty good. The portions were still overwhelming, but the potatoes were decent and the papaya mojo was interesting and different, definitely not like anything I’ve ever eaten before.

That night we grilled the fresh Wahoo we had purchased at the marina store. I told my daughter that instead of grilling something different just to please her red-meat loving appetite, she could eat the fish or just eat the side dishes I had made. While she was a little dubious at first (she doesn’t think fish looks or smells good), she was won over by the accompanying sauce and gave it a timid try.

I’m happy to report that her previous motto of the only good fish is a fried one has now been changed to the only good fish is a fried one or Wahoo with a ginger, soy, cilantro sauce.

Score one for mom – and for being a good food role model.

Casa Tina’s
365 Main St.
Dunedin, FL
(727) 734-9226
Hours: Sun-Thu: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri and Sat: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford


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Changes in the Westchase Dining Scene

When you look at something every day, you may not notice when it undergoes changes.

You don’t really notice your child has grown until the weather gets cool enough to put on a long sleeve shirt. You don’t realize you’ve gained weight until you try to put on last year’s jeans. You don’t notice your sidewalk is dirty until you get a citation from the association.

You look around your neighborhood and everything seems the same. But changes have been happening on the Westchase restaurant scene – some noticeable, some subtle, but all worth looking into. You might even try them out again if you haven’t been there in a while.

Stone Chase has a new owner, Frank Mast. He has added many of his Italian family’s favorite recipes to the Stone Chase menu. The new menu became available mid-September and includes new appetizers, entrees, and desserts, including fra diavolo, lobster linguine, rigatoni al telefono, gelato, and zeppole. Stone Chase is also serving Neapolitan style pizza in addition to their popular flat breads. Mast has made changes to the interior of Stone Chase with new lighting, new colors, and a brighter interior. Stone Chase now has a lunch menu featuring smaller portions of many dinner entrees and a selection of paninis and calzones.

Around the corner from Westchase on Sheldon Road, General Manager Danny Rowan of Grille 54 said the restaurant revamps its menu several times a year. “Every six months we look to see what items are popular and which ones are not. We take the 10 least popular items off the menu and replace them with 10 new items – usually the specials that have been the most popular with our guests.”

Some of Grille 54’s new menu items include a pepperoni bread appetizer, lobster tacos, homemade gnocchi, a sea bass piccata tower, and pesto-encrusted grouper. Grille 54 will also be adding new sushi specials and 50 new bottles of wine to their list.

Just outside of Westchase at the corner of Race Track Road and Countryway Boulevard, San’s Pizza’s name has been changed to Westchase Pizza and Pasta Company. It also features several new menu items. Owner Ivan De La Guardia says that 90 percent of their delivery business comes from Westchase. “We changed the name because we wanted to reflect our area and begin building our brand,” said De La Guardia. “When we purchased San’s in 2008, we wanted to create a brand that we could franchise but the time was not right. We feel like now it is.”

The newly named restaurant has 14 new strombolis on its menu and it’s giving customers a choice of individual or family-sized portions for the pasta dishes. Over the next six months they will also be making some changes to the restaurant’s interior.

Several other restaurants also changed owners and names over the summer. In West Park Village, the Village Market has spruced up its interior and changed its name to Village Bagel and Subs. And just outside of Westchase on Race Track Road, Courtside Grill has become The Grill at Westchase.

Will it all work?

As Winston Churchill once muttered over his cigar, “There is nothing wrong in change, if it is in the right direction. To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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Ten Reasons to Love Westchase Dining

The other night my neighbors told me a Westchase horror story. Thirteen creepy years ago, they observed, “There weren’t any restaurants in this area.”

I trembled in instant hunger at the dreary restaurant wasteland Westchase had once been. That night I had a nightmare that all my favorite neighborhood eateries were closed. So the next time you go out to dine, consider keeping it local. To help out, here is my list of the top 10 reasons I love Westchase restaurants.

Burgers Whether you want a veggie burger or the real deal, you can find great ones in West Park Village. As its name would imply, Burger 21 has some of the best burgers in town. Two that really stand out are the Tex-Mex Haystack, piled high with applewood-smoked bacon, Gouda, guacamole, onion strings, and chipotle-jalapeno sauce, or the Philly Cheese with grilled peppers and onions, provolone, white American cheese and Dijon chive mayo. The combination of yogurt sauce, cucumbers, and roasted red peppers on Burger 21’s Greek burger is messy but awesomely divine. Although not an Irish staple, Maloney’s veggie burger, topped with fresh avocado and spicy pepper jack cheese, is another favorite.

Pizza I love the fact that Pizza Fusion has a great selection of toppings to choose from and delivers tasty, fresh pizzas right to our door. Pizza Fusion also has some great specialty pizzas like the four cheese and sun-dried tomato or the sausage and tricolor peppers.

Tacos Both the bangin’ and tiger shrimp tacos at Surf Shack are delicious – a great combination of slightly spicy aiolis, fried shrimp and crispy veggies wrapped in a tortilla. As an extra bonus Surf Shack has the great honor of being the only place I’ve ever truly enjoyed cole slaw. 

Fries Burger 21 has the best shoestring fries I’ve ever had. The sweet potato fries dipped in the ragin’ cajun aioli are a wonderful treat. You can even pretend they’re healthy for you. Greek City Café has feta fries that you have to taste to believe. I’m usually skeptical of feta because it can overpower a dish, but the chefs at Greek City Café have the right touch and the feta fries have a uniquely addictive taste that isn’t overpowering at all.

Bread Stone Chase’s menu has a little something for all different appetites but I would go there just for their warm, crispy French bread with the herb olive oil. 

Specials Great restaurant deals can be found throughout the week in Westchase. Sunday: feed your kids for free at Surf Shack; Monday: grab an inexpensive burger at Catch 21; Tuesday: indulge in a $5 flatbread at Stone Chase; Wednesday: leave the kids at home and choose from one of the many “Wine down Wednesday” specials around town; and Thursday: bring the kids out again and feed them for free at Greek City Café. On Friday and Saturday eat the leftovers from all the restaurants you visited during the week.

Variety Just in West Park Village, you have a culinary United Nations with representatives from Ireland, Thailand, China, Japan, Mexico and Greece.

Patios There is nothing I like better than hanging out on a patio. Sure it’s not quite as relaxing as it used to be in my pre-child days, but it’s still lots of fun. We have some great patios in Westchase. Catch 23 and Tijuana Flats even make the summer heat bearable with misters and fans.

Community One of the things I like best about living in Westchase is seeing people I know when I’m out and about. While running into people at Publix makes me forget why I went there in the first place, I absolutely love seeing acquaintences when we’re eating out.

Walking When we lived in Memphis, we lived inside the city and yet we had to get in our car to go anywhere. Here we live in the suburbs but can walk to restaurants. I love being able to do it. When you know you’re going to have to walk home, it makes ordering a Burger 21 milkshake seem less decadent.

During this hot month of August, when it is too miserable to add extra heat to your home by turning on the stove, why not go out to eat and create your own top 10 Westchase list? Maybe it will be similar; perhaps it will be notably different.

Only your taste buds can decide.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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A Vacation Close to Home

I was introduced to sushi during my college days.

Way back then sushi seemed like a very adventurous food and the restaurants we visited had a certain dive-bar mystique. Now, you can find sushi at gas stations and grocery stores. While the mystery around is definitely gone, the sushi, appetizers, and meals at Zen Bistro in West Park Village are creative, fresh, and delicious. With Zen so close, it would be a shame if you made a habit of grocery store sushi.
All the appetizers we’ve tried at Zen have been divine – from the curried crab dumplings stuffed with crab, cream cheese, minced raisins and cilantro to the BBQ Short Rib plate with sweet Korean barbeque sauce. I’m addicted to both the Asian guacamole and the sesame vinaigrette on the house salad.

I haven’t had a bad piece of sushi at Zen yet. As a bonus, the dishes’ names make you feel like you’re out there doing good in the world – Lobster Lotus, Art of Meditation, Good Karma, Infinity Within. They may sound like yoga poses, but these are some decadent pieces of sushi.

