ST. PETERSBURG — Plumes of white smoke billowed from a barbecue grill Saturday at Vinoy Park, as spectators sampled Cajun chicken, pulled pork and fried shrimp.
They were among hundreds who scanned the booths that filled the downtown park for the annual Taste of Pinellas. They sampled culinary delights and awaited headliners Sheryl Crow and Ziggy Marley, scheduled to perform later in the day.
Meanwhile, a mile and a half away at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, a smaller crowd munched on everything from tortillas to Cajun food, during downtown's first food truck rally.
At both events, some people came for the music, some for the atmosphere. But if there was any single reason to be in St. Petersburg on Saturday, it was the food.
Food truck organizers scheduled the rally to coincide with the Taste of Pinellas, hoping food enthusiasts would cross-pollinate, journeying through downtown for both events.
But for many attendees, the choice seemed to be one or the other.
For St. Petersburg residents John and Marissa Terrana, the Taste of Pinellas is a must-visit each year. They come for the cause — proceeds from the event benefit All Children's Hospital, where Marissa's father works.
But the Terranas, who attended Taste with their friend Jason DeCou, also come to try some of the more expensive eats offered at sharp discounts.
"It's a great opportunity to try a lot of restaurants that I've been dying to go to for a long time," DeCou said. The group had already purchased food tickets and had eyes on the macaroni and cheese with lobster from Bella Brava and the fondue samples from the Melting Pot.
"Fondue for six tickets? Yes, please," John Terrana said.
Chicago natives Jay and Beth Sussman visited the Taste for the first time last year and felt compelled to return.
"Compared to Taste of Chicago, this is unbelievable," Jay Sussman said as he sampled an empanada from Empanada World of South Tampa.
The costs are less, Sussman said. The food is more. And the crowds, while sizable, are not too many. "I'm happy to pay 10 bucks for parking to enjoy all this."
At USF St. Petersburg, about 100 people wandered the parking lot near Sixth Avenue S and First Street, scanning the menus of the 13 food trucks.
"We're surveying all of them," said Vicki Gaskin-Butler, a psychology instructor at the school. She browsed the trucks with her husband, Malcolm Butler, who is a professor of education, and their two sons. "We were curious," she said. "When we saw it announced we thought we would come and take a look."
Their sons enjoyed an offering from the Fat Tortillas Southwest Grill truck. When they finished, the family planned to attend a birthday party.
If not for the party, "we'd be going to see Ziggy Marley (at Taste of Pinellas)," Malcolm Butler said.
David Meaux, 40, of Tampa, attended the rally with business in mind. A New Orleans native, he plans to open the Bayou Bistro, a Creole and Cajun food truck, in the next two weeks.
"I came up with the idea about 10 years ago," Meaux said. "Back then, everyone told me it was crazy and it would never work."
Hurricane Katrina forced Meaux to move to Tampa. When the food trucks rose in popularity last year, he seized on the idea.
"It's not going anywhere," he said. "It's just getting bigger and bigger."
Reach Dan Sullivan at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]