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  1. Food

Heights Public Market at Armature Works is a game changer, the kind of ambitious food hall that elevates Tampa Bay's culinary scene

There are 14 different food vendors at Heights Public Market at Armature Works in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Feb. 27, 2018

TAMPA

There they were. I caught them red-handed. Folks from the Hall on Franklin, Tampa's first hip food hall concept that opened last year in Tampa Heights, were skulking around (okay, eating dinner) at the brand new 22,000-square-foot Heights Public Market at Armature Works, a much larger food hall concept that opened weeks ago just a few blocks away. Scoping out the competition, right?

Nope, just enjoying the sights and taking in the glory of this reimagining of a historic Tampa space. A project like this brings cachet to all of Tampa Bay, they said. The cynic in me said, "Mmm, hmm." But the more I wandered from the interior courtyard (stopping to watch many better-behaved dogs than my own), past the 14 different food vendors, the antique foot-treadle hand-washing sink (above which hang some really atmospheric old factory machine parts, no clue what for), by the free bubbly water dispensers, around the many moodily crusty chimneys, and past the demonstration kitchen, I started to think they were right.

Terms like "game changer" get bandied about, frequently hyperbole. In this case, it seems about right. Since its opening, the market has seen 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a day, that number spiking to 10,000 to 15,000 on Saturdays and Sundays. It's young families, tourists, flocks of young professionals with tablets, date-nighters, retirees and snowbirds. Everyone is curious about this food hall trend that has swept the nation. There's still much to finish at Armature Works, according to developers Chas Bruck and Adam Harden. Next up: tons of landscaping outside and a rooftop bar, then a $41 million six-floor office building with 150,000 square feet of space, then a boutique hotel, and finally a 195-foot-tall water tower that they've salvaged.

It's big, it's bold and based on a couple of recent dine-arounds, it has so much to recommend. My original plan was to do 14 separate review chunks, plus an extra chunk for the just-opened and very good fully sit-down restaurant Steelbach. But some of my observations are about the synergy of the concepts and how the whole thing flows.

On a first visit, you're going to browse for a bit, wandering by the different vendors and identifying what you're in the mood for. Then you're going to find a home base, and the seating area that resonates. (There are some, as with Hemingway's, Graze 1910 and Ichicoro Imoto, within the space of the individual vendors.) Some vendors don't take cash; all actually seem to prefer credit cards (using the finger-signature Square, which we're all going to have to get better at — my signature looks like an EKG line).

Wobbliest things: The hours at the market still seem to be in transition. On a recent night, some vendors were closed or shutting down by 8 p.m., which makes sitting with a glass of wine at Cru Cellars or enjoying a cocktail at Fine & Dandy odd when the sounds are the bangs and scrapes of nightly cleanup. There is still a rolled ice cream vendor yet to open, but I would say sweet things/dessert are in scant supply overall.

Union by Commune + Co. and Fine & Dandy use glassware; everywhere else it's paper. (Cru has these amazing sippy-cup to-go wine glasses that don't slosh your shoes.) Bruck says there's an extensive recycling program and regularly scheduled trash pickup times for vendors, but I still worry about the volume of plastic silverware and cardboard boxes. A few places offer metal trays for you to walk your food away, others only to-go boxes, which can make sharing hard because not everyone will have a spill-catching receptacle in front of them.

The developers have done a great job representing a breadth of cuisines as well as the full spectrum from guilty indulgence to healthy foods.

At the top of the heap on the healthy side is Swami Juice, which started in Boca Raton and came to Tampa on MacDill Avenue a few years back. Kerry Hanan and Kim Dionisio are in the business of cold-pressed juice with a shelf life of 96 hours, packaged in glass bottles. (They give you free juice if you recycle.) They produce the juice in the back and have a small prana shot bar at the front (ginger, turmeric, etc.) with a grab-and-go case for bottled juices ($8 to $10) and, a new addition, a range of acai bowls, this "superfood" from Brazil bedding down with all manner of fruit and almond milk, hemp protein and such.