The Lobster Lotus is rich, delicious and filling with chunks of lobster tempura. Infinity Within is a light, refreshing roll wrapped in cucumber instead of rice; it even comes with its own scrumptious sauce. The Art of Meditation is topped with marinated tuna, fresh mint, basil and cilantro. The first bite was an incredible combination of flavors. Unfortunately, the herbs added were so minimal that I managed to eat them all in that first bite, so other bites, while good, did not live up to the first one.

One of the go-to vegetables my daughter will eat at restaurants is edamame. The best part is we usually order it as an appetizer. If she eats a diet of strictly fried food for the rest of the meal, I’m OK with it because at least she ate something green at the beginning. Kids’ meals at Zen, however, include fried rice with plenty of yummy vegetables like carrots, peas and –to my daughter’s delight – raisins and cashews. The kids’ wok-fried chicken has plenty of carrots and asparagus. The kids’ meals are delicious, they seem nutritious and they’re enough for several kids to split – definitely a win-win for us.

Zen also has plenty of fried rice, noodle, cooked seafood and stir-fry entrees for the non-sushi eating adults in your group.

I love the idea of sitting on the patio at Zen. The hip, ultra-cool, stainless steel seats, however, are not very comfortable. We therefore usually opt for the cooler than cool inside, where the see-through floor, bar lights and bamboo walls are great entertainment for young or, in my case, easily-entertained minds.
Only a few things keep us from going to Zen Bistro weekly. First, it seems a little pricey for sushi (I still have those semi-dive sushi bar prices from college dancing in my head). Second, their water is not filtered. (How can you not filter your water in Florida?)

Yet we’ve discovered a secret if you are a sushi loving, cost-conscious gourmand. Go to Zen before 6:30 p.m. They have some excellent happy hour deals on drinks and food. Our favorite is the half-priced appetizers on Friday and Saturday. Look for me there this summer. I’ll be the one sipping my two-for-one house wine, waiting for my enlightening sushi while mesmerized by the trance music and pretty lights.

Zen Bistro Grill + Sushi
9620 W. Linebaugh Ave.
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thu, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun, 4:30-10 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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A Vacation Close to Home

Before I’d heard the word staycation, we were combing Tampa Bay’s small towns in search of cute, quaint downtowns and fun festivals.

Dunedin, New Port Richey, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor: we’ve visited them all. While its downtown can be explored in one visit and the Citrus Festival that we attended there was unimpressive, Palm Harbor does have a restaurant that we find ourselves returning to: Thirsty Marlin Grill & Bar.

Thirsty Marlin’s inside transports me back to the time when I was a child and we would come to Florida for vacation. The walls are covered with large stuffed fish (marlins, I’m guessing), vintage signs and photos of smiling people either holding up the large fish they’ve caught or posing with alligators. The place is perfect for games of I Spy or making up stories about the surrounding memorabilia. The wooden floors are smooth and polished and the sprawling restaurant is divided up into several dining rooms, bars and patios. The tree overlooking the front patio even has an eye watching over diners.

Thirsty Marlin has a mammoth menu that takes a few minutes to process, plus a sushi menu to consider. Plenty of delectable options exist. If you make the trip to Thirsty Marlin, however, would be remiss if you didn’t try one of their lobster dishes – the lobster wrap (delicious chunks of lobster salad in a garlic herb wrap), the lobster quesadillas or lobster bisque (both decadently rich). They also serve grouper, conch, and mahi mahi prepared several different ways.

Next to the bar in the middle of the restaurant is the sushi bar, where you can peruse the fish that will be used to make your sushi or even watch it being made. The sushi we’ve had at Thirsty Marlin was fresh and expertly prepared. The edamame we ordered, however, (it was our daughter’s green vegetable for the night) was cold and a little mushy. Fortunately, she was so hungry that she wolfed it down anyway without complaints. Good thing we withheld snacks that afternoon.

If you’re not a seafood lover, Thirsty Marlin offers plenty of burgers and sandwiches (even a vegetarian option) on the menu. The buffalo chicken sandwich is the perfect combination of crispy fried chicken, cheese and crisp greens.

Our last visit happened to be on a trivia night and both the manager and the DJ hosting the event came by to try to sign us up and assure us that it would be family friendly. Alas, it was a school night so we couldn’t stay. On the drive home, however, we discussed how cool it would be if one of the restaurants in “family-friendly” Westchase would host family trivia nights or other similar events. That would certainly make us feel like we were on vacation – without having to venture too far from home.

Thirsty Marlin
1023 Florida Ave.
Palm Harbor, FL
(727) 784-2469
Hours: Mon-Thu: 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun: 11:30 a.m.-midnight

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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Dining in The Living Room

I love weekends. Saturday morning walks are the perfect time to contemplate philosophical, dining-inspired dilemmas.

Would downtown Dunedin be as cool if it was located in West Park Village? Would any of their hip restaurants make it in Westchase? How many texts did it take to plan a night out with three couples? Which dish was my favorite from all the ones I tried last night at The Living Room?

The Living Room, located in perpetually cool downtown Dunedin, has a fun, dog-friendly patio in front of the restaurant and a spacious, swanky bar and lounge – complete with comfortable couches and chairs – inside. The expansive dining area has plenty of room between tables but feels very cozy thanks to the wall hangings, curtains and decorations, which soften the large space and provide privacy between tables.

Our friendly and helpful waiter made a great first impression by bringing us a plate of crispy French bread with roasted garlic, balsamic vinegar and olive oil dipping sauce. He informed us that each plate was enough to share with the table and would arrive as soon as it was ready rather than waiting for all plates to be prepared.

The hefty menu was a lot to take in, but after some discussion, everyone chose a few tempting dishes and then waited for the copious amounts of food to arrive. And arrive it did. As soon as we passed around one plate and tried a bite, the empty dish was whisked away and replaced with another.

It would take many visits to The Living Room to taste everything on their menu, but we gave it a good shot. We successfully sampled something from each section. We started with a deliciously fresh salad of buffalo Mozzarella, grape tomatoes, artichokes and cucumbers in a lemon-basil vinaigrette and crispy nachos layered with blackened chicken, applewood smoked bacon, roasted corn and a gorgonzola fondue. The Living Room also featured several flatbreads on their menu. 

The other dishes were a delight. The Sesame Shrimp Tempura and the Garlic-Dusted Calamari Fritti were fried but not greasy and both came with savory dipping sauces. The New Orleans jambalaya skewers were definitely a favorite at the table with their perfectly grilled and seasoned pieces of Andouille sausage, shrimp, and chicken.  The mango and brie quesadilla was a nice and interesting combination of two things I love. While the seared tuna could have used more flavor, the flavors of the wild mushroom we ordered presented a perfect combination of earthy mushrooms, salty sundried tomatoes, and a tangy basil pesto.  My only complaint about the grilled grape leaf wrapped goat cheese was that there wasn’t enough to share. But with so many great plates, we definitely had our fill. Several days later, I’m still hard pressed to choose a favorite. 

All in all, it was a great night of food, drink and conversation in a Living Room that none of us had to clean up – making it that much sweeter. And it was all accomplished with a mere 39 texts to each other plus four more to the sitter.

The Living Room
487 Main Street
Dunedin, FL
(727) 736-5202

By Marcy Sanford; Photos by Carrie Garmendia

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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A Green Market Daydream

In my family, we are food daydreamers.

We watch cooking shows and discuss the meals we’ll make. We hear about new restaurants and plan a visit. We go to farmers’ markets or gourmet grocery stores and get sidetracked by exotic ingredients. We walk by empty restaurants in West Park Village and have lengthy discussions about what should go there.

Our current daydream features Oldsmar’s Green Market Café.

The Green Market Café has a huge selection of wraps and grilled flatbread sandwiches, soups, salads and rice bowls. There are so many selections that you would have to eat there many times before you’d tried everything on the menu. During our visit one of us enjoyed a delicious flatbread with roasted turkey and warm, melting, herb-crusted Brie cheese, topped with crunchy, mixed greens, tangy cranberry raisins and balsamic dressing. Another devoured a messy but yummy veggie flatbread, which came with garlicky hummus, feta cheese and crisp red peppers and cucumbers. A third enjoyed the chipotle Cuban, which had just the right amount of heat to give it a pleasantly spicy kick.  

