Indigenous – Sarasota, FL

Sarasota, Florida. It’s not exactly at the top of my list of food-centric cities, but it is the place where I happen to call home at the moment. So as always, before I made the move, I did my research to see what kind of eats my new town had to offer. My wife has joined me in this task the last two times we had to move, and I’m proud to say she’s growing quite adept at sniffing out the good stuff. After three months, her discovery of Indigenous, a rustic little place just south of Main St. in Sarasota, has taken the proverbial cake.

Like me, chef and owner of Indigenous, Steve Phelps, can’t seem to sit still. After paying his dues at a family run restaurant in Ohio and making his way through the food scene in Cleveland, he found himself in Sarasota. In a few years he saw his shot to open his own place and took it. Seven years later, I arrived and booked a table at Indigenous before my last box was unpacked. My urgency was rewarded with a meal that could stand up against some of the best restaurants in the country. I get the feeling Chef Phelps would be too humble to say this himself so I’ll say it for him, Indigenous is single-handedly raising the bar for quality eats in Sarasota and the town is better for it.

Indigenous sign

The menu is at once worldly, taking cues from New Orleans to Southeast Asia, and distinctly regional with ingredients sourced from nearby Providence Cattle Co. and Open Blue Sea Farms in Miami. A cozy wild mushroom bisque spiked with truffle croutons was enticing despite the balmy weather. Chef Phelps’ take on a BLT, an attractive composition of pork belly, tomato marmalade and jus aioli, is a clear display of his love for Sarasota. Chefs often make the false assumption that small town demographics are less sophisticated than in the city. It’s nice to see him flex his culinary muscles a little!

Indigenous apps

The workout continued with a glistening plate of cobia crudo. Crisp sea beans and sesame quinoa played it crispy opposite the supple fish, while sweet soy and ginger crème fraîche seamlessly wove Asia into the dish. (Something about supremely fresh raw fish makes me rhyme, who knew)

Cooked fish on the other hand, is rarely an area of the menu I spend much time on. Strangely though, as our waiter explained the Hook to Fork special that night, I was caught…well you know. Red grouper was the star, perched (I’m sorry about the fish puns and clichés, I’m not sure what’s come over me today) atop a corn cake with a luxurious pea tendril remoulade. The depth of flavor in the grouper was unparalleled. As strange as it sounds it had the unctuous mouth feel reminiscent of pork belly at times. This dish has joined hamachi kama and miso glazed black cod in the rarefied air that is my cooked fish pantheon.

Red Grouper

 Dessert was no less impressive than the savory dishes. Lavender is a fickle ingredient in my opinion. Incorporating it into a cupcake and cream can be a tight wire act as the line between floral and hand soap is razor-thin. Thankfully the chef knew exactly where that line was, deftly navigating the flavor with the same confidence he displayed throughout the meal. The cupcake had the consistency of a fresh, buttery madeleine, one of my childhood favorites.

Indigenous Lavender Cupcake

I never truly feel at home in a new city until I’ve found the great spots to get a meal, after all, that’s where some of life’s greatest comfort is found. I have Chef Phelps and Indigenous to thank for much of the comfort I feel now, so early on. Indigenous isn’t just a great restaurant for Sarasota, it’s a great restaurant in general. So if you want a break from the Tampa food scene but don’t want to skimp on quality, get down here and give Indigenous a shot.

Indigenous on Urbanspoon

Painter’s Palate – Sarasota, FL

The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a newly acquainted food friend.

JP: Hey do you want to go to lunch?

JT: Sure, where are we going?

JP: This place called Painter’s Palate.

JT: What kind of a name is that? What kind of food do they serve?

JP: Thai-Italian fusion…

JT:…oh dear god.

Admittedly, fusion cuisine doesn’t have a great reputation here Eat a Duck HQ, so I kept my hopes in check as I made my way to the newborn restaurant from the folks behind Sarasota’s Thai outpost, Drunken Poet. I was the first to arrive, so I had a moment to study the menu, hoping to glean some information on the upcoming meal. I was happy to see that most of the menu was rooted firmly in Southeast Asia with a few exceptions, like the pizza and tartine sections. Thai pizza sounds enticing…but with marinara sauce? Brie and curry tartine? Suffice it to say I was concerned about Painter’s Palate. Thai-Italian fusion, a name that gives no clue about what kind of food you might find, an empty dining room, things were looking grim.

My concern didn’t have time to change to worry before my compatriots arrived. Since we were the only diners, we asked to see the dinner menu as the lunch version was missing a couple of items we had heard good things about. The first glimmer of hope came as we read through the appetizer section…and then proceeded to order every item, along with a spicy basil pizza for good measure.

Any worries I had were immediately assuaged when an order of duck rolls arrived. An intriguing tartar-like sauce bound the crispy, golden rolls to the plate. I was knocked out by the succulent duck meat, juicy and full of spices. The Thaicos followed and were another early hit. Healthy slabs of lightly seared ahi tuna topped with fresh seaweed salad laid in a crisp shrimp chip were delicious. In my opinion it could have done without the imitation crab underneath, but it didn’t take away from the dish.

Painter's Palate apps 1

The crispy wings were a small misstep as they seemed to have been left in the fryer a touch too long and the accompanying jar seemed to contain straight duck sauce. I can’t blame the chef too much since we did bombard him with a large order, at the same time as I said, we were the only ones there. At the time, Painter’s Palate had been open less than a week, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The appetizers continued to arrive at machine gun pace. Crispy shrimp in a creamy sriracha sauce were a unanimous winner. Perfectly cooked with tender meat and a nice crisp fried shell. I found this sauce to be much tastier than the one that came with the wings.

Painter's Palate apps 2

Simple inari pockets stuffed with more seaweed salad were a welcome, and very tasty reprieve from the fried assault…which was continued by two fantastic Thai “corn dogs”. The now familiar creamy sauce was present to brighten up the panko breading and was helped along by a refreshing hit of kaffir lime in the dog itself.

