The need for beads has been satiated. Horny pirates spent two weekends in Tampa racking up plastic loot by filling their gullets with drink and showing their booties during Gasparilla celebrations.
Now, Mardi Gras is upon us, and more beads will abound on the Gulf Coast, if you're willing to make the drive. But you don't have to take a 10-hour ride if you want to eat just like our neighbors to the west. Local Cajun and seafood eateries offer affordable options to soothe your hankering for something to warm your soul and not burn your lips.
Sad about not being able to go New Orleans this year? Don't worry, Ricky P's Orleans Bistro in St. Petersburg has you covered all weekend, beginning with a crawfish boil at 5 p.m. Friday. Fresh-from-Louisiana mudbugs will be sold by the pound with potatoes, corn and sausage. Saturday night, the restaurant is having a "mask" or traditional costume party that will also feature a second-line parade down Central Avenue. On Sunday, a Gospel Brunch will round out the weekend festivities. Then on Fat Tuesday, Ricky P's is giving out beads and king cake as well as hosting a live band. Grab your friends and make a weekend of it, celebrating like you're on Bourbon Street.
If you're just looking for some vittles, the standards are all on Ricky P's menu, from po' boy sandwiches to etouffée, and all the tastes in between. Tampa Bay-ified versions of Louisiana classics like the Tropical Storm (a cousin to Bourbon Street's famed mixed drink the hurricane) will set the mood for some debauchery.
Deep-fried everything reigns supreme at Chancy's Catfish Shack in Plant City, but the real Cajun treat is their frog legs, massive and meaty, that make you question where these terror frogs reside. The country-kitchen atmosphere with picnic tablecloths and patrons in camouflage hats adds to the backwater experience. When your waitress serves up a single paper plate ready to crumble under the sheer weight of your meal, it feels like you're really eating at your grandma from Louisiana's house. The best value is the Swamp Plate ($16.95 plus tax), which offers six big frog legs, fried scallops, hush puppies, two sides and the choice of a catfish or grouper fillet. Get there early for lunch. With fewer than 12 tables, the place fills up fast.
One doesn't think of seafood feasts when Ybor City comes to mind, but that's what's waiting for the brave who venture to Shrimp & Co. across the street from the historic Columbia Restaurant. Known for its shrimp dishes, it's Shrimp & Co.'s Louisiana Steam Pot that will transport your taste buds to the Big Easy. Filled with 2½ pounds of steamed crawfish, shrimp, Andouille sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob tossed in an unmistakable Louisiana hot sauce, it's enough food for two people, but you don't have to share. Because of the freshness of the ingredients, Shrimp & Co. charges a market price for the mountain of Cajun goodness. Early this week, the going rate was around $25. No need to wear anything fancy; tasty crawfish juice and hot sauce will just cramp your style.
Eating at Cajun Café on the Bayou in Pinellas Park makes you feel like you just zipped up the swamp in your fanboat to catch lunch in between gator-wrestling shows. Sitting out on the open deck and watching egrets stroll out of the high grass into the water for fish is a great mood-setter for the dishes to come.
The crawfish cornbread ($9) steals the show, as an unassuming appetizer that packs all the down-home flavors of Louisiana in a moist, cakelike loaf with a surprise of tender crawfish meat in the middle. The menu is full of Bayou classics, but all are well executed, including the po' boys, which come a roll that's tasty all by its lonesome.
Vegetarians need to read the menu carefully, as seemingly veg-friendly dishes Red Beans and Rice and Dirty Rice are made in the authentic style and chock full of sausage and beef, respectively. Normally closed on Monday and Tuesday, Cajun Café on the Bayou will open its doors on Fat Tuesday and have a live zydeco band to entertain while you eat.