The café’s homemade butternut squash and the spinach and feta soups were creamy and flavorful. Fortunately, the feta was not overpowering. It was blended perfectly with the soup’s other flavors. The hearty chicken and wild rice soup was full of chunks of chicken, vegetables, rice and savory herbs. During our February visit, the soup was perfect for the cold, windy days we were experiencing. Now, with warm days ahead, I’m hoping they will adjust their soups accordingly.

At Green Market Café, you receive a free cup of yogurt with your meal. They have the usual flavors and one I’d never heard of before − taro.  The young lady behind the counter said it was a type of fruit that was tangy and sweet and that people drove from all over the area to get taro yogurt. It’s definitely an acquired taste. As she suggested, it’s simultaneously tangy and sweet and unlike any yogurt I’ve ever tried. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked taro, but the more I ate, the better I liked it - certainly enough to finish off my bowl. While I don’t think I would drive across the city just to get taro yogurt, there are very few things I would drive across the city to get. Further, a fruit it was not. An Internet search confirmed that taro is from a tropical plant whose root is used in cooking. As one site put it, taro is “the potato of the humid tropics.” 

Unfortunately, we have not had time to try Green Market Café’s many salads or rice bowls. From the menu descriptions, the café offers a multitude of unique and tasty sounding combinations. Judging from the tables nearby, they are large enough to feed several people.

Green Market Café also serves breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, including crepe bowls. Yet my dislike of early mornings is equal to my dislike of driving, so I may never make it there for breakfast.

Unless, of course, they rent that perfect, vacant spot with the nice patio in West Park Village. In that case, I could just roll out of bed and walk there one Saturday morning. And I could walk there this summer for lunch with my daughter and treat her to free yogurt. And I could try all the different salads, sandwiches and rice bowls while watching the traffic drive by on Montague.

A girl can always dream.

Green Market Cafe
3150 Tampa Rd., Unit 1A
Oldsmar, Florida
Hours: Sun-Thu, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
(727) 787-5494

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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Going Tapas

Years ago my aunt shocked me when she told me we were going to an Atlanta tapas bar.

I thought she said topless.

Apparently even Southerners can get tripped up by Southern accents. Fortunately, I went without a scuffle and was introduced to tapas – small or appetizer-sized dishes meant to be shared with your dining companions. This Spanish concept seemed to me like the best idea in the world because I love eating the food off other people’s plates. To this day my favorite meals are spent with people who enjoy sharing their food.

Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant (whose Web site, in an odd and fateful twist, features a painting of a topless woman) claims to have over 100 Spanish tapas. That’s a lot of menu items and we’ve only been able to get to about 10 percent of them. But the ones we’ve tried have been delicious and definitely worth sharing.

With so many options the menu can be overwhelming. At times it seems like the only difference from one dish to the next is one ingredient. But order a pitcher of the tasty sangria, sit back, start reading the menu, and get ready to enjoy and share some delectable Spanish food.

We try to make ourselves pick at least one new thing each time we go, but we definitely have our favorites. If you want a quick-pick meal from the menu, I’d suggest the bonito a la parilla − fresh, melt-in-your-mouth, sushi-grade tuna grilled rare; patatas bravas − crispy fried potatoes in a spicy aioli sauce; and espinacas − a delightful combination of sautéed spinach, figs, honey and garlic. Ceviche serves warm, crusty French bread with a flavorful olive oil and herb dipping sauce.  The three dishes plus the bread are easily enough food for two.

If you have a larger appetite or more people with you, I’d also suggest trying one of their ceviches. We especially enjoyed the ceviche de gambas – fresh shrimp marinated in lime juice and garlic with cilantro, jalapeno and onions. Ceviche also has several earthy, rich mushroom dishes like the champinones del monte (four types of grilled and marinated mushrooms) and the portobello relleno (a portobello mushroom stuffed with spinach, shallots and Manchego cheese). Just be sure you aren’t the only person at the table who likes mushrooms because you get lots of them.

If you have room for dessert, Ceviche has homemade, traditional Spanish desserts like flan and tres leches. We devoured the trilogia de chocolate – three types of creamy, fluffy chocolate mousse with a chocolate rum sauce. It may not be Spanish, but it certainly was enjoyable.

When you go to Ceviche, take your time ordering. We knew we wanted to order our favorites and so put our order in right after our drinks came. Suddenly, our table was overflowing with food. There was little time for conversation or even contemplating what else we wanted.

We’ve also learned not to let them put us at a small table, even if there are only two of us. They’ve crammed as many tables as possible into the main dining room. If you are at a small table, not only do you get bumped into quite often, but there also isn’t enough room for the plates of food, a pitcher of sangria, a basket of bread and a dish of olive oil. So get a table big enough to hold all the tapas you can handle and then buen appetito!

2500 West Azeele St.
Phone (813) 250-0203
Open Mon-Sun; hours vary

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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A Grille’s Night Out

When we moved here, I moved away from 15 years’ worth of friendships.

I was a bit dazed and confused my first year here. I missed having real conversations in person with treasured friends and acquaintances. Fast forward six years. While I may still be dazed and confused, I am pleased to report that I once again have friends living in the same city as I – friends from my daughter’s preschool, the YMCA, our neighborhood and Westchase Elementary School.

I am truly thankful for each one of them. So when one (or two) of them calls, texts or e-mails about a night out, it is my obligation and duty to maintain these new friendships. And so it becomes my obligation and duty to encourage my husband to remember the depressed and dazed woman I was during my first year here – and doggedly persist with it until he smiles and says, “Have fun.”

So in honor of BFFs everywhere, whether you’ve known them for one month or decades, this month’s column is dedicated to Girls’ Night Out.

Whether you bike to World of Beer, hang out on the patio at Catch 23, or meet up at Stonechase (where the house wine always seems to be two for one), Girls’ Nights Out are essential. They make you a happier person. They give you the opportunity to complain in a loving way about your family to fellow complainers who won’t take it the wrong way. And they recharge you in general. Recently a Girls’ Night Out on a Wednesday happened to coincide with Ladies’ Night at Grille 54. When serendipity strikes the cosmos like that, one must take advantage.

On their Ladies’ Night Grille 54 offers select wines, mojitos and martinis for $5. They also have a DJ spinning tunes and conducting a lively raffle in the bar area. If you want to have a conversation, it’s therefore best to opt for the dining area. During Ladies’ Night Grille 54 gives out raffle tickets to all the ladies, plus offers extra ones for drinks ordered and heel size. Our waitress, however, said we were nice and hooked us up with extra tickets despite our Toms and flip-flops.

Yay, Florida!

But on to the food.

The lobster Rangoon appetizer we started off with came with a wonderful sweet and spicy dipping sauce, but needed more lobster and cheese filling and less wonton. The sushi we ordered, however, was fresh and delicious. The volcano roll had a nice kick, thanks to the spicy, creamy dynamite sauce. It also had a rich flavor, thanks to the cream cheese inside the roll and the avocado and eel sauce on top of it. The flavor and texture of the Mexican roll –with its combination of shrimp tempura, avocado and rice – made it one of my favorites.

While you might not think of pairing sushi with mojitos and martinis, oddly enough, it worked.

As a bonus to the evening, a friend won movie theater passes during the raffle. Being the good friend she is, she tried to share them with us. We declined, but maybe she’ll use them to take us on a Girls’ Night Out to the movies.

I wonder if they are good for the CineBistro?

That seems like another place worthy of a good Girls’ Night Out.

Preferably soon.

Grille 54
11935 Sheldon Road
Hours: Daily, 4 p.m.-3 a.m.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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A Treat for Your Taste Buds

I like going out eat for many reasons

I like to try new dishes. I like not having to leave my seat while someone brings me those new dishes. I particularly like having someone else clean up after those dishes once tried.
But mainly I like to go out to eat food that I would not normally cook myself. 

Thai food is top on the list of foods that I enjoy but don’t really want to cook at home. When I’ve attempted it, it required a whole lot of effort for something that turned out so-so. Then I’m left with a plethora of ingredients in my pantry that I probably won’t use again (Anybody need a jar of kefir leaves?) So it’s a relief to have a Thai restaurant so close to home and not have to worry about concocting my own curries.

When we’ve visited Siam Thai, we’ve had delicious appetizers, flavorful main dishes and mouthwatering soups. Located in West Park Village, Siam Thai offers standard Thai restaurant dishes such as curries, pad Thai, stir fries and soups – as well as a few unique, unusual dishes like tropical grouper.

