It’s a brand new year, and with that I’m off to eagerly explore restaurants across the Tampa Bay area again.
Though there are plenty of newcomers to look forward to in 2021, I know my next great bite could just as easily come from a place that’s been around for five minutes as it could from a restaurant that’s closing in on several decades. I’m still mostly getting takeout and occasionally dining outdoors these days, and thankfully there are plenty of restaurants still catering to a COVID-19 cautious crowd.
From a new restaurant selling spicy Vietnamese noodle soups to a local ice cream shop perfecting Tampa Bay-inspired flavors, here are a few of the spots and dishes I’m loving right now.
Bun Bo Hue
Yummy House owner John Zhao quietly opened this Vietnamese restaurant last month, in the building formerly home to the Local in South Tampa. It’s the first Vietnamese concept for Zhao, whose popular mini-chain of Chinese restaurants has garnered a loyal local following throughout the area.
My interest was piqued when I saw that the menu featured bun bo hue ($13.99), the spicy lemongrass-tinged noodle soup hailing from Vietnam’s central city, Hue. I’ve had the dish on many occasions before — including in Hue — and absent a few ingredients, the version here is pretty spot on.
Instead of the thin, flat or vermicelli noodles ubiquitous in pho and other noodle soups, the rice noodles here are thick, cylindrical and bouncy with plenty of chew to them. The broth, made from boiling beef and pork bones for hours, makes a rich and intensely flavorful soup that arrives bobbing with thin slices of beef brisket, sliced pork and Vietnamese sausage.
The soup here lacked the cubes of congealed pork blood traditionally featured in the dish, but that’s a common omission at restaurants wanting to appease milder palates. Shaved red onions, cabbage, jalapenos, lime and fresh basil add all the extra aromatic oomph needed.
The restaurant’s takeout game is on point, too. After a 45-minute trip back to St. Petersburg, my bun bo hue was still piping hot.
3701 Henderson Blvd., Tampa. 813-542-1527. pho813.com.
Mezze trio, to-go
Ordering a large plate of spreads, dips and snacks to share with a group is one of the true highlights of dining at most Mediterranean restaurants. Of course, there is something about communal dining practices that feels a little different during pandemic times, though one can certainly still find ways to share and enjoy food together in a safe way.
If you’re not feeling comfortable dining out just yet, St. Petersburg’s Baba has a great takeout setup for some of their mezze options, including the spread trio ($16), where a selection of three dips arrive packed in paper half-pint containers, each one decorated just as artfully as if they were being served at the restaurant.
Labneh, a thick and tangy strained yogurt, arrives with a swirl of olive oil and za’atar spice mix made with wild thyme, sumac, cumin and sesame seeds. The hummus — one of the best versions around — is smooth and velvety, rich with the flavors of citrus and cumin. And the muhammara, a thick, roasted red pepper and walnut spread, comes dotted with crunchy walnut chunks. The trio is accompanied by puffy pita and a round of chewy, flavorful za’atar bread.
A bonus: The portions here are quite generous, which makes for great snacking several days later.
2701 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-954-3406. eatatbaba.com.
The Original Pete
It’s taken me a lot of research, plenty of bagels and far too many calories to come to this conclusion, but here it is: Pete’s General in St. Petersburg makes one of the best bagel sandwiches around.
My formative years as a young reporter living in New York City were fueled by bagels and lox, so this is not something I take lightly. What a thrill to find that the Tampa Bay area has tons of great contenders! St. Pete Bagel Co. and Bella’s Bakes are two personal favorites, but Pete’s General is my go-to whenever I’ve got a real hankering.
There are a few different sandwich combinations here, but I go for the Original Pete ($11.25), a traditional pairing of thick, silky slices of lox and a schmear of cream cheese. Crispy cucumber slices, tart pickled onions, capers and an herby handful of dill add extra crunch and pizzazz. I like this sandwich on one of the chewy salt bagels, but it’s great on any number of the options offered here.
Since reopening the general store last year, the shop’s owners continue to operate an online ordering system using a walkup window out front. A handful of distanced picnic tables offers outside dining options for those who want to stay and hang out. Me? I take mine to-go and grab a seat at one of the benches at nearby Historic Round Lake Park.
495 Seventh Ave. N, St. Petersburg. 727-440-6183. petesgeneral.com.
While doing some research for an upcoming outdoor dining guide, I stumbled into Paul’s Landing at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club. Besides sporting a genuinely lovely outdoor patio with views of the Vinoy Marina, the menu here has some stellar options, including a top-notch smoked fish spread served with pickled veggies and thick slices of grilled sourdough.
It’s hard to top the lobster caprese ($20), which arrives with a generous portion of juicy lobster meat atop a mound of creamy burrata and marinated heirloom tomatoes. The plate is garnished with a handful of spicy arugula and basil, a swish of lemon oil, and a sweet pop from balsamic vinegar pearls — a decadent dish every bit worth the slightly higher price tag.
501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. 727-824-8007. paulslandingstpete.com.
Cafe con Leche and Guava Pastelito ice cream
If you haven’t checked out one of Chill Bros. two Tampa locations, may I suggest you do so very soon? Like, maybe tonight?
Owner Maximilian Chillura and his siblings opened the first of their casual scoop shops in Ybor City in late 2019 and the second location recently launched in South Tampa on Bay to Bay Boulevard.
The decor is inspired by the communal, family-friendly vibe of old-school ice cream parlors and the focus is on small-batch ice cream flavors made with regional ingredients, like milk from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka City, local eggs, pure cane sugar and sea salt.
My favorite flavors here are the ones that draw on local Tampa Bay food culture for inspiration, including the Cafe con Leche, made with Buddy Brew coffee, and the Guava Pastelito, a creamy and tart combo with bits of crispy pastry and swirls of zingy guava paste. One of the holdovers from the pandemic is that all of the flavors are available to-go in pint-sized containers ($10).
1910 E Seventh Ave., Tampa, 813-247-2767; 3302 W Bay to Bay Blvd., Tampa, 813-835-0008. chillbros.com.