We heard the chef hails from Belgium, so it was only right to sample his frites. They cut them thick at Painter’s Palate, leaving a soft interior , a good fry and were paired, as is the custom, with a clearly homemade mayo. It was a touch salty, but a strong citrus note helped offset.

The aforementioned red curry and brie tartine arrived to three pairs of raised eyebrows. Unfortunately this dish fell flat due to the clunky ingredient combinations. Three pieces of toasted bread topped with melted brie and bacon weren’t bad in and of themselves. However they sat on a warm bed of spinach, peppers, tomatoes and walnuts all in a red curry sauce which was noticeably missing any curry flavor.

Tartine, frites, spicy basil pizza

The spicy basil pizza arrived to settle our debate about marinara sauce at a Thai joint. This did not suck. Far from it in fact. It was a beautiful pie, with a crisp crust, not underdone despite the copious amounts of ground beef and sweet caramelized onions riding on the dough. A fried egg was a nice touch but didn’t add much to the flavor. I actually think the pizzas could take to Thai flavors quite well. Get rid of the cheese and marinara sauce and throw in some spicy red curry, shrimp paste pizza and pickled lemongrass. I’m no chef but I can see the possibilities! I’d like to see the chef get creative here, they’ve got that pizza oven, so why not stray from Italy in lieu of Thailand?

In restaurant terms, Painter’s Palate is still in its infancy, only a couple of weeks old, but they’re already off to a great start with some truly impressive dishes. If they can tighten up some small mistakes, rework that tartine section and really commit to exploring what’s possible when Giuseppe and Pravat put their heads together, they could have a real hit on their hands. This place deserves to be packed, so beat the hipsters and get to Painter’s Palate before it gets too cool!

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: A Tale of Five Seatings

A great deal of time has passed since this “crawl” took place, but if I failed to share the wonderful food and drink eaten along the way, I’d be snubbing those who made the trip and doing you, our loyal readers, a disservice. I managed to salvage photographic evidence of our journey from the insatiable maw that is my photo gallery. As I looked through them, it brought me back to that day, refreshing the memories like so many reconstituted matsutakes. It was the first time I met those who’d become the core of my Tampa food contingent. If this trip hadn’t happened, I may never have met the new anchors of Tasting Tampa, Kurt and Heidi Raschke or the Toro Titan of Tampa himself, Mr. Thai Vo.

EAD Orlando food crawl 2014

Just about every stop on this trip has been discussed in one way or another, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to say. We here at Eat a Duck try to steer ourselves towards the type of restaurants that have a revolving door policy when it comes to the menu. I like to order something different at every place, even if I have favorites, they’re never ordered on the following trip. We’ve talked about some of our food crawl etiquette in the Tampa edition a while back, but let me reiterate a few firm statutes of our process. There has to be a clear consensus within the group about which restaurants we’ll be patronizing. If one member disagrees we all disagree. The best decisions in life are made as a team. I mean, all the hobbits lived right? It’s because they went on the journey with a clear goal. It should be said, however, that even though Frodo doesn’t die, he was stabbed by the Nazgul at Weathertop, and by Shelob, suffering physical and mental scars. Never forget.

The other rule (more of a guideline really) is that no one orders more than one dish per stop. Furthermore, no matter how bad you want to try the mozzarella sticks and the chicky flappers; you must stick to the allotted single appetizer per location. If you cannot abide by these hard and fast rules, you’ll be subjected to discipline by the appointed appetizer adjudicator for a final ruling. That happens to be me. That doesn’t mean, you’re barred from ordering another dozen freshly shucked oysters if everyone has voted in the affirmative. Nevertheless, don’t forget to stage an informal vote before pulling a Jimmy and blurting out “another round of slipper lobsters!”. Remember, before any re-order, always recite the Eat a Duck food crawl anthem made famous by Reggie and the Full Effect, “F.O.O.D., food, food. G.O.O.D., Goooood, Goooood”.

Unfortunately, I was forced to work for the first leg of the trip. East End Market and Ravenous Pig started us off like any good story, at the furthest point, gradually leading us back to the start. In other words, for your food crawl planning to be successful, drive to the farthest spot first and work your way back to the place that’s closest to home. You’ll be grateful for that one, as you drive along the highway, struggling to breathe due to pork bloat.

I met up with the crew, Todd, Thai and Brittany, during the Saturday lunch rush at Prato, the entire restaurant was slammed with people. Keep in mind two key points about Prato:

1. Prato is so good we already wrote about them here.

2. Prato is so good we wrote a second piece about them here.

Prato spread

Fortunately, we were able to grab a table before the Winter Park elite arrived to demand our credentials. We dined on some marrow toast, mortadella hotdogs, a half order of house made pasta and a simple but elegant, wood-fired margherita pizza. I think we can agree we chose the perfect combination for a wonderfully dainty lunch? The next stop took us to the lounge in Hamilton’s Kitchen at the Alfond Inn. Since Prato is just a short walk away and the town has insufficient parking, we decided to hoof it and burn off some calories. Hey, if you’re going to eat so much that your caloric intake reaches five digits, every breath we take, every step we make, every move we make counts. This was more of a palate cleanser as the purpose was to enjoy a few well-prepared cocktails. We couldn’t resist ordering a basket of shoestring cheesy garlic frites from the bar.

Hamilton's Kitchen at the Alfond Inn spread

Moving on to Cask & Larder, probably the one restaurant we haven’t really covered that is most deserving. I wrote up a blurb for the Lakelander magazine if that counts. Either way, it bears repeating, they need more attention from us. This was the one place where our scheduling failed a bit. They open the bar at 4 pm which was fine, but they offer a very limited menu until 5 pm when the dining room opens. At the bar they offer oysters and boiled peanuts, as well as chicken liver and ham biscuits. At 5 pm, it’s no holds barred starring Hulk Hogan. Rated R for strongly suggestive oyster aphrodisia.

