If you’ve dined out recently, chances are you’ve come across an octopus dish on a menu somewhere.
Charred, grilled, braised and sometimes even raw — the chewy cephalopod is experiencing something of a renaissance in the Tampa Bay area, with diner demand for the popular protein at a steady high.
“Every single restaurant now has octopus on it,” said Wild Child chef and owner Rob Reinsmith.
At his St. Petersburg restaurant, the jerk octopus appetizer is among the bestselling items on the menu. Reinsmith estimates he goes through roughly 60 to 75 pounds of octopus a week.
Other Tampa Bay restaurants, including Tampa’s Oak & Ola and St. Petersburg’s Baba and the Urban Stillhouse, have experienced similar levels of hype for the dish, which has remained a constant on their menus. It’s a trend that’s been mirrored across the globe, spurring experiments in octopus farming and aquaculture operations that could help alleviate some of the pressure on wild octopus fisheries, many of which are in decline.
Over the past decade, interest in octopus has soared; demand and prices for both squid and octopus have been climbing for several years. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the global catch for the species is roughly 420,000 metric tons per year. Market research shows the United States as one of the largest importers of the seafood staple.
Where is all this octopus coming from? Many Tampa Bay restaurants source from Spain. China, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines are also big producers. And though harvesting octopus in Florida waters is legal with a commercial license, depending on the county, it’s unlikely that you’ll come across a locally caught version on a menu anytime soon — there’s simply not that many, and there’s no established fishery for the species here.
The octopus varieties imported from Spain and Portugal tend to be a little larger, higher quality and slightly more expensive than their counterparts from Mexico and Indonesia. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, an organization that offers science-based recommendations for consumers, both Spanish and Portuguese octopus are listed as “good alternatives” to other octopus species caught in places like Indonesia and the Philippines.
Part of what has added to the mystique and draw of octopus served at restaurants is that home cooks tend to be intimidated by the protein in their own kitchens. (Count me in that group.) Cooking octopus doesn’t have to be difficult, Reinsmith said, but the right technique — and plenty of patience — is key.
“It’s easy to undercook it or overcook it,” Reinsmith said. “The trick is knowing when — it’s really just about nailing the cook.”
At his Central Avenue restaurant, the jerk octopus is tender and flavorful thanks to a long poach and soak (roughly two to 2 ½ hours) before a quick char on the flattop, right before serving.
“Low and slow, that’s the move,” Reinsmith said.
For now, I’m alright with leaving the cooking to the pros. Here are some of my favorite Tampa Bay spots to visit whenever I’ve got a hankering for octopus.
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The charred octopus dish featured at this St. Petersburg Mediterranean restaurant ($16) is imported from Spain and has gone through several iterations, including a version served with smoked potatoes, green olives and tomatoes and another plated aside a sweet roasted carrot romesco. These days, it’s served alongside potatoes, celery, sumac-flavored onions, endive and fermented tomatoes.
2701 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-954-3406. eatatbaba.com.
I love that the “octopus squared” ($17) at chef Jeannie Pierola’s South Tampa restaurant is served two ways, giving diners a great perspective of how versatile the dish can be. One tentacle is charred over the restaurant’s 15-foot wood-fired grill and the other is lightly battered and fried until crispy with pimenton. The two versions are complemented by a juicy wedge of charred lemon, crunchy fried chickpeas, a bright green salsa verde and an herb salad.
2909 W Bay to Bay Blvd., Suite 100, Tampa. 813-570-8660. cc-tampa.com.
At this new Portuguese restaurant in St. Petersburg, octopus is sourced directly from Portugal and priced depending on market availability, anywhere from $34 to $40. It’s featured prominently on the menu and shows up in several dishes, but the restaurant’s showstopper is without question the polvo a lagareiro, which features two large tentacles, broiled until soft and smothered in a rich sauce of onions, tomatoes, red and green peppers and plump red potatoes. The final plate is drizzled in a bright Portuguese olive oil and flecked with herbs.
435 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. 727-346-5389. fadofl.com.
Mama’s Greek Cuisine
If there is one octopus dish I’m not sure I can live without, it’s the charbroiled octopus served at Mama’s in Tarpon Springs. Charred and crispy, the jumble of tentacles comes swimming in a pool of garlicky olive oil. It’s a simple dish that sings with simplicity — bucolic and comforting but still wildly flavorful. Pair it with a side of lemony potatoes drizzled in olive oil and oregano and you’ve got yourself a standout meal.
735 Dodecanese Blvd., Suite 40, Tarpon Springs. 727-944-2888. mamasgreekcuisine.net.
Oak & Ola
Chef Anne Kearney couldn’t take the Spanish fire-roasted octopus ($22) off her menu even if she wanted to — the dish has been the restaurant’s most popular item since day one, and for good reason. The octopus is roasted and served alongside a custom-made chorizo from Tampa butcher the Boozy Pig and served with creamy white beans, kale and charred red onions while a hazelnut vinaigrette ties everything together.
1910 N Ola Ave., Tampa. 813-773-1901. oakandola.com.
There are plenty of compelling reasons to dine at Christina Theofilos’ dreamy modern Greek restaurant, and the grilled octopus horiatiki ($24) is a big one. The dish, inspired by the classic Greek village salad, features juicy heirloom tomato wedges, crunchy cucumbers, za’atar-dusted fried chickpeas and tangy strips of bell peppers, red onions and pepperoncinis. Hunks of charred octopus impart a smoky note to every bite while a wedge of burnt lemon adds a welcome burst of acid.
701 N Howard Ave., Tampa. 813-841-5555. eatpsomi.com.
Rene’s Mexican Kitchen
Should you be so lucky to swing by Rene Valenzuela’s Tampa taco truck on a day when octopus is on the menu, I highly suggest you do not pass that up. One of his longer-running seafood specials, it features a play on surf-and-turf with soft hunks of octopus coupled with seared shrimp, roasted poblano peppers and garlic confit ($6). Crispy-fried pork chicharron adds a welcome crunch and contrast in texture while a bright pico de gallo lends a bright and refreshing punch.
4414 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa. 813-500-2510. renesmexicankitchen.com.
The Urban Stillhouse
The grilled octopus dish ($18) has been one of the most in-demand items on the menu at this buzzy St. Petersburg restaurant, and it’s pretty clear why. Chef Kenny Tufo’s dish features a large tentacle that gets a long simmer before being marinated in olive oil and grilled over barrel staves until charred and crispy. The octopus is tossed in a tart lemon vinaigrette and plated atop fresh greens and a fruity romesco sauce, which gets sweetened with garlic confit and tomatoes and thickened with almonds and hazelnuts.
2232 Fifth Ave. S, St. Petersburg. 727-440-8040. theurbanstillhouse.com.
Bold, colorful, multidimensional and carrying a hint of island flair, the jerk octopus at Wild Child is not to be missed. After getting slow-poached until impossibly tender, chef Rob Reinsmith and his team rub each tentacle with a smoky jerk paste seasoned with habanero peppers, scallions, allspice and juniper. A quick sear on the flattop and the octopus gets plated atop a charred scallion crema and garnished with a bouquet of pickles, sweet peppers, watercress, juicy grapefruit segments, sliced fennel, basil and mint. It’s the perfect marriage of acid, char and soft, fruity spice — the kind of powerhouse of a dish that perfectly encapsulates what this restaurant is all about.
2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-954-7425.