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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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And Now, A Look Back At Year 2014 [Back To The Food Future]

Posted Jan 13, 2014 by Jeff Houck

Updated Jan 13, 2014 at 05:55 PM


How about that year 2014, huh? What a great year for food and drink in Tampa.

Yes, 2014.

Not that 2013 was bad, mind you. But 2014 was the year Tampa and St. Petersburg truly went ballistic for food.

Remember with me, won’t you?

There was that two-day mobile gorgefest in March known as the World’s Largest Food Truck Rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Food truck impresario Jeremy Gomez pulled together about 100 trucks in 2013, then came back in 2014 with more than 200 trucks. Hungry fans came by the tens of thousands to eat big from trucks all over the southeast.

Then there was the continuation of the Great Beer Rush of 2013, when breweries sprouted like weeds across the area. In 2014, Angry Chair Brewing opened its tasting room on Florida Avenue in Seminole Heights. Coppertail Brewing Co., did the same in Ybor City with a building they put up on East Second Avenue.

Cigar City celebrated its fifth annual Hunahpu’s Day on March 8, putting a cap on another successful Tampa Bay Beer Week and cementing the brewery’s reputation for holding Florida’s premier must-stand-in-line-for-beer event for craft suds lovers. This was the first year Cigar City sold a limited number of tickets (3,500) at $50 a pop. Each ticket holder enjoyed unlimited tastings and a Hunahpu’s Day sampling glass.

Cigar City continued in 2014 to be the fastest-growing craft brewery in the state. They met demand for their line of beers by using Brew Hub in Lakeland, a 50,000-square-foot contract brewing facility that opened in late spring. Orange Blossom Pilsner of Orlando and California-based BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse also used Brew Hub to expand their own beer lines. With the first year’s capacity booked, Brew Hub CEO Timothy Schoen began plans for more hubs throughout the U.S. and an expansion of the Lakeland facility.

We can look back and remember that 2014 was the year Richard and Casey Gonzmart brought Ulele Native-Inspired Food & Spirits to life in Tampa Heights. The $4 million project to turn the historic Tampa Water Works into a restaurant and bar that celebrates the native food of the region was part of a multi-faceted plan to expand the adjacent Water Works city park and finish the Tampa Riverwalk. Brewmaster Tim Shackton’s house-made beers and chef Eric Lackey’s menu inspired by heritage Florida ingredients were well-received.

It also was the year that the boutique hotel mini-boom brought more dining and drinking options (because what is a luxury stay without the benefit of being able to eat and sip like royalty?).

The Federal Courthouse boutique hotel in downtown Tampa, the former Mercantile Bank building along the Hillsborough River and the Hotel Zamora on St. Pete Beach all re-opened as luxury lodging with gourmet restaurant offerings. Ted Dorsey, former executive chef at Boca Kitchen Bar & Market and at Copperfish Seafood & Oyster Bar in Tampa, took over Zamora’s food program, including the Castile restaurant with crew members from his previous stops.

After the grand opening on New Year’s Eve, Rooster & The Till became the must-visit restaurant for area cooks and restaurant staff. Chef Ferrell Alvarez’s seared pork belly with peppercorn honey, corn bread and pickled apple became a huge hit on the menu of the 36-seat restaurant in Seminole Heights.

Speaking of the Heights, Greg and Michelle Baker followed their award-winning restaurant The Refinery with Fodder & Shine on Florida Avenue, which draws inspiration from heritage foodways of Florida pioneers. Eric McHugh, who turned the Sunday brunch into a must-visit meal, then took over the kitchen at The Refinery.

How crazy is the food scene getting? Fresh Market on Lithia-Pinecrest in Valrico opened in late spring, ahead of the start of construction for the Super Walmart on Bloomingdale Avenue.

Fresh Market in Valrico. South Valrico. How improbable is that? Almost as improbable as a retrospective written a year in advance.

How about that year 2014, huh? What a great year for food and drink in Tampa.

Behold This Year’s Crazy Florida State Fair Food [Krispy Kreme Cheeseburger, Step Aside]

Posted Jan 6, 2014 by Jeff Houck

Updated Jan 6, 2014 at 03:27 PM

Just heard from Cheryl Reas at Carousel Foods. She and her husband Dennisspend winters thinking up new, delicious, gut-busting, fantastical food to unleash on our nation’s state fairs and festivals.

After digging out from snow in Indiana, they kick off their year at the Florida State Fair in our beloved city of Tampa. This is where the Krispy Kreme cheeseburger was birthed. This is where the Ice Cream Burger had its coming out party. This is where the French Toast Burger first set foot in the collective gullet of America.

So what will it be this year?

I’ll let Cheryl explain.

Hold on to your hats.

“Dear Jeff:

“Wanted to let you know our new burgers for the 2014 fair. Boy does time fly. Seems as if I was just doing this. Hope your year has been good. Ours has been very good business wise.