Cask & Larder spread

At this time, we had to say goodbye to Brittany, an original member of the caravan, only to welcome the Raschkes, a couple of true food lovers from Tampa. They were already waiting for us at Pharmacy, a secretive restaurant and speakeasy type place that you’ll never ever find without a bunch of help. On my GPS it gives the address. Fair enough. Should have been easy to find right? Wrong. As I parked, the location is supposed to be within the confines of an upscale shopping area, considered Orlando’s restaurant row. It’s the area where all the excessively wealthy, mega-rich millionaire Orlandoans go to eat, (i.e. Tiger Woods, John Morgan, Daniel Dennis and Carrot top). I literally walked around for 10 minutes trying to find this place. It got so confusing and labyrinthine I felt like the illuminati were testing my might. I don’t want to ruin the fun if you choose the path of dining at Pharmacy. Just go find it your own dang self.

Pharmacy spread

Our last spot was a departure from the newer, trendsetting places we had been accustomed to over the entirety of the day. Hanamizuki is not like any other Japanese restaurant I’ve been to in Florida. I’ve never been to Japan, though not for lack of wanting. If I could guess what “real” Japanese food tastes like, without having to cater to western sensibilities, I imagine Hanamizuki is as close as you’ll find within 200 miles. I had been once before with my wife and was completely awe-struck by inspired preparation of the dishes. As a whole I remembered how much the restaurant had me interrogating myself. There was no question that the food was great. Actually, some of it was the best I had eaten in a while. My wonderment stemmed more from how I should approach tradition. I questioned how authentic I want food to be, compared to what I’ve trained my palate to think tastes good? How far am I willing to push the limits? Either way you slice it, whether it be with a dull butter knife or a precision Yanagi ba, this nuta: akami maguro or yari ika dressed in white miso, hot mustard and wilted scallion was freaking incredible. It’s got to be if you order it three separate times in the same sitting!

Hanamizuki spread

These are not the only restaurants in Orlando worth investing a whole day for. They are however, within the circle of friends I choose to associate with, the most appropriate representation of food crawl perfection, each offering a cavalcade of small plate options and a myriad of tasty drinks. For an evening of sane, one meal/one restaurant dining, all of these places easily stand alone. Since this trip, a whole new group of places have opened and are flourishing over in Orlando. It’s high time we plan Round 2.


Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

I once took a Sociology class in school. I always felt that you could teach an entire course on the sociology of food, specifically how it affects migration and settlement. The topic has come up between Logan and I many times, what causes certain cultures, and by extension, their cuisines to settle down in this city or that? The answer is probably more involved than I’d like to get in this piece, but the impetus behind that question is usually a complaint about the lack of some food stuff in our area.

Take dumplings for instance. In every major city, you’re likely to find a Chinatown or Koreatown where the choices of dim sum establishment, or mandoo bar are nearly endless. Here in Florida, you have to put forth a good amount of effort to find a place that serves house made dumplings, and even then the pickings are slim (albeit delicious).

San Francisco is one of those blessed cities that doesn’t have this problem. The town is so packed full of dumplings you could nickname it Po. Throw a dart at a map and you’re likely to land on something delicious. However if you’re aiming for the typical neighborhoods, you might miss out on a gem, Shanghai Dumpling King. Two blocks north of Golden Gate park on Balboa St., is a small satellite grouping of Asian cuisine, a pho shop here, a sushi bar there, a Chinese bakery across the street.

Shanghai Dumpling King exterior

I have to give all the credit to my good friend Matt Covall, who kindly took me and Logan by the hand, and guided us to this dream world of dumplings. Soup dumplings have been on my checklist of things to try for a while now, sadly, as far as I know, you can’t get them in Florida. Shanghai Dumpling King, I was told, is the place to go if you want soup dumplings. If you’re a seasoned food detective, you’ll know from one look at the storefront that this place is special. It’s not the sign, not the location, not the reviews, but the crowd that should guide you in your hunt.

Every table was full and there was a small group waiting for their turn. After a long day filled with eating, I was more than willing to wait for the Chinese cherry on our snacking sundae. Almost as soon as we were seated, our order began to take shape, however we were quickly schooled by our waiter who vetoed some choices and strongly suggested others. In reality he just told us what we were getting, assuring us with a brisk wave of his hand that he knew better, and who were we to argue! We began with an order of Lion Head meatballs braised in soy, so tender and packed with Chinese aromatics even Italian grannies would swoon with approval. Pea sprouts in garlic sauce brought a little green into our decidedly beige feast, and they were delicious. Slightly bitter but crisp and fresh with a pungent garlic gloss that won me over. The green onion pancakes were as you’d expect, savory and flavorful. A very simple dish executed well.

Shanghai Dumpling King starters

A pile of plump, pan-fried, pork potstickers were presented promptly. These were a treat, succulent pork with hints of ginger and garlic were wrapped in a flavorful skin that gently tinged the meat with sweetness. A vinegar spiked dipping sauce kept things from getting too salty on the palate.

Shanghai Dumpling King - Pan-fried Pork Dumpling

The next dish kept the pork theme running but this time with a spicy twist. This set of dumplings waded in a bagna calda of chili and sesame oils with soy. A very specific itch was scratched by juicy little morsels, that tangy and fiery aroma that gets pulled into your nose through your mouth is addicting.

Spicy chive & pork dumplings

Ah the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the magic that is the soup dumpling! Often times dishes long yearned for lose their luster when the reality doesn’t match the hype. Thankfully that wasn’t the case here. They had a gelatinous characteristic to them that allowed a gentle jiggle as our waiter laid them before us. Take note here as there’s a certain technique to eating these that will hopefully save you from any juicy mishaps. Use a spoon, not your chopsticks. Remember, you’re delivering about a tablespoon of scalding soup, just above your privates to your mouth with nothing but a fragile membrane to hold everything together, the slightest nick can spell disaster. As you bring it to your lips, give the outside a small nibble and sip a bit of that delicious broth, savor the flavor before you lay siege to your taste buds with pork fat and spices. The hype did nothing to diminish my virgin soup dumpling experience, they offer a truly unique sensation to even the most traveled food lover. Shanghai Dumpling King lived up to its name and then some, bestowing a second order of the porcine liquid bombs to our table.