Now you're going to need to counteract that with something sinful, right? I've got just the thing. Head over to Hemingway's and plow into an order of house-made chicharrones ($10), fat, chewy, crispy pork skin, plenty of salt and lime, paired with a plastic ramekin of cilantro aioli and another of seriously blistering hot sauce. I also worked my way through a very laudable Cuban sandwich (La Segunda bread, nicely pressed; $12) with crunchy-edged, tender-centered yucca fries, a pleasant but unremarkable black beans and rice ($4) and garlic tostones that called out for a little mayo-ketchup.

Zukku plays to lots of current trends, with customizable poke bowls, "sushi burritos" (really big sushi rolls wrapped in nori and then paper so they don't fall apart on you) and more traditional sushi rolls. It's a point-and-choose kiosk with an array of small bowls of stuff that can be assembled mix and match, with plenty of cubed ahi and tofu, avocado, spicy aioli and eel sauce. We enjoyed the bright colors and contrasting textures of an ahi poke bowl with brown rice (pretty pricey at $15.45), an all-veggie Buddha burrito ($11.95) and a Hamachi dragon roll ($14). All competent and fresh-tasting, but I would say the servers behind the counter, including one of the principals, seemed absolutely done dealing with people. The problem with all-day service (which is the point: to utilize this space 16 hours a day, not just the couple of hours for lunch service and the couple for dinner) is that you need to restaff so that no one is routinely working long slogs.

There are miles to go before we're done here. Ray and Lauren Menendez have the adorably nostalgic Graze 1910, like a movie-set nod to old-fashioned diners, but with a culinary aesthetic that hits the right notes (an avocado-egg salad open-faced tartine, $7; another with smoked trout, $9; a grain bowl with kale, rice, chicken, veggies and little clods of goat cheese and a bit of pesto, $10). I haven't seen what they do for brunch but I'm guessing it's a mob scene, with prosecco on tap that you can get with a Hyppo ice pop to waggle in it.

The two meatiest vendors are Inside the Box Café, which roasts and smokes all its own deli meats for a range of sandwiches (sandwiches $10.59-$12.59; the concept benefiting Metropolitan Ministries and employing some folks who were previously homeless), and B'n'B Butcher and Barbeque, which traffics in brisket ($8.50 as a sandwich), pulled pork and down-home comfort foods like fried bologna sandwiches ($9) and chicken biscuits ($6). Oh, and Cru is doing straightforward steak frites ($16) with a range of sauces, a super idea.

I can feel it, your attention is wavering. But there's more: Ava, an outpost of the South Tampa pizza place but with different pizzas and panini; Ichicoro Imoto, a pared-down ramen-and-bowls concept from the Seminole Heights heavy-hitter (which also opened the larger Ane in St. Petersburg in December); as well as a revolving vendor that for the first four months will be Surf and Turf, a food truck-turned-brick and mortar that specializes in things like Maine lobster rolls and rosemary steak sandwiches. O Cocina was a slated vendor, but on my last visit it had failed to appear, and Empamamas, another food truck-turned-restaurant, has appeared in its place, its signature empanada, the Tampa Girl, a spin on a Cuban sandwich tucked into a flaky, golden, fried pastry.

This actually speaks to one of my questions about the market: The substitution of Empamamas means there isn't anything squarely in the Mexican space, a cuisine that clearly Tampa Bay has been wild for in the past few years. There's one more as-of-yet unassigned vendor space, but will the developers tinker as the market matures? Add an oyster bar, maybe a gourmet cookie vendor (please, no more cupcakes or mini doughnuts), subtract a vendor that isn't performing as well as others?

Around the country, this new breed of indoor market works if the offerings are synergistic and not duplicative, if it serves the community as a cohesive and curated attempt at something for everyone, offered in a space that has dynamism and buzz. Just a few weeks into its life, Heights Public Market seems to be doing precisely that.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.

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