“Here goes with the burgers. We are having three new ones:”

Florida State Fair Burger

#1 The Ramen Noodle Burger: Our fresh burger on a Ramen Noodle bun topped with Asian Slaw and a special Oriental Sauce. The Asian Slaw is a vinegar base slaw with a hint of Sesame oil and Soy sauce. The Oriental Sauce has soy, hoisin, mayonnaise, ketchup, and a little sugar in it. The sauce makes this burger.”

Florida State Fair Burger

#2 The 3B’s Burger: Our fresh burger, bacon, and beef brisket all on garlic toast topped with provolone cheese and your favorite veggie toppings. We will have a special horseradish sauce, A-1, or Barbecue sauce to finish it off.

Florida State Fair Burger

#3 The Healthier Burger: We have had some people ask for a turkey burger or soy burger so we have bowed to there request. We do not want to deal with raw turkey burger so we have opted to use the soy burger option. This burger will be a soy burger topped with Provolone cheese (optional) a fried Parmesan crusted eggplant all on a 100% whole-wheat thin bagel and your favorite vegetable toppings. They can have any sauce they like on the burger. We did not have an overwhelming request for the healthier version but decided to accommodate those who are watching those calories. We will see how it goes. Still trying to find the most flavorful soy burger. Not exactly an easy task. Working on it!!!”

“Will see you in Tampa the good Lord willing and the weather does not freeze us in place. Florida is looking better then ever this week. It is zero here right now and still dropping. “

* * * *

For those who might be turning up their nose at the idea of a ramen burger and saying that it looks like a sandwich with a Jheri Curl, (Sing along with me: “Just let your SOULLLLLL GLOOOOOOO!”), I’d like to kindly point out that it was, along with the Cronut, one of the hot food items of 2013.

As the New York Post reported:

A Japanese-American mash-up, the fad food of the millisecond features a hamburger patty sandwiched between two discs of compressed ramen noodles in lieu of a traditional bun. To date, it’s only been available on three occasions — the past few Saturdays at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg food market — and each time, it’s sold out in just a few hours.

“It’s definitely crazy!” says Keizo Shimamoto, 35, the creator of the Ramen Burger and a former computer programmer who quit his day job in 2009 to devote himself to ramen and blog about it at “I didn’t expect it to be this popular.”

You have a few weeks to prepare your innards for these delicacies. Govern yourselves accordingly.

The Best Things I Ate In 2013, Part 2 [And Some Of Your Favorite Flavors As Well ]

Posted Jan 1, 2014 by Jeff Houck

Updated Jan 2, 2014 at 08:43 AM

2013 copy

When we left off yesterday, I was listing the best grub I threw down my gullet during the past year. Part 1, as it were.

Which got me to thinking: “What is the best food YOU, dearest Stew reader, ate last year?”

So I asked my friends on Twitter and Facebook. Because I’m inventive and stuff.

@ChefStops - The best thing I ate all year - Uni under dashi gelee and caviar at Caviar Russe.

@halehawk - Better Bush tomatoes from my backyard garden.

@MobilityMaker - sharing a bottle of @josephphelps 2009 Insignia on Christmas Eve w/my husband.

@OhMyPotluck - The Spätzle from @RougeCal and the entire chef’s menu was a highlight.

Cricket Larson - Milky Way Martini at Kellys-Chic a Boom Room-Blur courtesy of Kathryn Dickinson Carlson don’t judge, Jeff. Food… Skipper’s Smokehouse blackened crawfish mac & cheese of course.

Patrick Tracz - Grouper caught at noon. on my grill by 2pm

Connie Hunt - Right now, I’d have to say either the pecan pie at Uncle Bubba’s in Savannah or the roasted brussels sprouts at Ruth’s Chris

Krista Kirby Singleton - Hawaii Five-Oh! Bao Bun from “I Wanna Wok” Food Truck.

Fritz Eichelberger - oysters gratinee (blue crab, lemon, esplette chile) at Sideberns's Krug dinner

Fritz Eichelberger - Many to choose from, fortunately! But I could eat a table of these oysters gratinee [pictured above] (made with blue crab, lemon, esplette chile) at Sideberns’s Krug dinner (I posted pics of the dinner in a FB album). As for drink, had some barrel aged bourbons, 100 year old brandy & amazing cocktails but the Clyneleash single malt, distilled in 1965 & bottles 20 years later…wow!!! & thanks to john Glaser of Compass Box for this

Susan Jacobs Leonidas - For me it would have to be the amazing food we had while in Costa Rica back in August. We cannot wait to go back!