Shanghai Steamed Dumpling

If Logan were here to write this, he’d probably be able to decode the spice mixture and process necessary to create these beauties (maybe I’ll see if he can take a stab at creating Eat a Duck’s own take on this masterpiece), however I’m just a lowly dumpling lover that can only share when I know I’ve found something special. If you’re in The City you’ll likely find yourself flush with spots to find a good dumpling, but trust me here, take a detour out to west Balboa St., visit Shanghai Dumpling King and be happy.

Shanghai Dumpling King on Urbanspoon

Namu Gaji – San Francisco, CA

Have you ever experienced the worrisome feeling that if you don’t get something (usually food), while you have the chance, you just might die?

Everyone has an inner child, that slightly spoiled sliver of our mind that manifests itself when we’re faced with a strong yearning. I felt such a yearning recently during a trip to San Francisco. The source of my lust was Namu Gaji, a small Korean establishment at the corner of 18th and Dolores, just down the street from Tartine Bakery in the Mission.

Namu Gaji spread

Eater has become an oft used resource of mine for finding new and delicious destinations (what about Yelp you might ask…well here’s a hint). I found Namu Gaji mentioned there not once, but twice, as a place to be held in high regard. One of the many reasons are their time-specific menu items that are only available during certain parts of the day and sometimes on weekends. One of these is the KFC. We here at Eat a Duck have learned that when a restaurant deems it necessary to announce the limited supply of some extremely popular item, you’d better be the first in line, because a double down on deliciousness is in order.

We arrived in San Francisco from Palo Alto the morning after a wedding with a mere 36 hours of eating available to us. Hardly a lot of time, but in a city so magnificent, you can cover a lot of ground fast. While Jimmy was indisposed with his groomsmen duties, I hunkered down in the hotel room carefully planning our unrestrained campaign. I couldn’t get Namu Gaji out of my mind, every conversation Jimmy and I had during the wedding weekend centered on where we were going to be eating, and I made sure to pepper Namu Gaji’s name in there liberally. “I hear Namu Gaji is nice this time of year…Jimmy, did you know Namu Gaji is open for brunch?…Jimmy… Namu Gaji?”.

My persistent pestering paid off as we added Namu to the itinerary with the goal to arrive as soon as the doors opened. We ended up arriving 15 minutes after opening, and scampered toward the door like two teens who’s pubertal urges drove them toward the entry gates of a Color Me Badd concert ca. 1993. There was already a crowd of people lined up along the glass wall, happily slurping up bibim and ramyun soup out of oversized clay pots. They were so big and full of scalding broth the cast of Friends would have difficult handling them. At every other table, we spied beautiful people corralling fat, slippery noodles and morsels of the chopped 4505 SF hot dog that bobbed on the surface of the Ramyun. We had to order. Only then did we see, when served, there was also a delicately oblong panko fried soft egg peeking out of the broth, presenting itself in a request to be devoured.

Namu Gaji Ramyun

By this time, the meal had been ordered and our amuse of one “real” Korean taco, with beef bulgogi, rice and a couple of different kimchee arrived all wrapped up in a nice dark green nori “shell”. We made quick work of the taco, admiring the flavorful combination of the beef and its contrasting kimchee mates. Coming in at around 3 1/2 bites each, they’re the perfect size to get the synapses firing. After this morsel, all that stood between us and the heralded KFC was time. It should be noted at this point, the restaurant had been open for about 25 minutes and every table was now full with more people crowding the order counter.

Namu Gaji the %22real%22 Korean taco

The space is the perfect size, tiny. Any smaller and it’d be claustrophobic, any bigger and the energy might not fill the room. You can smell the dishes near you and it’s intoxicating. We had no idea what to expect when our main arrived. I read KFC (which stands for Korean fried chicken) expecting simply a better version of what I already knew.

It came in a checked paper lined basket with fixins on the side. I couldn’t tell what the accoutrements were at first aside from the pile of pickled daikon and a small cup of gravy. I had a hard time picking up the freaking chicken as it was so freaking hot my fingerprints almost burned off. I had to throw it down at least three times as the temperature was hovering around thermonuclear. This proved to be both rewarding and perilous. Subsequent attempts to pick up the angry bird left a residue of sticky glaze on my digits that I greedily lapped up like a victorious lion. It gave me a chance to taste what all the fuss was about. The only downside was that waiting is hard. A lovely coleslaw with kimchee and kewpie mayo grabbed Jimmy and wouldn’t let go, or was it the other way around? Ah yes, it was Jimmy who greedily wouldn’t share the slaw, as it was probably the only symbol of  roughage he ate all day.

Namu Gaji %22KFC%22

When cool down time was over, Jimmy and I ripped into the thigh and breast portions, discovering how wonderfully crisp and fragile the “batter” turned out to be. The chicken itself was incredibly moist, the result of what had to have been a lengthy brine or marinade procedure. The dashi gravy was the figurative icing on the cake, to what was the single best dish I had that day. Full of nearly every flavor descriptor I can throw out there, this gravy had it all. From land, sea and air, each had their own element to make up this one perfect bite.

I couldn’t have been happier with the meal, as I keep thinking about not only the KFC, but the experience in general. It was a fast meal but a great one. I took a lot away from the dishes and hope to use them to my advantage in my kitchen as it has affected my food philosophy greatly. More and more we find cooks looking to feature their rich culture, using what I would consider classic American comfort food to bridge the gap. Namu Gaji does this to a superlative degree, better than almost anyone else out there.

Namu Gaji on Urbanspoon

Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

What makes a restaurant truly great? It’s obviously a subjective question as preferences in taste, service, ambiance and price vary widely from person to person. In my opinion, the overarching quality that I look for in a great restaurant, is consistency. The places that can provide, not only delicious, but creative food, along with knowledgable, friendly service and comfortable atmosphere, all at a reasonable price, are few and far between. That’s why I chose to wait a while before I sat down to write about Rooster and the Till in Tampa. It’s easy to get caught up in a one-off meal that blows you away, only to find out it was a fluke. The real test of quality is whether or not the restaurant in question can deliver equally impressive meals over multiple visits. It’s been a long time coming, but after a half-dozen trips to Rooster over the last few months, I can happily report that they’ve passed the test, wowing me each time with their inventive flavor combinations and constantly changing menu.roos_logo_colorNow I would expect a high level of performance from a place with access to vast amounts of financial backing, top of the line equipment and the hottest PR team to generate buzz. In that case, there are no excuses, you’d better deliver, every single night, without fail. Rooster is not that place, and yet they are capable of producing legitimately high level cuisine with nothing but four hot plates, an impeccable mise and a small crew of exceedingly talented cooks led by two no-nonsense dudes in Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez, no excuses necessary.

