By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
There is a very old soup cookbook by Louis De Gouy. The author is a fanatical soup booster, for sure, but he says one thing that rings true: "Soup is cuisine's kindest course. It breathes reassurance; it steams consolation."
Judy Staunko serves a lot of soup and, as it happens, is very reassuring and consoling. For years she had a takeout and delivery spot on Fourth, servicing nearby businesses with lunches of nourishing salads, sandwiches and soups.
As one of the founders of the Saturday Morning Market, she and brother Bill had a booth selling a similar array. Repeatedly fielding the question "Where do we find your food during the week?" they began to look around for a cafe location. Judy attended First Unity, and in the summer of 2008 she started doing a post-service brunch at the church on Sundays, putting out an array of salads, soups and warm casseroles for $7 a head.
That led to weekday lunches, and Spice Routes started getting a following. But it's all a little hush-hush and on the down low. There's no sign; walk into First Unity and hang a left down the hall. There's no set menu; offerings change every day, and you can have the day's menu faxed or e-mailed to you. The cafe looks like a church meeting room, because it is; if you prefer eating in the church's Wings Bookstore and coffee shop around the corner, Spice Routes will deliver your food there. In fact, if you want to take the Staunkos' food home for dinner after work, put in your order and they'll have it waiting for you at the bookstore.
And what might you want to take home? Soup. On a couple of visits, I was smitten by a creamy curried roasted cauliflower and the Mayan pumpkin and corn (both $6 for 16 ounces, $11 for 32). Seasonings can be exotic, but the overall feel is comfort food (thus, the tagline "global soul food" seems quite apt).
I would say the kitchen's other strength is interesting vegetable preparations, from a salad topped with sweetly caramelized butternut squash, blueberries and feta ($6.50), to a cheesy portobello quesadilla ($6.50). Even the rib-sticking meat loaf dinner ($7.50) was chock-full of celery, carrot, onion and plum tomatoes, a good way to get those servings of veggies in, especially when accompanied by a little tossed salad (the house citrus vinaigrette is lovely).
Crockery and silverware aren't glamorous; nor is the kitchen, viewed through a pass-through window. It's got a grass roots, seat-of-the-pants charm, and everyone seems to be on a first-name basis. Spice Routes may be named in homage to Marco Polo's intrepid adventuring for foreign bounty, but cran-oat bars ($2.50) and comforting shepherd's pie ($6.50, also a regular part of the Sunday brunch) seem straight out of Mom's playbook.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.