Michele Northrup - Charbroiled Oysters in New Orleans

Vickie Chachere - Jabadahut Roll at Takara Sushi & Sake Lounge

Wayne Garcia - The Double Vieux Carre at Anise Global Gastrobar was my best encounter of the year, just perfectly executed

Michael Paul Lukacina - Lobster roll and grilled oysters @ Copperfish

Andrea Billups - Two perfect meals: One at Bianca in the Delano Hotel in South Beach—Moet Rose’ to start, heirloom salad, perfect salmon, cheesecake from NYC’s Carnegie deli to end. Another at Luke, the John Besh restaurant in NOLA on Christmas Eve, which was epic. Started with raw oysters and Pinot Gris and moved up from there—crab bisque, pork belly-gruyere-onion tart, etc… Both places got it all right and then some.

Dolce Debbie - That is my Maple Syrup/White Wine Braised Pork Belly on a rutabaga/sweet potato mash with a thai cabbage slaw and arugula salad

Mark Traugutt - Deep South bacon & hi hat ranch honey

Willie Drye - My wife Jane Morrow says daiquiri in Costa Rica made with fresh mangoes and local Costa Rican rum.

Mike Jeffers - Cheese Steak from John's Roast Pork in S. Philly.

Mike Jeffers - Best food is this most perfect Cheese Steak from John’s Roast Pork in S. Philly. [pictured above] They are a James Beard winner and a Philly institution since 1930. Best Drink is this Coupe de Grace (on left) served by Ryan Pinés at Edison: Food+Drink Lab. Grand Marnier Liqueur, Free Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters, & Angostura Orange bitters.

Cindy Campbell Davis - Sauteed shrimp po boy @gumbo shop in New Orleans.

Sally Chambless - Pan Roasted Monkfish; Tarragon Scented Pea Purée, Morels, Armagnac-Black Pepper Sauce. WOW!

Deborah Barone Jonneaux - The best food I’ve had was anything at Vizcaya.

Ro Patel - Paloma made with Stiegl Grapefruit Radler, Aperol and rosemary!! Killer!!

Bob Sylvester - Fireball Whiskey!

Dan Bolduc - Sea Dog Brewing Co. - Clearwater Master Brewer Bobby Baker’s Reese’s Beer!

Gordon A. Ridge - Ramos gin fizz

Marlene Cambronero-Butkus - Not ready to answer yet…the best may be yet to come…in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Bar and restaurant hoping

Jill Munson - Huckleberry Martinis at The Belton Chalet, West Glacier Park, Montana.

Kristin Mulcahy-Finley - South Pacific Grill’s banana spring rolls!!!!

Xuan Pham Hurt - I crave the foie burger from Elevage pop up. Will go to the restaurant asap in 2014.

Nancy Willson Fintak - The mussels at Joe’s Crab Shack in Orlando….yummy

Marti Wiggins Nusbaum -  Large cheese board (w/ meat) at the Mermaid Tavern on Nebraska. Good sangria too!

You have to admit that my friends have incredible taste in food. Better than mine, actually. Picture me doing a standing ovation of one. Clapclapclapclapclap.

Okay, so back to my list of favorite eats for 2013. Here we go!

Mermaid Bar - Drunken Grilled Cheese

The Drunken Grilled Cheese at Mermaid Tavern in Tampa. I’m pretty sure the “drunken” in the title refers to the port wine cheese in the sandwich and not to the eater in question, which would be me. But this I cannot confirm.

I’m shutting up now.

Fire Food + Drink - Goat cheese grits

Goat cheese grits at Fire Food + Drink in Cleveland. Didn’t see this one coming. Great brunch grits in Ohio? Not on the radar. Could not have been more delicious in one of the most depressing cold-weather cities I’ve ever visited. And I was born in Baltimore, so I know what I’m talking about.

If these grits lived in Tampa, I’d marry them and have a million of their grits babies.

The Greenhouse Tavern - Gravy Frites with mozzarella cheese curd and brown gravy with fried eggs.

Gravy frites with mozzarella cheese curd and brown gravy with fried eggs at The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland.

Okay, that thing I just said about Cleveland? I take all of it back. The food redeems the place during the winter. Greenhouse Tavern became something of an eating clubhouse for the better part of a week that I was there in October. The half of a roasted pig’s head they have on the menu? Stellar eats. Seriously. Get yourself to Cleveland, pronto, kids. But bring a jacket. My god, that place is epic cold.

Dough - Rustic Onion Soup - sweet onions in an aged sherry and thyme broth topped with a grilled cheese crouton.

The Rustic Onion Soup at Dough on South MacDill Avenue in Tampa. Chef Domenica Macchia uses sweet onions in an aged sherry-thyme broth and tops it brilliantly with a grilled cheese crouton.

Macchia’s migration to Tampa away from the fresh hell of a non-compete contract in St. Petersburg was one of my favorite food stories of 2013. The bistro menu she’s doing at Dough is incredible and a testament to the sturdiness of her imagination and resolve. I expect big things again in 2014.

