In what is likely a first in the 25-year run of the annual Taste of Pinellas, this year's music lineup is taking equal billing with the star of the show: the food. Lots of delights in the culinary lineup, from pulled-pork sliders to Vietnamese sandwiches and Asian glazed shrimp. There should be more than enough to keep you noshing between Bonnie Raitt, Chris Isaak, Buddy Guy and Colbie Caillat. Some local chefs will be on hand for cooking demonstrations, along with Johnny Ciao, the so-called culinary rocker, who will appear at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Ciao has cooked for Carlos Santana, Willie Nelson, Marlon Brando, the Grateful Dead and Michael Jackson, among others. He'll prepare some signature dishes, tell stories and play his harmonica. The centerpiece of the festival is an array of booths featuring more than 40 restaurants — nearly all from Pinellas, along with a few national chains — selling small-plate samples. You buy tickets (10 for $5) and exchange them for food. Each restaurant sets its own prices, from 50 cents to $6, but mostly $3 and $4. These are small bites and the money can add up fast, so it's best to plan.
Try something new: Pinellas is a big sprawl so skip your neighborhood faves.
Graze the gamut: Think appetizer, entree (or two) and dessert.
Buddy up: Go with someone willing to share so you can try even more.
Be adventurous: Never tried corn bread pudding or gator tail? Ever wondered what a muffuletta is? Now's your chance — and for only a few bucks.
The right bites
Here's a list of my picks of dishes worth checking out:
Vietnamese sandwiches by Seasons Cafe & Bakery in Pinellas Park. Served on French bread stuffed with myriad meats, shredded carrots, daikon, cilantro, cucumber and jalapeno, these small subs hit all the notes — crunchy, smooth, savory, sweet, sour and spicy.
Memphis-style baby back ribs by Poppa's BBQ, a veteran of the competitive barbecue circuit and one of area's best new 'cue joints.
Asian glazed shrimp over coconut scented rice by MadFish in St. Pete Beach. Chef Jackie drew raves for this at the Tampa Bay Blues Fest last month.
Mexican-style corn on the cob by Red Mesa in St. Petersburg. This ubiquitous Mexican street food with a schmear of mayo, a dusting of chili powder and a squeeze of lime is perfect walking-around food.
Baklava by Mythos Greek Taverna in Clearwater. Honey sweet, crispy, nutty — what's not to like about baklava?
Blackened sea scallops by Snappers Sea Grill in St. Pete Beach. Sweet, juicy and a little spicy.
Fontina-stuffed veal meatball sliders by BellaBrava in St. Petersburg, one of nine restaurants new to the fest this year.
Greens by Mrs. B's Southern Heritage. Good for you and tasty, too.
Fresh shucked oysters by Central Avenue Oyster Bar, at the bargain price of $1 each.