Recently, Logan and I joined the boys from Tasting Tampa to put Rooster through its paces. I like to think four voracious eaters like ourselves, posed at least a small challenge to the kitchen as we ordered at least 80% of the menu. Keeping with tradition, we began with the raw items from the chalkboard, a scallop crudo and a smattering of oysters. The source and flavor profile of these items changes with the wind, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see these specific items, I’ve never been let down by their raw offerings.

Oysters & Scallop Crudo

This crudo only reinforced my belief that scallops are, first and foremost, meant to be eaten raw. These were so supple they were nearly a mousse. Pickled onion with corn and red pepper offset the sweet and malleable scallops in both texture and flavor, as a smooth avocado schmear joined the creamy party.

For the carnivores, I suggest you add the charcuterie slate to your order. On any given night you’re likely to find a pâté, a couple of cured offerings and maybe even duck rillettes if you’re lucky. At the moment the slate is sporting a beef heart bresaola with bread and butter pickles and hibiscus all-spice mustard.

Charcuterie slate

Rooster goes to great lengths to use what’s fresh, keeping it seasonal and local when possible. For us that meant heirloom tomatoes marinated in aged sherry vinegar, cucumber, smoked goats milk yogurt, charred lemon arugula emulsion and flax-seed pumpernickel crackers. Dishes like this are often the most impressive as they’re so simple, yet most of us would never think to combine the flavors just so. The short rib gnocchi is an auto-order item for me. Ferrell prepares his gnocchi in the Parisienne style, resulting in a far lighter and less dense pillow than their heavier set cousins. The clincher for me is the duo of smoked ricotta and pickled peperonata. Creamy and rich, tangy and electric, it’s a great response to the unctuous short rib as it relaxes in its San Marzano coating. The star of course are the dainty gnocchi that almost dissipate on your tongue instead of adhering to the roof of your mouth like a barnacle.

Heirloom tomatoes & short rib gnocchi

I’ve been called a pole bean my whole life. Until I had them at Rooster, I’d considered it an insult. When you add in potato confit, garlic chips and duck cracklings, it becomes a compliment of the highest order. If you are what you eat, then I’m a tasty fellow. Another small plate selection that keeps with the earthen theme is the roasted mushrooms. Thankfully Ferrell didn’t go crazy with the bleu cheese, a known flavor bully, by piping small dots around the plate. Savory mushrooms are showcased front and center with a bacon and roasted bone marrow backup band to rival the Spiders from Mars.

Pole beans with potato confit & roasted mushroom with bacon and bone marrow

Ferrell presented us with a surprise care package of sous vide face bacon. That’s right, bacon of the face. A protein like this calls for some headstrong accompaniments, able to make themselves known. These came by way of chili flake broccolini, more of their amazing house ricotta, pine nut bread crumbs and tomato gravy. Dishes like this give me pause, if they can come up with plates of this calibre on the fly, out of leftovers no less, what else are they capable of?


Veggies, specifically beets. Normally I’m not a fan of this root, but the preparation here sold me. The healthy dollops of rich ricotta didn’t hurt either. Beets two ways, roasted and shaved raw, with cherry tomatoes was a light and refreshing departure from the previous dish, but no less enjoyable. Vegetarian friendly isn’t a phrase that rears its head on Eat a Duck often, but Rooster has a way of showcasing ground treasures so even this hardened protein protagonist can sing their praises.

House ricotta, beets

I write about this next dish with a heavy heart. After a good long run, the orecchiette with uni butter and bottarga has finally been retired. Bitter broccoli leaves and chili spiked confit tomatoes proved to be winning combination. If it was available, I ordered it every time without fail. It really was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve had, but I know all good things must come to an end. I take comfort in the fact that Rooster always comes up with something new and exciting to replace classic veterans. As I write this, the menu is already reflecting the hot new rookie, garlic chive cavatelli with charred tomato, pancetta, arugula, shave crontonese and gremolata breadcrumbs.

Uni butter orecchiette

At Rooster and the Till, for me at least, dessert consists of more savory dishes, or perhaps another half-dozen oysters. But their sweet dishes are as delicious and well designed as anything else on the menu. They’re typically on the refreshing end of the spectrum, a welcome palate cleanser after hearty meal. On this occasion they featured passion fruit, coconut and berries. The beautiful presentation is matched only by the depth of flavor.

Rooster dessert

Rooster and the Till are often maligned for serving small plates with high prices. I’m not sure what planet these commenters are from, but you won’t find a better value in Tampa. There are hardly any other restaurants in town serving up this calibre of food with such consistency. Even fewer establishments earn a spot in my “where to eat dinner tonight” list, but Rooster and the Till have landed a permanent reservation, as one of my favorite restaurants of all time.

Rooster & the Till on Urbanspoon

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol. III: Feast Through the Eyes of Gluttons

The ballots are in, our Herculean task, accomplished.  Twelve Cuban sandwiches, four men, one day (along with a handful of beers, chicharrones and deep-fried key lime pie, which you really must eat. We even had a salad halfway through if you can believe it. Sure, it was layered with meat and cheese, but it was a Salad! It still counts!). Our bellies were swollen to twice their normal size, which is already large to begin with, all to bring you this, the top 6 Cubans in Tampa. Since then, our Cuban sandwich cravings have become a full blown addiction, worse than cigarettes, but short of Beliebers.

Now we share the good and juicy bits, and by juicy we mean the succulent roast pork that was ever so prevalent in this group. These were the Cuban sandwiches we wanted to nom on a daily basis (and if my doctor is reading this, I am not eating Cuban sandwiches on a daily basis).

