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A look back at what we ate last year

This past year saw the Tampa Bay area embracing some of the nation's biggest food trends. To wit, it was the year of the food trucks. They came singly and in rallies. On the Pinellas side, mobile vendors worked diligently to clarify the relevant laws with St. Petersburg city government, though despite some success have not been given the go-ahead. In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn embraced the phenomenon, launching a monthly Mayor's Food Truck Fiesta near Gaslight Park and getting a wiener named after him in the process.

The feathers of brick-and-mortar restaurants were ruffled as these meals-on-wheels rolled into town, nabbing potential customers — but the movable feasts seem here to stay. We're still way behind Orlando and Miami in number of trucks, but we're in the swing of this trend that has occupied so much national attention.

One interesting by-product of the national food truck phenomenon, which really geared up in 2008 with Kogi's Korean BBQ in Los Angeles, is a "mash-up" approach to fusion cuisine, less serious but big on flavor. We've seen some of this move into restaurants, notably in the area's first high-profile "pop-up restaurant" (another national trend), Jeannie Pierola's KitchenBar.

Still, entrepreneurs' continued reluctance to take risks, combined with diminished access to capital, meant that most new restaurant projects in 2011 were modest in scope. New restaurants were mostly "twists on the familiar" rather than innovative or bold. Modest goals didn't mean it was a slow year for restaurant openings, but rather that a preponderance of prototypes for quick-serve chains opened their doors. And within this group of affordable and casual newcomers, there were some additional trends that seemed to play out over 2011.

It was the year of customization. Mo' Ziki in Largo, Dooners in St. Petersburg, Your Pie in Tampa — we saw the launch of many new Subway-style concepts where customers pick and choose ingredients to construct a personalized finished product. This appeals to "made fresh" enthusiasts, and is showcased in settings that aim to keep the price point low.

Premium burgers continued to bask in the limelight. In a protracted period of belt-tightening, a $10 pull-out-all-the-stops "splurge" burger is still cheaper than a fat Delmonico with all the fixings. Upscale burger independents and chains proliferated.

With unemployment numbers still high, especially in construction, real estate and related fields, a number of the area's un- or underemployed had the same good idea: Take a passion for weekend warrior grill or smoker jockeying and turn it into a business. Dozens of locals (mostly men) have rethought the color of their parachute, and the new hue is 'cue. Barbecue shacks have sprung up all over the area in the past year, many of them rigorous adherents to competitive barbecue's lineup of chicken, brisket, pork ribs and pork butt or shoulder.

2011's fetish foods

The launch of the Tampa Bay chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, plus the opening of venues like Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club in Tampa and Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg, have prompted a craft cocktail revolution in the area. Even mid-priced chain restaurants are showcasing traditional pre-Prohibition-era cocktails — sidecars and Sazeracs and gin Rickeys — as well as mixing their own mad-scientist brews with premium liquors, house-squeezed juices and even homemade tonic and other artisanal mixers.

Going hand in hand with this development is a local surge in craft beers. Cigar City and Tampa Bay Brewing began canning; newcomers like Barley Mow Brewing Company in Largo, Seventh Sun Brewing in Dunedin and Cold Storage Craft Brewery in Seminole Heights geared up to begin brewing; and juggernauts like WOB as well as tiny independents like the Mermaid in Seminole Heights provide forums for local and regional boutique brews.

As the national mania has waned, Tampa Bay's frosting frenzy continues unabated, with several new cupcake shops opening around the bay. Cupcake Spot and Frostings have been joined by newcomers like Gigi's in South Tampa, the brand-new Glorified Cupcakes on W Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa and the online-only Sarah's Sweets. The trend continues to refine itself, though, with this new addition: Small is huge. Pane Rustica sells gobs of teeny-tiny cupcakes, and Simply Cupcakes now brings only minis to area farmers' markets.

And macarons, those meringue-based sandwich cookies made with egg whites that have swept most American cities, finally have taken hold. Many bakeries have added them to their lineups (notably Cake City in Clearwater).

Now, in spite of these particular baked-good fetishes, 2011 was the year of gluten as villain. Menus began to label gluten-free options, and many restaurants added options like gluten-free pasta or pizza dough. If cookbooks are any evidence, 2011 was the year even wheat devotees began to question their relationship with the grain. (Conversely, potatoes seem to have had a post-Atkins comeback. Vive les frites!)

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

A look back at what we ate last year 01/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 3:30am]
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