W elcome to our table, which we've set with local seafood, ethnic traditions and contemporary tastes, among them jazzy hot sauces and chocolates almost too pretty to eat. • The food that makes Tampa Bay different from Green Bay or San Francisco Bay has as much to do with geography and climate as it does with immigration and a seasonal population that comes our way when the snow flies elsewhere. Cuban, Spanish, Greek and Southern accents figure prominently, as does seafood, which swims and scuttles abundantly in our waters. We eat fresh citrus and plump strawberries when the rest of the country shivers. We are awash in ingenuity, which has sent our bloomin' appetizers and legendary wings to people all over the world. • Today we celebrate 20 Tampa Bay food favorites, not the least of which is the tough-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside stone crab. Ours is by no means an exhaustive list but it's a good place to start. • Dig in on Pages 4E and 5E.
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Twenty of our favorite food,
drink and culinary experiences
Forget the argument about whose Cuban came first, just make sure you take a big bite out of our most iconic sandwich, born in Ybor City and pressed in every corner of the Tampa Bay area. There are plenty of places to get good ones: the Columbia restaurants (columbia restaurant.com for locations), Floridian Cuban Sandwiches (4424 W Kennedy Blvd.; finestcubansandwich.com) or Brocato's Sandwich Shop (5021 E Columbus Drive; brocatossandwich.com), both in Tampa. That funky little convenience store across from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport is famous for its Cubans, too. No matter where you order one, it has got to be pressed and it must be made with baguette-style Cuban bread layered with roast pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and a slice of dill pickle. We don't care how they make them in Miami — that's the Tampa Bay way.
Drinks with a View
Head to St. Pete Beach for the six-rum Voodoo Punch at the legendary Hurricane restaurant (807 Gulf Way; thehurricane.com). Sit on the rooftop bar and watch the sun set. You're not likely to find a better place to toast the end of the day. By the way, the rums are all Cruzan (citrus, pineapple, mango, banana and coconut, with a floater of dark aged rum), plus cranberry, pineapple and orange juices. It comes in a 32-ounce bucket. Designate a driver. In nearby Gulfport, possibly the funkiest town in the bay area, O'Maddy's (5405 Shore Blvd. S; omaddys.com) sounds Irish but celebrates the tropics with its full menu of umbrella drinks. Try the Gulfport Guava Breeze (guava rum, pineapple, orange and cranberry juices and a splash of lime) on the outside deck. For something more tony, head to Armani's on the 14th floor of the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay hotel in Tampa (2900 Bayport Drive; grandhyatttampabay.com) just off the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Sunset here is romantic and dramatic.
The Bloomin' Onion
The deep-fried onion bloom has many copycats now but it's a local original, having sprung from the test kitchens of Outback Steakhouse, a chain born and nurtured in Tampa. There are lots of devotees of this sinful appetizer. Many locations: Go to outback.com to find one closest to you. The wings at Hooters, the chain founded in Clearwater, are also an iconic Tampa Bay food. People love them even if they do feel sorry for the Hooters girls in their shiny panty hose and horribly short shorts.
On the cover: Florida's favorite hard-shelled crustacean is best eaten as the locals do: chilled with a mustard dipping sauce. But it isn't unheard of to dip the sweet claw meat — chilled or warm — in melted butter. Stone crabs, harvested Oct. 15 to May 15, meet us on the table and live to swim another day. During the season, anglers haul them up, yank off one claw and throw them back to grow another. In season. Frenchy's Cafe (41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach; frenchysonline.com), along with its other beach restaurants, hosts a season kickoff fest every October. The Frenchy's franchises are among the best places to crack some shells.
Citrus made Florida famous and we love our juice so much that we aren't averse to taking a drive to buy it fresh. Citrus Place (7200 U.S. 19, Palmetto) in Manatee County is our favorite spot for fresh-squeezed juice made from an ever-changing melange of navel, temple and Valencia oranges mixed with honeybell and honey tangerines. It's not citrus season yet so the squeezing and sipping happen in late fall and winter, the best time of the year in the Sunshine State to savor the weather and the juice.