There was an implicit method to the madness of our sandwich judging. The basic ingredients, laid out in our previous post, varied in importance. For example, good Cuban bread was unanimously voted a must. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tampa Cuban, Miami Cuban, Cuban Cuban or even an Island Cuban, the bread is the tie that binds. Otherwise it’s nothin’ but a stinkin’ hoagie. In our ever so complex rating scale, a sandwich earning a combined 550 points would mean a perfect score. No sandwich got any closer than 40 points from that mark, as no sandwich is truly flawless. With that in mind, I think I speak for all four of us when I say, out of the top 6 there isn’t one in the lot that I wouldn’t make frequent return trips for.

The Four Courseman of the Apuercolypsephoto: Dan Schuman Photography

Some of these tread the traditional line loosely, others held fast to righteous Tampa Cuban love and lore. All of them assaulted our stomachs with gusto, vying to be the sandwich worth recommending to our readers. And now, the top 6. For the sake of future generation’s, we hope they provide no more than half as much enjoyment to you as they did to us.

6. Bodega

J: Last of the bunch and still delicious, that’s a big deal. It was missing a couple of necessary items which kept it from reaching the top 5. The pork was succulent and delicious, but the tang from the mustard and nutty salami layer were glaring omissions in a Tampa style Cuban competition, ’nuff said.

K: I say yum to this unholiest breed of Cubans.  It was a great sandwich, but no salami and no mustard.  Wah wah.  This was our last stop and I was so full of Cuban sandwich at this stage I could barely stand up, and yet, I still wanted to finish this sandwich and would have cut someone if they tried to take it from me.

L: Right off the bat I was forced to deduct points due to the exclusion of mustard and salami. I’m not sure if the owner has strong ties to Miami or not, but it’s kind of baffling to think of a Cuban sandwich without those two key components. The ratio of mojo-ocity was way beyond the 10th degree. There was an in credible amount of roast pork flavor, but something was absent. Maybe add mustard and salami, then we’ll talk.

T: Bodega makes a darn good sandwich.  Their coconut mango chicken sammie is probably my favorite in Pinellas.  The Cuban, although not traditional due to the exclusion of mustard and salami, was still excellent.  The roast pork was the star of the show, the bread was well a great combination of crispy/fluffy, the cheese was melty, and even though there was mayo, it was in subtle proportion.  I love these hipsters.

Bodega Cuban

5. Kooky Coconut

J: Tradition be damned, this was a great sandwich! I detected a touch of jerk seasoning in the pork, which, along with the copious amounts of gooey cheese, was the definition of drunk food, or sober food for that matter. This was #11 of twelve and I still found it delicious, that says it all right there. It’s way, and I mean way out there, as far west as you can get, but it’s worth the drive.

K: Another great sandwich that’s not really a Tampa style Cuban.  Caribbean seasoning on my Cuban, what the heck.  That blasphemy aside, holy moly was this a wet greasy mess of please give me more.  It was a great sandwich.  If I’m on Indian Rocks Beach, I’m totally going here a lot.  This was an artery clogging spread of roasted pork, super melted cheese, perfectly pressed buttered bread greatness.

L: The place was backed by various beach bum families in varying degrees of roundness. Almost everyone was ordering the Cuban sandwich. Now, I really hate when people tout their product to be the best because they are almost always wrong. Strike that. They are always wrong. And shame on me for not doing extensive detective work, nonetheless, when Kooky says “We are the best Cuban sandwich on the beach,” you should believe them. Look, I don’t know how far said beach stretches, but either way, it’s a correct statement! It was not a tight, neat little package like some of the others. It was downright messy. But the jus, which pooled onto the wrapper from the excess of melted butter and Caribbean, jerk spiced mojo, made for a positively divine soppin’ sauce for my bread. This sandwich strayed from tradition to the point where it really wasn’t a contender for this type of contest. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t absolutely marvelous.

T: I was seriously pissed we had to drive out to bum fudge beach nowhere to go to this place. Until we got to eat the sandwich, which made me pause and rethink Cuban sandwiches for a moment. It was rich, savory, almost comforting.  The kind of sandwich I would enjoy on a warm day, but absolutely crave on a cold one.  There was a generous layer of cheese (almost a bit much for my taste) and it was properly melted and gooey.  The bread was buttery, crisp, and had soaked up a considerable amount (at least on the bottom) of the jerk mojo jus (again, not traditional, but dernit it was good), and made the sandwich anything but dry.  The flavors go together and threw a little surprise party for my mouth, it was really a treat, and nice to have a different paradigm of thought on a Cuban.  If I ever find myself in proximity to this little beach hut of a restaurant, I doubt I’d eat anywhere else.

Kooky Coconut Cuban

4. Cigar City Brewpub

J: All of these Cubans were new to me, but the last place I expected to find the #4 Cuban in Tampa was a pub. CCB did their homework on this one and started by sourcing high quality ingredients. I prefer my pork shredded not sliced, and while the flavor was nice, it could’ve used a touch more mojo, and mustard for that matter, a common note at most of these establishments. Slather that mustard people! The bread was crispy but not dry and had a slightly sweet note that was a welcome addition to the savory soirée.

K: Cigar City Brewpub surprised me with this Cuban.  I remember a period right after they opened up when I was very disappointed with their Cuban.  They have come back with a vengeance. This is a perfectly researched traditional Cuban.  Baked ham, not sliced.  That’s where they got my heart.  The rest of the sandwich was right on point as well.  I didn’t get one of the amazing pickles everyone else had on my section of sandwich which made me want to cry, especially since the guys taunted me about how good they were after the fact.  I do love me a traditional Cuban sandwich and this is the one the Columbia should have made.