Siam Thai’s egg rolls, fresh spring rolls, fried tofu or chicken satay are a great way to start your meal. Their fried foods are crisp but not too greasy. The fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper offer a cool, refreshing start to your meal. The sweet plum and peanut sauces served with the appetizers are a delightful combination of flavors and perfect for dipping. We love the peanut sauce so much that we usually end up asking for extra.

The restaurant’s Tom Yum soup is one of my favorite soups ever. It is spicy and has many different flavors like lemongrass and limejuice, cilantro and ginger that tingle your taste buds. Unfortunately, the first time I had the Tom Yum soup at Siam Thai it was so hot that my taste buds could barely taste any of the flavors. On later visits, the kitchen had toned down the heat and we’ve learned to ask for mild to low heat. Heed my warning and do not ask for hot and spicy unless you (like my neighbor who pops jalapeños into his mouth and eats them straight) know you can handle it.

Our two favorite dishes at Siam Thai include Drunken Noodles, which are savory stir-fried noodles with vegetables and herbs, and Panang Curry, a curry so good that it “even makes broccoli taste good.” You can have chicken, pork, beef, vegetable, tofu or seafood with any of the dishes, ensuring that everyone at the table can customize the dish to their liking.

Sometimes the waiters at Siam Thai are a little slow to get started, but once they do, they are always friendly and helpful. The restaurant is very pretty on the inside and offers lots of stuff to look at, perfect for a rousing game of I Spy. You can also opt to dine at curtained, semi-private tables.

Siam Thai is a great addition to our array of neighborhood restaurants. If you haven’t eaten there yet, be sure to give it a try. Your taste buds will be in for a treat – just be sure to protect them from the heat.

Siam Thai Restaurant
9546 W. Linebaugh Avenue
Hours: Sun-Thu: 11:30 a.m. -10 p.m.; Fri-Sat: 11:30 a.m. -10:30 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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Laid Back Foodie Fun at The Refinery

Creativity, local farm ingredients and unpretentious dining are king in our household.

Experiencing it only takes a 20 minute drive away from the restaurant chain vise grip that strangles many Westchase residents. The Refinery’s mantra is that good food, prepared by professionals who are passionate about their craft, should be available to everyone.

The Refinery sources as much as they can from local farmers, who are listed on the chalk board when you enter. In order to showcase what’s fresh and available, the menu is changed weekly.

Its food is so tasty, my kids were bummed that my husband and I recently went there with another couple instead of them. I almost shed a tear of joy the time my 12-year-old daughter, who not so long ago only consumed a white-on-white palette of bread, pasta and milk, ordered the lamb belly as her entree. I practically had to stop her from licking the plate.

The Refinery’s bar offers quite a few craft and classic brews, and the small vineyard wines are a true bang for the buck, all listed at $20 or less per bottle. During our most recent visit, we started with three small plates ranging from $8 to $10. The Foie Gras Buttercream Éclair was the most eccentric of the bunch, with a traditional dessert-style pastry, covered with a spicy ganache stripe down the top. The delicate flavor of the lightly fried Fritelle di Zucchine was enhanced by a sweet-tart relish with mojo aioli. The Pork Pie proved a savory-sweet tart with bits of smoked meat. It arrived with a nicely contrasting bitter endive and radicchio salad on the side.

The Refinery’s main courses are generally priced between $11 and $20. We chose the Potato-Zucchini Gratin, Pan Roasted Mahi Mahi and Stuffed Yellow Zucchini. The Mahi Mahi had a nice golden sear, and an inventive broth-type sauce that included salsa verde, cantaloupe and cilantro. It was a light and tropical entrée fit for summer. The Potato Zucchini Gratin was vegetarian and gluten-free (both are marked on the menu), and contained a pea puree with endive and sweetish vanilla saffron vinaigrette. The Stuffed Yellow Zucchini boats (it definitely must be zucchini season!) contained a hearty mix of black-eyed peas, kale, cheddar, bulgur and butternut squash-mascarpone puree.

While the variety of flavors can sound exhausting, salty and sweet or sweet and spicy represent some of the kitchen’s main themes. The Refinery’s offerings also aren’t items you have to overthink to enjoy. Different incarnations of the Hangar Steak and Burger appear every week and are consistently satisfying for red meat lovers.

We finished up with the Milk Chocolate Mousse and Apple Pave. The mousse was tarted up with some tarragon, orange and devil’s food cake. The apple pave was an unusually smooth tart that contained a few bits of red hot pecan brittle on the side.

The only drawbacks to The Refinery are that the restaurant is small, which can make getting a reservation challenging, and the inside room can get loud. The upstairs covered patio alleviates those issues a bit, although smokers there might irritate the tobacco-free crowd.

Regardless, the whole restaurant carries a wonderful non-conformist vibe and truly places the focus on the food. Compared to many restaurants that aim to fill your belly with cheap, thoughtless food, The Refinery will prove a welcome change. 

The Refinery
5137 N. Florida Ave.
Tampa 33603
(813) 237-2000
Hours: Bar: Mon-Thu, 5 p.m.-midnight; Fri – Sat p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun 11 a.m. -10 p.m.; Dinner: Sun-Thu, 5-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5-11 p.m.; Brunch: Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Jill Chesney

Jill Chesney, our guest Dishing It Out columnist, is a resident of The Bridges.


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Up South Flavor in Down South Cookin’

We moved to Tampa from Memphis, Tennessee, almost five years ago.

It seems just like yesterday that I got off a plane in January and remarked, “Wow, it’s really hot here.”

We’ve lived here long enough now that we’ve made some great friends, know our way around and enjoy living in Tampa. In fact, there are now only a few things I miss about Tennessee: family, friends with southern accents, fall, spring and southern cooking. 

A friend who appreciates our love of the South told us we should try the BBQ at Hank’s. Every since we moved here we have been on a quest to find BBQ comparable to that found in Memphis. We therefore decided to give it a try – and we’re glad we did. Hank’s well-seasoned BBQ was so tender and flavorful that when my father-in-law visited, we even took him there. He gave it the highest honor possible from a southerner, declaring it “almost as good as BBQ from Memphis.”

Even in the true South great BBQ alone does not make a great restaurant featuring southern cooking. You must have comforting side dishes, fried food that is crisp and not too greasy and delicious, homemade corn bread.  Fortunately Hank’s delivers on all counts.

For one, Hank’s catfish was breaded in a tasty cornmeal breading and had been fried perfectly, making it delicate and flaky. True to what you’ll find in restaurants all over the South, Hank’s doesn’t just fry the catfish. You can also order fried green beans, fried pickles, fried okra, and, of course, French fries.

In addition to true southern side dishes of collard greens, okra, tomatoes, slaw, corn on the cob and green beans, Hank’s has the other side dishes we consider vegetables in the South – cheese grits and mac ’n’ cheese. Both were homemade, super cheesy and deliciously comforting. Warm and tasty cornbread and hush puppies rounded out the meal.

Hank’s even uses Southern sensibility when decorating. Each table had a mason jar filled with a cotton boll – although they must have run out because a few jars were just filled with cotton balls. I can’t say that I was aware of a lot of decorating going on with cotton plants in Memphis, but I am certainly going to see if it is a new trend the next time we visit our family and friends “up South.”

As the food and decorating would suggest, Hank’s is not a fancy restaurant. But if you are in search of some good, comforting soul food, you can find it here. 

8546 N. Dale Mabry Hwy.
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun, noon-7 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford
Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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TC Choy’s: A Collection of Unexpected Delights

If you never leave the Westchase bubble, you miss out on many opportunities.

For instance, we had the chance to give our daughter a lesson in politeness when we went to TC Choy’s Asian Bistro one recent Saturday night. It was prompted by the arrival of a group of middle-aged, leather- and chain-clad men and women from the fetish convention in town that weekend.

They plopped down at a table near us.

Always on the lookout for educational opportunities, we quickly dished up the “It’s not polite to stare or point or ask loud questions about people’s dress or look because everyone is different” lecture.

Then we ordered.

Fortunately, once our food arrived, the crazy attire was forgotten (except for the occasionally peek) and we focused on the food before us instead of the leather around us.