Saturday Morning Market
Tampa Bay's premier outdoor market springs up in a parking lot on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays from early October through late May. Outdoor markets have multiplied all over the bay area in recent years but the Saturday Morning Market, which is 10 this year, has grown into quite the place for people-watching and noshing. Of course, there is produce, fresh fish and luscious baked goods, but we like to pull up a chair, listen to live music and eat crepes or empanadas or even slurp homemade soup from the vendors, of which there are 130 each week. It is the place to be on Saturday in St. Petersburg. The market is at 100 First St. S next to Progress Energy Park.
William Dean Chocolates
Belleair Bluffs chocolatier Bill Brown is making a splash with his exquisite hand-painted and stenciled artisanal chocolates. His truffles made it to the big screen this year with a cameo in The Hunger Games. Since opening in 2007, he has won nearly every award there is to win in the chocolate world, recently receiving his third consecutive "grand master" award at the 2012 Best Chocolatiers and Confectioners of America Awards. Accolades are nice, but give us a pear and ginger caramel and an improbably delicious truffle of port with fig and plum, please. William Dean (2790 West Bay Drive; williamdeanchocolates.com) is named for Brown's father and grandfather.
Bern's Wine Cellar
With nearly 7,000 labels and 500,000 bottles, Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa (1208 S Howard Ave.; bernssteakhouse.com) boasts one of the largest wine cellars in the world. To toast a special occasion, and there's a lot of that here, diners can choose from 200 sparkling wines. Take the kitchen tour as part of your meal and you'll get a glimpse of some of the wine. It's an impressive sight and interesting when you know there is more at a nearby warehouse-cellar. Meal- ending indulgences in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room can be accompanied by one (or two) of 300 Madeiras, ports and sherries.
On the Pinellas County side of the bay, the grouper sandwich dominates, most residents being loyal to their favorite grouper guru. The best ones let the snowy white fish shine, but you'll find them dripping with melted cheese and other sloppy condiments, too. One of our favorites is the battered and fried grouper sandwich at Dockside Dave's Grill in Madeira Beach (14701 Gulf Blvd.; davesdockside.com). It is simply dressed with tomato, lettuce, white onion and piled on a soft roll. Ah, Tampa Bay on a bun.
The sushi dedicated to our little bit of Florida is fried grouper, mayonnaise and seaweed rolled in rice and sesame seeds. Not traditional, but tasty just the same. You'll find it at most restaurants that serve sushi.
Plant City fields burst with the red gems in February and through the spring. The Hillsborough County town boasts a festival that pays tribute to the sweet fruit, attracting thousands of people and some pretty good country acts, too. (Next year's is Feb. 28 through March 10.) We like to line up at Parkesdale Farms (3702 U.S. 92 W; parkesdale.com) for the mile-high strawberry shortcake when the winter berries are in season. The fruit is fresh but the whipped cream might just as well be the main event.
Michele Northrup of Tampa is one saucy sister. Her clever Intensity Academy hot sauces have won fans across the country. The local entrepreneur has done well nationally in competitions, including the annual Fiery Foods Competition. Among her tongue-tingling mixes are Sweet Chai Chili and Carrot Karma Hot Sauce. She also makes a mighty fine ketchup called Chai Chipotle Chup. They can be purchased online and at several bay area stores (Duckweed Urban Market, 305 E Polk St. in downtown Tampa, and Garden of Eat'n, 3401 S West Shore Blvd., also in Tampa, are two.) For a list of locations and products, go to intensityacademy.com.
Okay, Tony's Seafood Restaurant in Cedar Key in Levy County is not officially in the Tampa Bay area but when you have something this good, this close, you just have to jump in the car. For three consecutive years, Tony's chowder, full of Cedar Key clams, took first prize in the Knorr Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I., beating out its New England challengers. Tony's chowder is silky, chunky and worth the drive to the restaurant at 597 Second St. The soup is also available online (tonyschowder.com).
Get your Zorba on in Tarpon Springs at any number of Greek restaurants along the Sponge Docks. We're partial to the avgolemono soup and youvetsi, the lamb and orzo dish, at Mykonos (628 Dodecanese Blvd.). You can get saganaki — the flaming cheese appetizer — everywhere. Order it just so you can hear the staff and knowing patrons shout a celebratory "Opa!" as the flames go high. For sweets, and there are many, we head to Hellas (785 Dodecanese Blvd.; hellas-restaurant.com) for an assortment of baked treats, among them kourambiethes, the powdered sugar shortbread, and koulourakia, butter cookies with sesame seeds. Baklava, too.
