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The 10 best dishes our food critic ate in Tampa Bay in 2021

Despite not eating out as much, she still discovered dozens of fantastic meals. | Top Restaurants 2022
The Scacciata Siciliana served at Casa Santo Stefano was one of the best dishes our food critic ate in 2021.
The Scacciata Siciliana served at Casa Santo Stefano was one of the best dishes our food critic ate in 2021. [ Courtesy of Casa Santo Stefano ]
Published Jan. 11|Updated Jan. 11

For many of us, the great takeout game of 2020 stretched well into 2021. To-go meals made up many of my dinners. But despite not eating out as much as I did during pre-pandemic times, I still discovered dozens of exciting new restaurants and fantastic meals. Whittling down that list to my 10 favorite dishes wasn’t easy, and there were more than a few great bites that didn’t quite make the cut. Here are some of the most memorable dishes I ate during the past 12 months.

This story is part of our 2022 Top Restaurants series. Read the other stories:

5 new Tampa Bay bars where the food steals the show

6 newly revamped Tampa Bay restaurants you’ll want to check out

5 Tampa Bay restaurants with great outdoor seating

Bucatini al Pesto

Timpano Hyde Park

The "Parm to Table" experience at Timpano Hyde Park in Tampa includes bucatini with pesto served tableside out of a Parmesan wheel.
The "Parm to Table" experience at Timpano Hyde Park in Tampa includes bucatini with pesto served tableside out of a Parmesan wheel. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

Tableside service is all the rage at the new and reinvigorated Timpano Hyde Park, but the showstopper dish is hands-down the bucatini al pesto. Ask for the “Parm to Table” experience and a server will roll over a cart carrying a giant wheel of Parmesan. (The maneuvering of this gets interesting when the restaurant is jam-packed busy, which is almost always.) The pasta gets prepped directly in the wheel, tossed with hot water (which, together with the cheese, helps emulsify the sauce), a generous drizzle of olive oil and tons of fresh basil snipped right into the bowl. It’s both dinner and a show you won’t want to miss.

1610 W Swann Ave., Tampa. 813-254-5870. timpanohydepark.com.

Related: Timpano reopens this week. Is it the same restaurant?

Dan Dan noodles

Abandon Izakaya

Dan dan noodles feature a lip-numbing Sichuan chili oil, beef and seasonal Chinese greens.
Dan dan noodles feature a lip-numbing Sichuan chili oil, beef and seasonal Chinese greens. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

There’s always something exciting to try at this supper club-turned-restaurant in Seminole, where owners Mitch Beardsley and Chanse Chanthalansy are forever experimenting with creative takes on globally inspired street food. But my favorite dish so far has been the excellent Dan Dan noodles, a hallmark of Sichuan cuisine flavored with the mouth-numbing spice imbued from Sichuan peppercorns, tossed with spicy ground beef and topped with seasonal Chinese greens. Every consecutive bite is more of a scorcher than the last, but the burn is worth it.

7570 Starkey Road, Suite E, Seminole. 727-289-8911. facebook.com/abandonizakaya.

Related: At Abandon Izakaya, a chef's table series finds a new home

Guava jelly doughnut

Valkyrie Donuts

Valkyrie Donuts in St. Petersburg sells a wide selection of vegan doughnuts, including guava jelly-filled versions with cream cheese frosting.
Valkyrie Donuts in St. Petersburg sells a wide selection of vegan doughnuts, including guava jelly-filled versions with cream cheese frosting. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]
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Celine Duvoisin’s egg- and dairy-free doughnut concept, which launched in Orlando and expanded with a second location in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District this summer, is a must-try for any doughnut lover, vegan or not. Creative, over-the-top flavors abound, but the guava jelly-filled version is particularly delicious, slathered with cream cheese frosting and sweet enough to induce a temporary sugar coma.

2444 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. valkyriedoughnuts.com.

Katsu Sando

Rooster & The Till

The Katsu Sando at Rooster & The Till in Seminole Heights in Tampa features Iberico pork cutlets and a yuzu kewpie mayo for dipping.
The Katsu Sando at Rooster & The Till in Seminole Heights in Tampa features Iberico pork cutlets and a yuzu kewpie mayo for dipping. [ Courtesy of Skyler June ]

At a recent dinner at the lauded Seminole Heights restaurant in Tampa, it was like no time had passed at all. (In fact, my last visit was before the pandemic.) The dining room was packed and buzzing with the excitement that can only come from anticipating your next great meal: sumac-charred caulilini, dusted in smoky dukkah spice and dotted with knobs of creamy goat’s milk feta; pickled and grilled Argentinian red shrimp, served atop dollops of cloudlike aerated grits; those perfect, crispy, fiery cobia collars.

But the dish I can’t stop thinking about — even dreaming about — is the Katsu Sando, a genius play on the Japanese sandwich. Here, thick, juicy Iberico pork cutlets are paired with Napa-braised kraut in an XO sauce and sandwiched between two slices of Jameson B. Breadhouse Bakes milk bread. The sandwich is sizzled in chili oil until crispy and served with a creamy yuzu-laced kewpie mayo on the side, perfect for dunking so that each bite is a little salty, porky, crispy and spicy. Is it the best thing I ate all year? Probably.

