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No reservations needed: Sampling unique, eclectic eats along Tampa's Howard Avenue

Howard Avenue is a foodie's paradise. No surprise there, since it's home to some of Tampa Bay's best-known restaurants — Bern's, SideBern's, Bella's, Mangroves, T.C. Choy's, Water, The Lime, The Lodge.

But why limit yourself to those known entities? Ditch Yelp and Chowhound, and you'll stumble across plenty of unique ways to drink and dine your way down Howard.

We summoned our inner Anthony Bourdain and hit the bricks in search of the most offbeat eats Howard has to offer.

Ribit's Bar-B-Que

Popular with the late-night crowd, this barbecue shack in a converted old-time gas station is surrounded on all sides by MacDinton's, the Dubliner, World of Beer and Cheap. So it ain't exactly hard to find. But if there's no line, you'll be glad you stopped in, as owner Tony "Bama" Desanto serves a heaping helping of smoky meats, from standards like ribs, chicken and brisket to nice touches like turkey legs, smoked sausage and Cajun pork boudin, which is a type of white sausage. The platters start at $10.95 and bust guts from there. Or help yourself to a pickled sausage from the counter. Either way, be sure to sample the four varieties of barbecue sauce — sweet, spicy, tangy and North Carolina vinegar — dispensed from oversized water coolers. 401 S Howard Ave.; (813) 251-2271, ribitsbbq.com.

4th of July Cafe

How can you not begin your trek at a place advertising "The Best Cuban Coffee in Town" — and then, a few feet above that, the "World's Best Cuban Coffee?" Located just off Interstate 275, the 4th of July Cafe is a dark slice of old Havana, with wood-shuttered windows and ceiling fans dangling from its lofty, painted tin ceiling. There is no music here, only the sound of locals sipping cafe con leche and munching Cuban toast. 1611 N Howard Ave.; (813) 254-2278.

La Casa Sierra Meat Market

West Tampa has no shortage of spots that sell authentic Cubanos. In addition to being a source for whole pigs, La Casa Sierra sells numerous variations on the Cuban sandwich, all of them hot, hefty and amazingly cheap. Two people could eat here for less than the cost of a single cocktail in SoHo. There's also a buffet and a breakfast menu, plus a list of cool refrescos and batidos (a smoothie-like Latin American drink; the mamey, in particular, is worth a try). 1704 N Howard Ave.; (813) 384-1146.

Rainbow Food Mart

From the outside, it's a divey-looking Citgo convenience store. Inside, though, it's all SoHo, the sort of place you can get uncooked mafalda noodles, European candy bars and a Boar's Head wrap. It also contains the SoHo Cafe coffee bar and a gigantic selection of wine and craft beer, including many 750 milliliter bottles. We picked up a bottle of Southern Tier Creme Brulee Imperial Milk Stout — robust, filling and rich as the desserts at the Harry Waugh Dessert Room at nearby Bern's. 1421 S Howard Ave.; (813) 251-6776.

Antojitos Latin ­Cravings

West Tampa isn't entirely Cuban. At the corner of Howard and Columbus sits Antojitos Latin Cravings, a Colombian restaurant and bakery that serves a huge array of South American specialty products. Most mouthwatering: The display case of rich, filling Colombian breads and rolls, from the cheesy pandebono and pan de queso to the sweet, chewy pan de yuca. And of course, you'll find plenty of juices and batidos to keep you hydrated. 2302 W Columbus Drive; (813) 251-9688.

Daily Eats

We're cheating here, as Daily Eats is far from a hole in the wall — it's part of South Howard's prolific Ciccio Restaurant Group (see Page 61), and a well-known brunch spot. But a diner is a diner, and you can't argue with Daily Eats' creative menu, especially its whimsical $5 milkshakes, from the Stay Puff'd (vanilla ice cream, toasted marshmallows and hot fudge) to the American Pie ("one part apple pie, one part vanilla ice cream"). This week's special is the Cap'n Krunch Berry, made from Crunch Berries cereal, vanilla ice cream and strawberries. It may be the only thing more delicious than Crunch Berries themselves. 901 S Howard Ave.; (813) 868-3335, dailyeatstampa.com.

Ciro's Speakeasy

One of the coolest joints in Tampa may also be the darkest spot on Howard, which makes it the perfect place to end your evening. The food at this Prohibition-era club is good, but the bar's really where it's at —the flavorful vintage drinks are all executed with masterful precision. Best to pick up its signature Corn Fed Peach Sour — a simple blend of white dog, honey and peaches — while you're here. You won't find one anywhere else on Howard — or in Tampa, for that matter. Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club, 2109 Bayshore Blvd.; (813) 251-0022, cirosspeakeasy.com.

No reservations needed: Sampling unique, eclectic eats along Tampa's Howard Avenue 07/26/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 27, 2012 9:31am]

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