L: The ham was unrivaled. It was the best of the day in my opinion. For how ever good the roast pork and salami was, they were both lost against the glazed ham, reminiscent of apple pie spice that is tucked inside. The chef must have had a Hattori Hanzo sword in the back because this sandwich was cut on such a perfect angle that I wanted to give extra points for presentation. The layering on the sandwich was an architectural feat made possible only by a chef with the appreciation for sharp lines and the work of Daniel Libeskind. The pickle was made in house, which is something that not many competitors do, but makes a huge difference in quality. Cigar city balanced the filling to bread ratio (60/40 is the perfect mix) better than any other. The only downside on this sandwich is that the mustard wasn’t speaking to me. They are basically doing everything in house except baking the bread, why not use that excellent beer mustard you got sitting in the kitchen and blow this whole competition out of the water?

T: I would say this was the most properly curated sandwich we ate.  One of few (if not the only one) with all local ingredients, and certainly one where a lot of thought and heavy deliberation/investigation/experimentation took place during the process of creating it. The crew at Cigar City Brewing does their homework many times over before creating a beer, most brews are named/conceived with historical significance (or a good ol’ poop joke, which is one of many reasons I love those guys) and the food at the Cigar City Brewpub is no exception, it’s steeped in Tampa tradition, but elevated using the highest quality local ingredients and paired with amazing beers. Oh yeah the sandwich. The Cuban was absolutely one of my favorite of the day, the meats were there in perfect proportion, the cheese was melty, the mustard/sauce was perfectly perceptible as a vinegar/acid element that offset the richness of the sandwich, it sat beautifully pressed, cut and presented on the plate.  Everything about it was nearly perfect, although the bread was just a bit too crispy for my taste.  It was probably a fluke because damn that was a good sandwich.  I would head back there in a heartbeat, between that and the chicharrones it’s worth the drive up to Carrollwood.  It’s also a bummer it’s up in Carrollwood, I remember telling the owner (Joey) before it opened, his biggest obstacle would be dealing with the chain-restaurant mindset in the area.  I’m very happy to see they’re doing well.

CCBP Cuban

3. Buddy Brew

J: Alright truth time. Buddy Brew may not have reached number one collectively, but it received the highest score from this judge. The ingredients were stellar (I don’t use that word often), in lieu of deli sliced ham, there was speck, they pickled a tomato instead of a cucumber. Their coarsely shredded roast pork maintained it’s juice and heat which kept the gouda (that’s right gouda) nice and soft. The mustard wasn’t as pronounced as I’d like, but the tomato filled the void. As the so-called “tourist” of the group, I didn’t find the creative tweak on the traditional formula a negative, in fact, it was a welcome change and a big part of why I rated them so highly. When I thought about which of these 12 I’d like to repeat, Buddy Brew was the easy answer. Sadly it seems to have been a one-off, so don’t go searching for this wraith of sandwich lore.

K: Oh my Buddy Brew, how you have outdone yourself.  A true gourmet Cuban sandwich using high quality and somewhat quirky (in a super-duper amazingly good way) ingredients.  Speck, green tomato pickles, garlic mojo(?) roast pork, beautiful salami, gouda cheese.  This was a great sandwich.  A near perfect sandwich.  This was high-end traditional and I’m a-ok with that.  Please make this an everyday item Buddy Brew.  It is that good.

L: You can’t say this sandwich is non-Tampa. It has everything. Just stop. Stop talking all together. This is how I want a modernized Tampa Cuban to taste. Every component is there, but it is done all together differently. I mean, speck as ham. That’s speck-tacular, and we haven’t even gotten to the pickles. Yes a green tomato pickle is still a pickle and thus deserves equal consideration as the standard pickled cucumber we all have accepted as the inspired gospel of preserved condiments. I applaud Buddy Brew for going all out and giving me something extra memorable. My only hope is that they realize what a gold mine they have on their hands and make it a fundamental part of the food board, not just a special. All points considered, this was my favorite sandwich of the day.

T: The Earl of Sandwich (the original guy, not that lame chain) would have dropped his playing cards and blinded out the next few hands, had he taken a bite of this thing.  It was absolutely no surprise to me that local whiz kid Josh Bonanno would be as interpretive as possible with a Cuban without violating the “rules”. Perfectly seasoned/marinated roast pork. Speck for ham (it was beautiful, you can believe we’ll let that shot play). Pickled green tomatoes (yep those are pickles). Gouda. Smoky awesome Gouda cheese.  Yes it’s a Suisse style cheese so it too shall pass (sorry Gandalf).  This was a near-perfect sandwich.  I would like to try it with the cheese melted, a bit more evenly distributed roast pork and maybe another tweak or two, but it’d only been on the menu for a very short time so we’ll just have to return and see how it’s progressed, won’t we?

Buddy Brew Cuban

2. Stone Soup Company

J: With a slew of plaques boasting their victory in the recent Cuban Sandwich Festival, hopes were high, and rightly so. The bread was panini pressed which raised some eyebrows but it was fantastic, perfectly buttered, crisp and thin. These guys got the pork spot on, juicy not soaked, tender not mushy. Meat balance is important, and thankfully Stone Soup understands this. This was one of the few spots that offered a side of mojo, which wasn’t needed, but much appreciated as it added a delicious pork fat slick to the already enchanting flavor. At this point in the game you have to really bring it, the one thing that kept SSC out of the top spot was the subtlety of the mustard. A little more tang may have lifted this one.

K: This was my absolute favorite sandwich of the day.  It was fan-freaking-tastic.  Our waitress put up with our way too early for it silly banter and proceeded to bring us an amazing Cuban sandwich and even asked us if we would like it 4 way cut.  I did not have high hopes for this sandwich going in because I didn’t know anything about Stone Soup.  Hello, pleased to meet you, please make me a Cuban sammie every day.  So onto the sandwich, mojo roast pork that was luxurious and delicate (can you describe roast pork as delicate), great salami, yummy crunchy pickles that blew me away, and perfect bread (looked Panini pressed, but I was fine with that).  This is a great sandwich without the next fact.   As an added super bonus, they give you a side of mojo jus dipping sauce that the sandwich totally doesn’t need but thank goodness it exists, because boy howdy does it make it even better.