6500 N Florida Ave., Tampa. 813-374-8940. roosterandthetill.com.

Kugel hash browns

Cru Cellars

Kugel hash browns are served for brunch at Cru Cellars in Palma Ceia.
Kugel hash browns are served for brunch at Cru Cellars in Palma Ceia. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

Palma Ceia wine shop and restaurant Cru Cellars really changed the game when it added a fantastic new brunch menu to the mix in 2021. There’s a lot to gush about at this Tampa spot, from the flights of bubbly (it’s never too early for Champagne) to the sweet outdoor patio setup in the back, but the one dish I can never say no to is the kugel hash browns. Like a latke-kugel hybrid, the creamy potato mix gets baked, sliced into cubes and fried until golden brown and crispy. It’s hard not to order several rounds of these — they’re that good.

Outdoor seating available.

2506 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. 813-831-1117. crucellars.com.

Nam khao

Sap Sap Lao Cafe

Takeout options from Sap Sap Lao Cafe include, clockwise from left, thum mua, nam khao and sai gok.
Takeout options from Sap Sap Lao Cafe include, clockwise from left, thum mua, nam khao and sai gok. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

Spices, fresh herbs and plenty of funk: The flavors emblematic of Laos cuisine come alive at this Pinellas Park newcomer. Nam khao, a delicious crispy rice medley hailing from the country’s capital city, Vientiane, is one of the best examples of this — a triumph of flavors and dimension. Served with large lettuce leaves for wrapping, the rice is flavored and textured with dried, shredded coconut, fried until crispy and tossed with salty, slightly sweet hunks of fermented pork, dried chili peppers and a handful of peanuts, which provide a welcome crunch.

4366 Park Blvd. N, Pinellas Park. 727-623-9730. sapsaplaocafe.com.

Related: A taste of Laos at Sap Sap Lao Cafe

Braised oxtail

Irie Mon Jamaican Grill

Slow-cooked oxtail is served with sweet plantains and rice and peas at Irie Mon inside 22 South, the food hall inside the historic Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg.
Slow-cooked oxtail is served with sweet plantains and rice and peas at Irie Mon inside 22 South, the food hall inside the historic Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The menu — and vendors — frequently change at 22 South, the new food hall inside St. Petersburg’s historic Manhattan Casino. But one constant has been the tasty Jamaican specialties served at Irie Mon Jamaican Grill. I still dream about their braised oxtail, a powerhouse of complex flavors, complemented by sweet plantains and fluffy yellow rice. The sweet and sticky meat carried so much flavor and that fatty, gelatinous goodness oxtail is known for.

Outside seating and takeout available.

642 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg. 727-592-1267.

Related: We checked out St. Petersburg's 22 South

Salsiccia pie

Ground Foods Cafe

The salsiccia pie at Ground Foods Cafe in Tampa's Seminole Heights features almond ricotta, seitan and basil.
The salsiccia pie at Ground Foods Cafe in Tampa's Seminole Heights features almond ricotta, seitan and basil. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

While researching Tampa Bay’s burgeoning vegan and vegetarian scene, I came across Ground Foods Cafe, a petite Italian joint in Tampa’s Seminole Heights with an envelope-pushing menu of vegan pastas and pizzas, all of which are fantastic. My favorite dish here is the salsiccia pie — a savory square pizza topped with spicy ground seitan sausage, a sweet San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh basil, chili flakes and, the real kicker, thick dollops of creamy almond ricotta. I almost couldn’t believe it was vegan.

6428 N Florida Ave., Tampa. 813-515-7562. groundfoodscafe.com.

Related: Tampa Bay is experiencing a vegan renaissance

Scacciata Siciliana

Casa Santo Stefano

The Scacciata Siciliana at Casa Santo Stefano in Tampa features bread topped with tomato sauce, garlic, onion, Pecorino Romano and caciocavallo cheeses.
The Scacciata Siciliana at Casa Santo Stefano in Tampa features bread topped with tomato sauce, garlic, onion, Pecorino Romano and caciocavallo cheeses. [ Courtesy of Casa Santo Stefano ]

Was it really a party if someone didn’t show up with a tray of scachatta? The Scacciata Siciliana at Casa Santo Stefano tastes like what I imagine nostalgia tastes like for anyone who grew up in Tampa. The version at Richard Gonzmart’s Ybor City restaurant, like so many other dishes here, is an homage to the Sicilian immigrants who came to Tampa during the late 1800s. The thick, doughy slices arrive topped with a sweet, garlicky tomato sauce and a blend of salty Pecorino Romano and caciocavallo cheeses. It’s a simple, comforting and delicious dish.

1607 N 22nd St., Tampa. 813-248-1925. casasantostefano.com.

Related: Richard Gonzmart’s new restaurant Casa Santo Stefano opens

Smoked swordfish tacos

Rene’s Mexican Kitchen

Specials at Rene's Mexican Kitchen include salmon and smoked swordfish tacos.
Specials at Rene's Mexican Kitchen include salmon and smoked swordfish tacos. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

Chef Rene Valenzuela is always coming up with innovative taco creations at his popular food truck in southeast Seminole Heights in Tampa. The regular menu is great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m partial to trying out whatever Valenzuela is experimenting with that week. One particularly memorable trip, I sampled a smoked swordfish taco where the meaty fish had been brined in a dark ale, smoked over pecan wood and shredded and tossed in a chile morita sauce. Served on a warm tortilla and topped with pico de gallo, shaved cabbage and a creamy tomatillo sauce, each bite was a combination of smoky, spicy and crunchy — the most unique and tasty taco I’d had all year.

4414 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa. 813-500-2510. renesmexicankitchen.com.

Related: For Taco Bus founder Rene Valenzuela, a delicious second act
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