Located on South Howard Avenue, TC Choy’s offers dim sum, sushi and Chinese entrees. The restaurant offers more than 70 options of dim sum (bite-sized portions of food traditionally served in small steamer baskets). A favorite at our table was the plump pork dumplings filled with deliciously seasoned pork. We also enjoyed the shrimp and garlic rolls – succulent shrimp, garlic, cilantro and other sauces wrapped up in a crepe and lightly pan-fried. TC Choy’s offers so many dim sum options, they could easily be your meal. We, however, opted to try a bit of everything the Asian bistro has to offer.

TC Choy’s has a full sushi menu – also with enough options to make it your meal. We tried one of their many specialty rolls – the Hawaiian with tuna, avocado and macadamia nuts. The sushi proved fresh and delicious.

There are many dinner-sized and smaller salads and soups, including my favorite, Tom Yum soup. At every other restaurant where I’ve had Tom Yum soup it has consisted of mostly broth with very few vegetables. I figured this was the way it was supposed to be. At TC Choy’s, however, the broth was spicy and delicious and filled with carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes and broccoli. It made for a much more substantial and filling soup.

TC Choy’s has more than 100 Chinese dishes – many quite familiar and some less so. A whole section on the menu is dedicated to clay pot dishes – a method where food is cooked in clay pots that have been soaked in water. Steam is released inside the pot during cooking and the food inside does not lose moisture, creating tender, flavorful dishes. We experienced this delightful way of food preparation with the tofu and vegetable entree and the chicken, mushrooms and pork sausage dish we had.

If you enjoy delicious, authentic Chinese food, I would recommend giving TC Choy’s a try. There were so many interesting items on the menu that we’ll definitely go back to try out more dim sum, sushi and other entrees. On Sundays, they bring dim sum and soup carts around the restaurant, providing an excellent excuse to leave the bubble again.

We’ll just have to check what conventions are in town that weekend.

TC Choy’s Asian Bistro
301 S. Howard Ave.
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (lunch); 5:30-10:30 p.m. (dinner)
Sat-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (lunch); 5:30-10:30 p.m. (dinner)

By Marcy Sanford
Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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Zerillo’s: Wonderful Italian Comfort Food

I’m hooked on the e-mail restaurant coupons.

Each day I can’t wait to see what Groupon, Living Social, Creative Loafing or Yum Yum America (the newest one I’ve signed up for) are going to offer me.

That is how I found out about Zerillo’s Italian Restaurant. I’ve driven through the intersection of Countryway Boulevard and Race Track Road many times, but I hadn’t noticed that there was an Italian restaurant in the small shopping center on the corner there. So on a very rainy weekend, we decided to head out and see what kind of Italian comfort food we could find

We were so glad we did – and even happier the next day enjoying our leftovers for lunch.

Zerillo’s Westchase location has been open about two years. It is a family venture for Dan and Roberta Demeo and their son, Keith, who serves as the head chef along with their family friend Stevie.

On the night of our visit we started with the Half Moon Mozzarella, tasty triangles of fresh mozzarella lightly breaded and fried. Yes, it was fried cheese, which seems to be a dining out staple when we have our 6-year-old with us. But, in our defense, it was really, really good fried cheese. Its accompanying sauce was tangy and also tasty. On a more adventurous night (one with other adults) we want to try the Mussels Mackenzie or Mussels Italiano.

All of Zerillo’s entries are served with your choice of soup of salad. The House Salad and the Caesar Salad we ordered were served on a chilled plate with a chilled fork. The crispy, fresh greens and the homemade dressings were delicious. At that point, I had to order garlic bread because really no meal, especially an Italian one, is complete without some good bread. Zerillo’s has their bread delivered fresh each day from a bakery in St. Petersburg and the garlic cheese bread we had was scrumptious. It had just enough garlic, butter and cheese to give it a great flavor, but not so much as to overpower the bread.

In addition to their pastas served with chicken or shrimp, Zerillo’s has steak, pork chop and veal dishes plus pizzas. My husband and daughter had the Penne Carbonara with Chicken –and they gushed over their selections. I had the Shrimp Scampi with fresh, perfectly cooked shrimp and a rich, savory sauce. 

As an extra bonus Zerillo’s delivers to all of Westchase. We ordered pizzas from them a week later and they too were delicious. I especially like that they have toppings like spinach and eggplant in addition to the usual meat and vegetable toppings you find on most pizza menus.

So the next time you’re craving comfort food, or just good Italian fare, a solution lies just around the corner.

Zerillo’s Italian Grill
1165 Countryway Blvd.
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 – 10 p.m.; Sat,  4-10 p.m.; Sun, 4-9 (To Go available from 1-4 p.m., Sat. and Sun)

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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A Westchase Catch Revisited

After the first time we went to Catch 23 in West Park Village, I knew I’d found my kind of restaurant.

Catch is elegant on the dining side while a bit more casual and fun on the bar side. It also features a patio great for people watching. We’ve had fun visiting Catch on many occasions with friends and out-of-town guests.

Most Westchase residents have either been to or know about Catch 23. It’s been a staple of West Park Village since opening in 2002. I wasn’t sure if there would be anything newsworthy about a review of Catch 23 for WOW readers. Fortunately for me, at the end of May they introduced 20 new items to their menu, including new appetizers, sushi rolls, pasta dishes and sandwiches.

I’ve been able to go to Catch 23 three times over the past month with good friends – once a spur-of-the-moment Friday dinner, another time to celebrate a birthday and finally a weeknight dinner with friends and kids. Each time the food, service and ambience were great. 

On the dining side, we sat at tables covered with white table clothes and felt quite elegant as we sampled the macadamia encrusted Chilean sea bass, cooked perfectly with a delicious citrus buerre blanc sauce and a tangy island mango salsa. My friend enjoys trying different sauces as much as I do and we sampled the seared sea scallops with garlic cilantro butter, spinach Rockefeller and island mango sauces. All the sauces were good, but my favorite accompaniment to the scallops was the island mango salsa.  We also enjoyed a paella full of deliciously seasoned seafood, chicken, sausage and vegetables.

For a birthday celebration we sat at the bar side. I tried sushi (the village roll and the crunchy tuna roll). Both were a little on the spicy side, which I prefer. My friend had the St. Martin salad – a huge, fresh salad with chicken, goat cheese, island mango salsa and citrus vinaigrette dressing. We celebrated our friend’s birthday with the made-from-scratch chocolate mousse pie, which proved scrumptious.

On my last visit I went with several good friends and our children. It was one of those rare nights in June when the weather was still cool enough to sit outside. I had the new lobster and shrimp roll and it was great – full of lobster and shrimp and served on warm French bread. My daughter tried the new wings appetizer and gave it two thumbs up. Sitting on the patio with friends then walking home as the sun set and the sky turned pink was a perfect way to start off the week.

Catch 23 is open for dinner every night at 4:30 p.m. They are located at 10103 Montague Street in West Park Village. For reservations call 920-0045.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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Miguel’s: Beating the Salsa Out of the Competition

My family and I simply love Mexican food.

When we first started going to restaurants with our daughter, Mexican establishments were the best choice. She loved their enchiladas, quesadillas, rice and beans. When we moved to Tampa, the first thing we knew we had to find was a great Mexican restaurant.

Miguel’s Mexican Seafood and Grill located in South Tampa fits the bill. During his childhood in Texas, owner Miguel Rodriguez learned from and was inspired by his Aunt Ninfa and her restaurant.

In keeping with family tradition, he opened his own restaurant here in 1992. The dishes at Miguel’s are familiar Mexican fare but feature unique and delicious twists that could only be found in Florida. These include the Ixtapa, a lobster tail and fajita combination, and Miguel’s seafood enchiladas and chimichanga – two dishes bursting with shrimp, scallops and crabmeat. Manager Angela Funk told me that much of their seafood, like grouper and shrimp, come from local suppliers.

All of the food at Miguel’s is freshly made and you can really tell from their sauces. I like the Monterrey jack cheese and cilantro sauce that covers the spinach enchiladas. My red sauce-fearing daughter not only has eaten the cheese and beef enchiladas with red sauce but has declared them delicious!

Miguel’s is a great restaurant for families with children. They have paper on tables but no crayons, however, so bring your own. The children’s meals are enough for several children to split. Additionally, you can order your own meal a la carte and have your child share their rice and beans with you. The food appeals to those who are difficult to please. On one visit a picky 3-year-old tried dipping his cheese quesadilla in the salsa and proclaimed it “yummy.”