You'll be flapping your wings when you take a bite of this delectable Southern treat at Wright's Gourmet House in Tampa (1200 S Dale Mabry Highway; wrightsgourmet.com). The banana layer cake is laced with pineapple and nuts, then slathered with cream cheese frosting. Eat it all year but order the seasonal Chocolate Peppermint cake for the holidays. Lots of delicious sandwiches, too, but we love the classic grilled cheese sandwich, which takes 15 minutes to prepare.
The craft beer scene has exploded in Tampa Bay in the last few years, with some brewers opening their own tasting joints and making their small-batch beer available in bars, too. Among the newest are Seventh Sun Brewing Co. in Dunedin (1012 Broadway St.; seventhsunbrewing.com), specializing in Belgian-style beers and IPAs, and Barley Mow Brewing Co. in Largo (518 West Bay Drive; barleymowbrewingco.com), which pours its flagship black IPA, the Unkindness. Another new beermaker is Three Palms Brewery, which offers tastings at its Tampa brewery (1509 Hobbs St.) on select dates. (Go to threeplamsbrewing.com to find out.) Three Palms debuted its first beer, the Queen of Wheat, Aug. 3, and will release a hefty red beer, Ruby Pogo, soon. The brewery plans to open its own tasting room by the end of the year. Rapp Brewing Co. in Seminole (10930 Endeavor Way; rappbrewing.com) has a tasting room where tasters can sample ales and lagers, plus sour beers and high-gravity beers.
Need more proof that beer is taking over the Tampa Bay area? Westchase-born World of Beer continues to open outlets across the nation, with about 25 serving cold ones now and more opening soon.
Smoked fish spread
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish in Pasadena (1350 S Pasadena Ave.; tedpetersfish.com) knows what to do with the fish caught in local waters, especially those that aren't usually brought to the table grilled with fruity salsas. That would be kingfish, mullet and amberjack. Ted Peters smokes them and you can buy them that way or in a delicious fish spread. The smoked fish spread with saltines is good, the salmon is excellent, the mullet is an intensely fishy, acquired taste. Ted Peters also produces fabled cheeseburgers and German potato salad.
This tiny citrus fruit is an odd duck for sure. But it's our odd duck, grown in groves in Pasco County. You can pop the thin-skinned fruit in your mouth, eating the whole thing, including the slightly bitter seeds, or you can use them in baking. An annual January festival in Dade City (kumquatfestival.org) celebrates the kumquat with cookies, smoothies, ice cream, marmalade and even kumquat salsa. Oh, and there's a crowning for the young kumquat king and queen.
It hardly sounds like a Florida thing since it's candy and the humidity that plagues us for a large part of the year makes production difficult for candymakers here. But Lisa and Jim Schalk have mastered the craft with their Toffee to Go in South Tampa (3251 W Bay to Bay Blvd.; toffeetogo.com). They do just a few things, and they do them well: chocolate macadamia nut toffee, milk chocolate almond toffee and dark chocolate pecan toffee, all from family recipes. You won't taste any fresher toffee around.
Seafood is a favorite food in Tampa Bay. It's best when you can get it fresh, but when we don't catch it ourselves, we head to Pelican Point Seafood in Tarpon Springs (933 Dodecanese Blvd.). The market backs onto the Anclote River, which leads to the Gulf of Mexico, and the boats pull up there to deliver the catch. On a recent day, there was an impressive lineup of fresh whole fish, including mangrove snapper, and there's always plenty of shellfish. The head-on gulf shrimp do double duty, the shrimp themselves delicious when roasted or grilled, and the shells and heads the building blocks for seafood stock. Helpful, knowledgeable staff. Bring a cooler and they'll ice down your purchases. If you need a snack, stop into Rusty Bellies restaurant next door for a cup of stone crab bisque.
Times staff writers Janet K. Keeler, Laura Reiley, Elizabeth Behrman and Jay Cridlin contributed to this report, which also includes information from Times files.