Not long ago, the 15-year-old popcorn machine at the historic Tampa Theatre caught fire, causing some $2,000 in damage. So last week, the theater announced it was seeking $10,000 in donations for a new one.
"The moment that smell hits you, you just have to have it: TAMPA THEATRE'S FAMOUS POPCORN," the non-profit theater stated in a news release. A new machine — a Gold Medal model #2911ENB with a 52-ounce kettle — would almost double the theater's current batch capacity. "And more capacity," the theater claimed, "will mean faster-moving lines at the concessions stand!"
Ten grand sounds like a lot for a popcorn machine, but the Tampa Theatre is making it worth donors' while by offering rewards like free popcorn, tickets to a "popcorn party" and your name in lights on the theater's famous marquee. So far, it's working — within days, the campaign was already 75 percent funded.
Here's our issue, though. In announcing the campaign, the theater said: "For decades, patrons have claimed that Tampa Theatre has the best popcorn in town."
Repeat: The best. Popcorn. In town.
That's a bold statement. It's also kind of confounding. How can anyone lay claim to "the best popcorn in town?"
Isn't it what you pile on your bag of popcorn that makes the difference? In the lobby of the Muvico Sundial in St. Petersburg, you'll find a pair of seasoning bars stocked with industrial-sized shakers of Kernel Season's flavor powder — white cheddar, nacho cheddar, garlic parmesan and ranch — and that stuff is so salty, so tasty, so irresistible that Muvico sells take-home vials at the snack counter.
Then again, simply adding flavored powder does not great popcorn make; Kernel Season's doesn't have the same effect on homemade Jiffy Pop as it does on true movie popcorn. Fact is, popcorn is such a site-specific treat that it's hard to find anyplace outside a stadium or theater that attempts to do it well.
It may not surprise you to learn that William Dean Chocolates, in addition to being an award-winning chocolatier, also prides itself on its popcorn, sold in 11- to 12-ounce bags for $12.50 a pop. Both varieties — macadamia and coconut and cinnamon pecan — are caramel corn with notes of honey and vanilla bean, and they come drizzled in Valrhona chocolate (white for the macadamia and coconut, dark for the cinnamon pecan). They're so over-the-top rich that they can barely be considered popcorn. It's like eating a bag of candy.
Numerous independent vendors sell gourmet popcorn and kettle corn through the mail and at farmer's markets. Most of them don't have standalone stores, but one that is worth spotlighting is iPop Gourmet Popcorn, part of A Piece of Cake & Desserts bakery in Tampa. iPop sells popcorn in a number of wild flavors — strawberry, Cajun, caramel espresso, strawberry, biscuits and gravy — and their specialty is creating custom "popcorn bars" for weddings and special events. There's not really a walk-in storefront, per se, but if you're planning a special occasion, stop by their Hillsborough Avenue store for a sample.
A couple of hip Tampa hangouts put their own sleek spin on popcorn. Taps Wine and Beer Merchants sells air-popped blue-kernel popcorn with truffle oil and Asiago cheese ($5), while Ciro's Speakeasy sells popcorn tossed in black truffle oil, truffle butter and salt ($9, which sounds like a lot before you remember how much you spend on snacks at the movies). Both come in heaping helpings suitable for sharing over drinks at happy hour, and they bring their own relatively complex flavor profiles to the popcorn game — Ciro's is crisp with a hint of the truffle butter's exotic musk; Taps' is fluffier, with the cheese lending an almost peppery spice.
Unlike the bright white kernels at Taps and Ciro's, the Tampa Theatre's popcorn is golden yellow. It's popped with coconut oil and Peter's Movie Time butter-flavored salt — that's right, the butter flavoring is popped right in, which explains why the theater offers no additional butter topping. Every bite is buttery yet totally dry with a texturally satisfying crunch. "It if squeaks instead of crunches, that's a bad sign," said Tampa Theatre spokeswoman Jill Witecki.
So is the Tampa Theatre really Tampa Bay's king of corn? Theirs is saltier and more buttery than the popcorn at Taps and Ciro's, even if it's not as unique or gastronomically ambitious. But there is something to be said for doing one simple thing really well. Put it this way: Even if the Tampa Theatre doesn't have the best popcorn in town, there's probably no place you'd rather have it more.