Miguel’s meat dishes come in traditional offerings like enchiladas, tacos or burritos with ground beef. You can get a little fancier by choosing ribeye, filet or kobe skirt steak as your filling. My husband insists Miguel’s tamales are his favorite.

The dinner tacos put one in a bit of a quandary. Miguel’s offers a choice of chicken, beef, pork, red snapper, filet, lobster, skirt steak or shrimp for fillings – along with avocado, cilantro, onion and quesa cotija.

In my opinion the chips and salsa set the tone for the rest of the meal and help separate the good Mexican restaurants from the great ones. The chips and salsa at Miguel’s are definitely my favorite in all of Tampa. The salsa is freshly made – not too spicy but definitely flavorful. The chips are light, salty, crispy and warm and pair perfectly with a margarita. The hardest part is not eating too many and spoiling your appetite.

Miguel’s recently expanded and renovated their dining area. They added an adult-only courtyard lounge, a soundproof VIP room and new bathrooms that rival those found in upscale hotels.

Miguel’s is located at 3035 W. Kennedy Ave. It’s open for lunch and dinner Mon-Thu, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri and Sat, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and Sun, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. They also serve brunch Sat-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford

Marcy Sanford is a resident of West Park Village and can be reached at


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Westchase’s Favorite Foodie Bids Farewell

There is a for sale sign in my yard.

I keep thinking it must have been put there by mistake. The reality sinks in once again and I realize we are moving – words I never thought I would say after living in Westchase.

Our move will be bittersweet. We are sad about leaving Westchase and Florida, yet excited to be moving to Atlanta, where our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons live. Our son and daughter-in-law who live in south Tampa are also re-locating to Atlanta, which is icing on the cake for us. We will surely miss our friends and good neighbors. At the same time, we look forward to being near our grandbabies.

I have eaten my way through the Tampa Bay area trying to fulfill a promise to my Dishing It Out readers that I made in my first review in 2005. I really did strive to find good restaurants where you can find quality calories – good food for your hard-earned dollars. I hope you all feel that I have accomplished that in the seven years I have been writing my column for WOW.

Many people have asked me what my favorite restaurant is. That’s a very hard question to answer because many favorites come to mind.

Stonechase is certainly a jewel in the middle of Westchase; for many it is their go-to place to grab a fabulous flatbread pizza and run into friends and neighbors. Now we also have Surf Shack, which makes the most amazing margaritas and whose fish tacos reign supreme.

A long ride but worth the trip is Cantina Laredo, whose upscale Mexican fare can’t be beat. Since my review Philly Phlava has moved to another location close by but still has the best Philly cheese steaks you can buy.

The new Yummy House’s Salt and Pepper Shrimp will linger in my mind forever. I will also dream about Osteria Natalina’s pasta pillows, light as air and stuffed with three cheeses in a gorgonzola velvet cream sauce.

The Refinery’s farm-to-table menu is always filled with the most amazing creations to tempt every palate. Meanwhile the homemade ice cream sundaes at Cassis are always the sweet ending to every wonderful offering on their menu. Elegant Armani’s Antipasto Misto, with over 30 selections of Italian delicacies, will transport you to the Amalfi Coast.

We are so lucky to have so many wonderful restaurants in our area.

If I had to name just one favorite, however, Café Ponte would always be at the top of my list. Chris Ponte has consistently worked his magic, day after day, in his award-winning restaurant. I have never been disappointed in a meal there.


I will be sure to make it my last stop before moving and I will miss it.

Thank you, WOW readers, for making Dishing It Out your “where should we go to dinner” column. It has been my pleasure to find the good restaurants to recommend to you, my friends and neighbors. I offer a special thank you to Chris Barrett for editing my column to make me look good and for being a good friend.

The Carnivore and I will miss all of you.

WOW wishes Gail and Mick Gundersen (a.k.a., The Carnivore) the absolute best as they relocate their taste buds to Atlanta. You will be greatly missed! Gail’s final review appears below:

An Electric Irish Pub

Recently looking for a fun venue to celebrate the Irish in us, The Carnivore and I grabbed our foodie friends and headed to The Pub at International Plaza.

The restaurant’s huge crowd and live Irish music were electric. The live Irish band was riotous as well as talented and had everyone’s toes tapping under the table. The Pub’s drink menu is huge, with some of the most amazing beers you’ll find on any restaurant menu. (The Carnivore, a.k.a., The Beer Snob, had to wipe away tears of joy.) Equally impressive was The Pub’s list of scotches, bourbons and cognacs.

We started our meal with the Pub Spring Rolls – over-stuffed with chicken, black beans, green chilies, jalapenos, cilantro and white cheddar cheese. These were so crispy, flaky and delicious that I could have ordered two plates and made them my dinner. They were served with a spicy dill dressing that was equally fabulous.

For my entrée I ordered the Smoked Gouda and Chicken Rigatoni. The huge bowl was filled with blackened chicken, bacon, red peppers, broccoli and green onions with a house-made smoked Gouda cheese sauce. While I would have preferred a little more sauce, the flavors melded beautifully.

The Carnivore ordered the Corn Beef Reuben Panini. The extra lean corned beef, cooked in-house, was piled high with house-made sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on grilled rye bread with a side of house-made potato chips. It was authentic and mouth-watering.

Our friend had the Fish and Chips. The humongous piece of fish was battered then fried to a light golden brown. It flaked at the touch of the fork and tasted like it had been caught that day. The house-made tartar sauce accompanying it was wonderful.

Our order of Fish Sliders was a mini version of the same fish on wonderfully fresh, brioche-like mini buns. This dish was perfect for the small eater.

The Pub’s menu offers everything from Gastropub plates to classic pub fare like Bangers and Mash and Shepherd’s Pie. The weekend brunch menu looked awesome and we will definitely go back and give that a try.

The Pub’s wait staff all wore kilts and I will confess to wondering if there was any truth to the tradition of the Scottish military wearing no underwear under the kilts. I finally worked up the nerve to ask my server, but I can’t tell you what he said (blush!).

Here’s the naked truth: be sure to visit. The Pub lives up to the definition of “a public house serving high-quality food and drink.”

I will also add: providing a great time!

The Pub
International Plaza
2223 N.Westshore Blvd.,
Tampa, FL 33607
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11 a.m.-midnight; Thu, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fri and Sat, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at


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Island Influence with a Comfortable, Casual Atmosphere

Welcome to da Islands, mon!

Rumba Island Bar & Grill opened in Oldsmar several months ago. It’s the fourth restaurant to open on the same site. Judging by the crowds, it may be the last.

Rumba opened to packed crowds, particularly on the weekends. The Friday night we were there, they were slammed. Arriving without a reservation, we waited 40 minutes to be seated.

Part of the Baystar Group – which includes the Island Way Grill, Salt Rock Grill and Marlin Darlin, Rumba is the first restaurant on the site to re-model the inside. Its amazing new bar is massive and wide open to the outside eating area. Rumba’s inside booths and tables, moreover, are tasteful, attractive and comfortable.

Rumba invites diners to taste the flavors of the island, which is exactly what we set out to do.
The restaurant’s Island Shrimp and Rice bowls proved interesting combinations of small shrimp, fresh fruit, veggies and pecans served over coconut rice. Diners also have the option of adding several seafood choices and jerk chicken. I chose to add blackened grouper to make it a dinner entrée. While the fish was wonderful and spicy, the surprise was the delicious combination of ingredients with the rice. The dish was excellent!

The Carnivore ordered the Fried Okra With Jerk Aioli as an appetizer. Okra is of his favorites and difficult to find on most menus. It did not disappoint. His entrée of Barbados Style Ribs was slow smoked and smothered in a sweet and tangy mango sauce. The ribs were meaty, lean and fall-off-the-bone delicious. He is a sucker for mac n cheese and Rumba’s was full of crab and oozing with cheddar.

One of Rumba’s specials was a Rum Glazed Mahi Mahi with a side of the restaurant’s comforting Crab Mac N Cheese. The mahi was moist and the sweetness of the rum glaze proved a perfect complement. The dish was accompanied with a sautéed fresh vegetable mix of snow peas, red pepper, carrots, broccoli and onions.