L: I was worried right off the bat because we weren’t asked how we wanted our sandwich. Sometimes that means lettuce and tomato. After the Brocato’s debacle it put me on edge as I didn’t want failure to be an ongoing theme throughout the day. This was our second stop on the trip, so tensions were high. Once our beers arrived, (mine in a pewter goblet) everything seemed to be brought back to an even keel. Then shortly after that, a great sandwich arrived. This place has won a lot of actual awards and not the self-proclaimed ones that are easy to attain. Hey look I just awarded myself “Most efficient drinker of La Croix!” Really, it’s an honor just to be in contention. The roast pork was incredible and tasted similar to boar or maybe even whole hog where all the good parts are intermingled. What set Stone soup apart and made the other boys fall all over themselves was the Mojo pork juice served on the side ala French dip. I will say the one drawback is how the bread was pressed. It had those Panini maker lines that really turn me off. If they used a flat press like everyone else, the bread would be uniform and toasty all the way over.

T: It’s tough for me to know if this was or wasn’t my favorite of the day, for multiple reasons. I kept hearing about this place making the “best” Cuban sandwich in town (when I hear “best” I often think of yelp in all its unholy awfulness, literally putting the rights to “best” whatever-food-item on their website for sale to restaurants for a few thousand dollars a year) and winning people’s choice awards and such, I almost wanted it to suck so we could try it and move on.  I was floored. The sandwich wasn’t our first of the day, but for most of the day it was the clear leader.  It just melted together in one fluidly unctuous mélange of flavors in your mouth.  Taking a bite was effortless; the bread was lightly crispy on the outside and beautifully soft on the inside, there was no “tearing” action involved.  Teeth sank right through it.  Everything was in great proportion, each ingredient was a perceptible in this sandwich-symphony, but none played too loudly.  It was fantastic.  I would recommend it to absolutely anyone, and it’s really nice to have a good spot to grub down in Ybor since there aren’t but a handful of great spots in the ‘bor.  I went in expecting to be disappointed and I left singing its praises, which happens to me almost never.

Stone Soup Company Cuban

1. Dochos Concessions

J: Glistening. That was the first characteristic that caught my eye. The sun sparkled off the pork and cheese medley, filling my eyes as I prepared to fill my stomach. With my first bite I had a feeling this was going to be the one. It was like falling in love, you just know. Deep pork flavor, a wonderful mustard-mayo mixture and soft, sweet bread was a killer combination. The temperature was nice and even throughout and each bite gave the perfect balance of ingredients. I went through my entire portion before I realized there was no pickled. In the end, it really didn’t make a difference in my mind, it would’ve only increased its stature. Bravo Debbie, the competition was stiff, and you still pulled out the victory, it’s a good thing this sandwich is made in a truck, or else I’d be a permanent resident of their brick and mortar as my waistline would prevent me from leaving.

K: I love a Monte Castro from Dochos.  It’s a great sandwich.  How can you go wrong with a deep-fried Cuban.  I don’t think I will ever get it again.  The Dochos traditional Cuban now ranks higher. This sandwich was packed full of traditional components and was darn near perfection in between the bread, except for the pickles. Where were the pickles?  Dochos has a great mustardy mayo combo sauce that they knock out of the ballpark.  The pork was juicy, perfectly seasoned, and I thought about taking it to bed with me. The reason that Dochos won, to me, was because of how perfectly everything went together: the pressing was just right, the ingredients were seasoned the way we loved them, the bread was crisp without being sharp and stabby.

L: When the sandwich came we began dissecting it to study each component and how it had been distributed. No matter how hard we poked, no pickle was to be found. At that point I knew Dochos was a goner. You can’t win a competition and be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle It’s like the Chicago Bulls without Luc Longley. Impossible, or is it? As unctuous as can be without going overboard the sandwich was. In a perfect three pork cord this is as strong a bond as you can get. Each protein complimented the other better than any other sandwich. Dochos is the only place that utilized mayonnaise to its fullest potential, mixing it with the mustard and spices to create a super group of sauce. There was a tiny bit of heat that lingered even after we left the table, which made me think about the sandwich for a good hour after the fact. Bread was butter basted, heavily, then placed in the press. Their timing on the pressing was perfect as it was hot enough to melt the nutty swiss all the way through without melting the outer layer of the roof of my mouth. This sandwich wins because it was as close to all around perfection in a Tampa Cuban kinda way. No one better deserves this great honor more, no matter how you slice the pickle.

T: The reason this sandwich is the deserved winner is multi-fold. Is multi-fold a word? Who cares. Anyway, Dochos’ Cuban will almost always be assembled, pressed, and served lovingly by its creator, Debbie. This to me is a crucially important luxury, akin to when Peter (the owner) is making your pizzas at Wood Fired on Bearss, you’ll never have one more subtly perfect than you will dining at his hands. Dochos’ sandwich was a big meaty beast, with perfect bread, perfect press, great proportion, balanced meats, melty cheese, nice ratio of mustard to mayo in the sauce (it gave it a rich note but still had enough brightness to cut the rich flavors), and the pickles… hey wait where are the pickles?  Sadly this was an oversight, although apparently not one  egregious enough to cause this amazing Cuban sandwich to rank below #1.  When you want a Cuban Cuban, Dochos is the spot.  It’s an excellent value (half a pound of meat on that thing!), it was crafted with love, and it’s got flavor coming out of its ears.  Congrats, Debbie.  You deserve it.

Dochos Concession Cuban

We told Debbie (the owner of Dochos) after we finished that none of us got pickles on the sandwich. You could see the life get sucked out of her face, as she realized the omission. She didn’t know she was being judged in a massive Cuban sandwich contest. No one did except for Buddy brew and that was a wonderful accident. With Dochos, You can just tell they want everything that comes out to be perfect no matter who is eating and what purpose they are eating it for. There is no trophy, this was just for fun. If you get nothing else out of this realize this, there’s so much good food out there. Don’t get stuck in a Cuban sandwich rut, eating from the same place every single time. That place that was good 20 years ago might not hold a candle to the new food truck slingin sammies like they’re going out of style. Dochos proves that you can respect a time honored classic and still make it your own. With with that we congratulate them.