Another entrée, Rumba’s Island Seafood Platter, proved a beautiful presentation of grilled mahi, crab cake, coconut prawns and fried shrimp. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the crab cake was heavy on the crab and light on the fillers. All of the seafood was flavorful and fresh – a seafood lover’s delight.

Served with most entrees are Mama Maria’s Muffins, small, two-bite muffins with mildly flavored scotch bonnet peppers and cheddar cheese. They are served hot out of the oven and are scrumptious.
Open seven days a week, Rumba has an early menu from 11:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. when prices are reduced on an array of choices. They also offer two-for-one margaritas, sangrias, and Island Rumba Signature Libations all day.

Rumba is another quality restaurant to add to our ever growing list of local places to dine. It offers interesting food for reasonable prices in an electric party atmosphere of fun. Once inside and enjoying its Caribbean-influenced food, you just might imagine you are in the islands. You are only limited by your imagination.

Welcome to da islands, mon!

Rumba Island Bar & Grill
3687 Tampa Road, Oldsmar

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at


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A Newcomer of Note

After I’ve lived in Florida for 14 years, strip mall restaurants don’t even raise an eyebrow.

It’s all about the food and not the façade. Yet a newcomer on the restaurant scene, Wimauma, just opened at the end of December. Run by chef and owner Gary Moran and his wife Amy, Wimauma already has people taking notice. That’s no small feat in the restaurant business.

Wimauma is a work in progress with ambitious plans to add a bar and a private room with a chef’s table. Gary’s concept of local and fresh is not new to our area. His menu, however, stays true to what is in season and changes daily based upon local availability. It’s very impressive.

On the night we visited with two of our children, we discovered several interesting menu choices. We shared a small plate of Cracker Meal Crusted Fried Green Tomatoes with a superb tasting country ham with watercress and buttermilk-ranch vinaigrette. Its light breading was crispy and the ham proved like bacon but better. The dish appropriately perked up our taste buds and we were excited to order our entrees.

My choice was the Pan Roasted Local Black Grouper, which was served with an amazing roasted corn with Cuban chorizo, grilled red onion ragout and smoked paprika aioli. The grouper was freshly caught and the accompaniments were excellent.

Another dish, the Shrimp and Grits, featured large Florida shrimp with a tomato, basil, white wine and pork bark (the crunchy exterior of a pork butt). This was all about additional flavor and was served with Old School Grits. With its addition of tomato basil and white wine, the dish proved wonderful and different.

Wimauma does its own smoking using Florida oak, so the Carnivore’s choice was an easy one. The Texas Style Smoked Brisket platter, served with Old School Grits and Braised Collard Greens, jumped off the menu. The brisket was New York-deli style, shaved thin with a Carolina Barbeque sauce. It was unique and mouth-watering. The collard greens were a combination of mustard greens, collards, ham and bacon, braised with sugar and vinegar. They were awesome!

The Southern Style Fried Chicken Bucket is another must-have on their menu. After one bite you will know why. It is served with incredible, melt-in-your-mouth hush puppies. They were moist and light as air – the best I have ever eaten.

But the chicken? Oh my! It was can’t-stop-eating good. The Carnivore was the happiest I have seen him in a long time. With a beautiful crust on each piece of crunchy, juicy goodness, the chicken was truly extraordinary.

Another exciting dish was the Beef Two Ways-Grilled New York Strip and Red Wine-Chocolate Braised Beef Shoulder served over Orzo with Fresh Ricotta and Rosemary. The medium rare slices of the steak proved a lovely contrast to the braised beef shoulder. The red wine and chocolate sauce was sublime – it went perfectly with the beef. The simple orzo was further enhanced by the creamy ricotta cheese. Each bite left you wanting more.

Chef Gary Moran’s talents in the kitchen are notable and impressive. With his ever changing menu, you will have many delicious reasons to return to taste his endlessly creative culinary possibilities.

4205 S. MacDill (in the St. Croix Shopping Center)
Tampa, FL 33611
Lunch: Tue-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tue-Sun, 5-10 p.m.
Brunch: Sat and Sun, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at


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Barbecue Ponte Style

Chef Chris Ponte is at it again.

This time he has consulted on the menu for the new CJ’s Bar-B-Skew. When Ponte is involved, you know it won’t be just any barbecue joint. Lucky us!

CJ’s, which opened in September, is funky and very casual. Its rock ’n roll theme features classic rock stars adorning the walls. While diners still walk up to the counter to order, CJ’s is saved by its very interesting menu. The “groupies” (servers) will bring your order to your table.

The menu offers Skewers, which are Greek inspired – a surprising find on a barbecue menu. We tried the Mediterranean Chicken Skewer filled with roasted red peppers, grilled onions and chicken. It’s accompanied by basil pesto and served on a warm pita with shredded lettuce, onion and tomato salad. It was a healthy option for a barbecue joint. Our only complaint was there could have been more chicken.

The Greek Vegetable Skewer was a vegetarian’s dream. Chunks of roasted portabella mushrooms, peppers, grilled onions, hummus, marinated tomato and cucumbers were topped with a creamy feta sauce and served on a warm pita. It was a delicious and healthy choice.

I tried the half slab of St. Louis Ribs and pulled-pork combo. Lots of finger-lickin’ good sauce accompanied the meaty, fall-off-the-bone ribs while the chunks of pulled pork were lean, moist and delicious. The Green Apple Slaw proved another cool accompaniment to the tangy ribs. I also couldn’t pass on the Smoked Mac Attack – mac and cheese with smoked gouda. It didn’t disappoint. The gouda cheese was a nice change from cheddar.

Our order of Chicken Corn Chowder arrived thick and creamy and full of chicken chunks, carrots, fresh corn and mushrooms. Umm umm good!

The Carnivore ordered the Half BBQ Chicken and Pulled Pork combo with a side of Red Bliss Potato Salad and the Cast Iron BBQ Beans with pecan-wood smoked bacon. He devoured the moist chicken and pork. The potato salad, one of his favorites, tasted homemade – another unexpected find. He gave it a thumbs up.

Another interesting side was CJ’s Ancho Chili Deviled Eggs. They proved a creamy, kicked-up version with cheddar cheese and bacon. And let’s not forget CJ’s hot jalapeno corn muffins that accompany most barbecue orders. They are great for sopping up that tangy sauce!

You will smell the smoky aromas coming from CJ’s before you even see the restaurant. You will be salivating before you park your car.

Attention to details like brioche buns and tobacco onions – and the addition of healthy, interesting sides and skewers – will have you returning to CJ’s again and again.

CJ’s Bar-B-Skew
10047 N. Dale Mabry
Hours: are Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.,; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at


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California Fare Surfs into Westchase

You’re not Californ-I-A Dreamin! Everybody’s gone surfin’!

Surfin’ Westchase, U.S.A., that is, so wax down those longboards and head over to our new Surf Shack!

The owners of Stonechase have opened the Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen in the old Chico’s location. The décor is California cool. Surfboards hang from the ceiling, sleek tables feature tops filled with Clearwater Beach sand and cement floors look like the surf just rolled in. The bar mosaics are gorgeous. There is even a monster TV screen featuring surfers showing off their skills.

Chef Eben Chriss brings his culinary talents to the Surf Shack from Mekenita Mexican Grille in Lutz. You are going to love his menu, which emphasizes fresh ingredients. We started with the AhiTuna Poke’, a mound of diced freshly caught Ahi tuna mixed with diced red peppers and cucumbers then tossed in a poke’ sauce (sesame, soy and scallions). It was served over the house surf slaw of cabbage and red onion in a citrus dressing. A side of hot, deep-fried (but not greasy), won-tons accompanied the tuna.

The dish was healthy, fresh and delightful.

I live to find the perfect fish tacos. At Surf Shack, I found not one but two! The Longboard Fish Tacos were amazing. A huge piece of beer-battered, lightly fried cod was tucked inside a flour tortilla with a great chipotle sour cream drizzle, surf slaw and fresh pico de gallo.

Served in corn tortillas, the Pipeline Fish Tacos were grilled, fresh cod, thinly sliced cabbage and the most amazing chile-tomatillo salsa you will ever taste. It completely changed the taste of these tacos! The other creative addition was pickled red onions, which tamed the strong onion beautifully. Both tacos had minimal ingredients but maximum impact.

The Shack Wrap is as California as it gets. Its flour tortilla contained moist chunks of chicken grilled with a spicy house rub with Applewood bacon, mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado and shredded cheddar and Jack cheeses. Its attention-grabbing mango-passion fruit vinaigrette will wake up your taste buds. The combination of flavors were mouth-watering.

From the Shack Stack offerings (their signature dishes), we chose the Tenderloin Stack. There was no way was The Carnivore was going to pass this up. This dish was beautifully presented with layers of grilled tenderloin steak chunks, black beans, grilled onions, fresh corn, guacamole, chipotle sour cream, pico de gallo, shredded cheese, citrus rice and garlic-tomato salsa – all sandwiched between two crunchy, lightly fried flour tortillas. He was dazzled by the dish’s many fresh and satisfying tastes. He will forever have a hard time ordering anything else on his many trips back to Surf Shack. They may as well name it The Carnivore Tenderloin Stack!

Ahem, a word about dessert. The California Cannoli is a not-to-be missed creative concoction, guaranteed to conquer your sweet tooth cravings forever. Chef Eben puts macadamia-nut, white chocolate cookie dough into won-ton wrappers, then lightly fries them to a golden brown. Four arrived nestled in a bowl with whipped cream drizzled with a caramel sauce.

The Surf Shack plans a new covered patio for dining al fresco. At opening they were serving the freshest and most creative sangrias you will ever taste. Several interesting beers and wines by the glass were also available. Their expanded liquor license is expected mid to late January. Afterward they promise the most delicious and freshest tasting margaritas. No mix, ever. (Be still, my beating heart!)

I must also mention the selection of non-alcoholic, hand-shaken teas and juices. These are all made with fresh fruits pureed or muddled into memorable beverages.

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen is a wonderful addition to Westchase. I haven’t been this excited about a restaurant in a long time. The food is creative, unique, healthy and scrumptious. Put down this review right now, grab the kids and drive over and check it out.

Hang ten, dudes! See you at Surf Shack with my bushy-bushy blonde hairdo!

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen
12217 W. Linebaugh Ave
Hours: Sun-Wed, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thu, Fri and Sat, 11:30 a.m.-midnight
Happy Hour: 3-6 p.m. daily.
Sundays kids eat free (one kid’s meal per adult entrée)

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at


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A Modern, Upscale Twist to Traditional Mexican Fare

Our area is in desperate need of a quality Mexican restaurant and I’ve found one that may just be a good start.

Opened by the owners of Flamestone American Grill, Besa Grill’s menu features your favorite Mexican dishes with a modern twist.

While we waited a few minutes for our table, we sat at Besa’s bar and asked the bartender to prepare traditional Margaritas without the standard mix. He did a great job – with fresh squeezed limes, Grand Marnier and quality tequila.

The traditional pre-dinner chips arrived with our choice of three of five different guacamole options. (You can even add lump crab for an additional charge.) We chose the creamy goat cheese and aged bleu cheese, the traditional with cilantro, onion, jalapeno, tomato, garlic, lime and cotija cheese, and the roasted corn and black bean. All three choices were scrumptious. The tortilla chips were house-made, hot and salty. They made for a mouth-watering beginning.

Arriving before the entrees, Besa’s chicken tortilla soup was more like a puree than a traditional, broth-based soup. Its roasted tomatoes lent a smoky flavor and it arrived thick with corn, onions and chicken. We thoroughly enjoyed their version.

For his meal the Carnivore ordered the three street tacos. He could choose from among steak, chicken, fish and duck. He could not, however, order three different ones, which was disappointing. He chose the fish tacos with grilled, seasonal white fish, cilantro, Napa cabbage, jicama, queso anejo and avocado crema. They were a little bland and could have been so much better with some good seasonings.

I ordered the Ahi Tuna Tower – three layers of fresh, marinated Ahi tuna tataki, tossed in cumin, mandarin and soy sauce. It arrived stacked with a layer of guacamole and Besa rice and topped with crispy fried carrot ribbons. A lovely presentation, its flavors complemented the tuna.

On another trip for lunch we tried the Tres Salsas, consisting of black bean and roasted corn, mango ginger, and diced yellow tomato. These were all quite good, made with fresh ingredients and were accompanied with a basket of Besa’s wonderful, house-made tortilla chips.

For our lunch entrees we ordered Besa’s flatbreads. The flatbreads were presented on a long, narrow, wooden serving board. Both were full of flavor and delectable and lived up to the menu’s modern Mexican promise. Besa’s Lobster and Grilled Pineapple Flatbread featured tons of melted manchego cheese and toppings of grilled pineapple, red onion relish, caramelized poblano peppers, tomatillo sauce and queso anejo – all on a thin and crispy lavash cracker crust. The Pulled Chicken Flatbread was topped with moist, shredded chicken, diced avocado, roasted corn, cilantro, black bean puree and gooey manchego cheese.

Besa Grill has several appealing seafood and meat entrees as well as beautiful salads. A children’s menu for kids 10 and under is also available.

Make reservations at Besa Grill. You too will discover it is a quantum leap from the usual, tired Mexican restaurant to a new, sleek and chic fun place.

You’ll find all your Mexican favorites there – with a new, modern, upscale twist.

Buen provecho!

Besa Grill
2542 N. McMullen Booth Rd.
Clearwater, FL 33761.
(727) 400-6900
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. and dinner 4 p.m.-Close

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at


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A Yummy Chinese Favorite

It has been four years since I reviewed Yummy House on Waters Avenue and it still remains one of my all time favorite restaurants.

In June a new, swanky Yummy House location opened on East Hillsborough Avenue. After a recent enjoyable visit featured great food and a chic atmosphere, I’ve decided to revisit Yummy House in review. I must sing their praises again.

Along with four friends, The Carnivore and I went to check out their new venue, which features a family-style dining option. (A wonderful lazy Susan on each table allows visitors to share all of the dishes ordered.) More important, the new site represents a quantum leap in décor from the Waters location. A lovely bar welcomes visitors and announces that beer and wine are served at Yummy House’s new addition.

We started with the Salt and Pepper Calamari. Yummy House fried lightly battered strips of calamari to a light, golden brown and served it with their novel “salt and pepper” seasoning. Consisting of caramelized garlic with sliced jalapenos, onions, cilantro and scallions, the “salt and pepper” mix made this dish fabulous. As my favorite dish from the Yummy House menu, it will truly be one of the best things you’ll have ever eaten.

Our second favorite was the Hot and Sour Seafood Soup. Its thick and tasty broth included shrimp, mushrooms, noodles, tofu, fish, crab and red chili peppers. (We never leave the restaurant without ordering another quart to take home.)

We ordered four entrees for the six of us, which proved more than enough food. Two choices were from the list of restaurant specials that evening. Darren’s Basil Chicken (Darren was the restaurant’s decorator) featured the familiar poultry with fresh asparagus, basil leaves and fresh mushrooms in a garlic and black bean sauce. This stand-out dish was full of flavor; its chicken was tender and moist and the vegetables were crisp yet tender. The other special, the Flaming Dragon and Phoenix, was a mix of shrimp and chicken with fresh mushrooms and asparagus in their famous spicy and sublime XO sauce.

Yummy House’s Fried Rice is some of the best I have ever eaten. The rice is always moist, never dry. It was served with chunks of shrimp, chicken and pork with egg, parsley and scallions.

The best entrée of the evening, however, was the intensely flavored Szechuan Style Pork – tender strips of succulent pork plated with onions and scallion tops. Our last entrée, The Honey Pepper Beef, featured quality beef in a Honey Pepper sauce with scallion and snow peas. It proved another enjoyable winner.

Every dish we ordered at the newest Yummy House proved remarkable as well as memorable. Consistently excellent, Yummy House offers the best Chinese food that I have eaten anywhere. Run to Yummy House China Bistro and be sure to take some friends for a not-to-be missed dining experience.

Bon appé[vulgarity]!

Yummy House China Bistro
620 E. Hillsborough Ave.,
Tampa 33610.
(813) 237-3838
Hours: Mon-Sun, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.

By Gail Gundersen

Gundersen, a resident of Woodbay and lifelong foodie, can be reached at


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