Edison Food + Drink Lab - Edison Oldie

The Edison Oldie cocktail by bartender Ryan Pines at Edison Food + Drink Lab in Tampa. Pines is one of the most inventive bartenders in the area. His addition to the staff at Edison was a great hire. His version of the Old Fashioned made me want to sit at the bar for days and days and eat chef Jeannie Pierola‘s great apps until someone forceably removed me from the premises.

Red Door Wine Market - Braised Short Ribs with spelt berry pilaf, charred brussel sprout

The braised short ribs with spelt berry pilaf and charred Brussels sprouts served during a South Africa-themed wine dinner at Red Door Wine Market in Lakeland.

First, the fact I included Brussels sprouts in a year-end list is nothing short of shocking. For years, Brussels sprouts were my sworn enemy. Now, I love them like a fat kid loves cake. Can’t get enough of them. Okay, that’s overstating things. But you get my point. When made well, Brussels sprouts are a joy forever. And proof that a man can change his mind about important issues of the day during his middle age.

Second, Red Door Wine Market was one of my favorite finds of 2013. Intimate and funky, the food put out by chef Jason Boniface would fit well in Tampa in the Seminole Heights restaurant scene. It’s that good. In Lakeland, it’s an absolute jewel. Plus, there are swans a couple blocks away in a nearby lake. So, Red Door wins on bird appeal. But the place is amazing. Well worth a drive from wherever you live for a casual dinner with a great wine list.

The Poor Porker - Cinnamon Toast beignet

Speaking of Lakelandia, my eyes were opened to the food scene there by The Poor Porker, a beignet cart operated by power couple Robyn Wilson and Jarrid Masse.

They serve every week on Saturdays at the Lakeland downtown curb market. Varieties change weekly, but the true Poor Porker beignet includes bacon, maple syrup and powdered sugar.

Plus, Wilson and Masse are just good people, and they’ve become a catalyst for small businesses to incubate in Lakeland. Well played, delicious treat makers.

L'Artisan des Glaces - Macaron sandwich

The salted caramel macaron ice cream sandwich at L’Artisan des Glaces in the France section of Epcot. How has no one made these before? It boggles the mind. One of my favorite new foods in the park.

Jack Dusty - Jack's Apple Tar; maker's mark, applejack, maple syrup, coffee liqueur

A Jack’s Apple Tar cocktail made with Maker’s Mark, applejack, maple syrup and coffee liqueur and served at the new Jack Dusty restaurant inside the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota. I drank this one out on the patio, overlooking the pool and the marina and while eating oysters on the half-shell. Life doesn’t get much better than that. Amazing that you can have so much flavor and pleasure and relaxation in one sitting.

The Corner Store - Pimento cheese spread with pita chips

Of all the hipster foods to come back in fashion, my favorite might be pimento cheese. So lowbrow and yet so very satisfying. Chef Cynthia Diaz at The Corner Store in Plant City serves it as a side with pita chips, but the spicy, creamy, spreadable goodness could be a meal on its own.

Pharmacy - Oaxaca Mama with ghost pepper lollipop

The Pharmacy speakeasy in Orlando showcases many great drinks and dishes on its menu, but the Oaxaca Mama is by far my favorite. The mezcal cocktail is served with a ghost pepper lollipop that recharges the spiciness of the drink as the ice melts. This to me is genius. I would drive to Orlando and brave some of the worst traffic in Florida just to have this drink. That either makes me a cocktail aficionado, a traffic sadist, a lollipop freak or someone who needs an intervention. I can live with that.

Which brings us to the end of this year’s list. With all the new restaurants coming on board in the next few months, I can’t wait for 2014.

To borrow a line from Julia Roberts, I’m just a boy, standing in front of a calendar, asking for it to feed me.

The Best Things I Ate In 2013, Part 1 [Thanks For The Calories]

Posted Dec 31, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Jan 1, 2014 at 01:24 PM


Well, that went by in a blink.

Three hundred and sixty five days zipped past like it was doing 100 mph in a school zone.

I am, as always, grateful I got to slow it down a bit with some tasty vittles. It’s a wonderful thing to experience the world through your taste buds and then share it with friends. This year provided a lifetime’s worth of great flavor and great table conversations. I can’t wait to do it again.

I usually eschew naming a favorite dish. I had one, to be sure. It was light years better than the closest competition.

But I won’t be sharing it for one simple reason:

What I taste and what you taste are two different experiences. You may eat the best dish the world, but if it isn’t under the right circumstances or if the stars of the restaurant universe aren’t aligned, it won’t make a lick of difference. Food and dining is as much about who you’re with, the place where you are dining and how it is served in that particular moment. I truly believe that, like snowflakes, no two meals are the same. Even to the person eating them.

What follows is a glimpse of special flavors and previous moments of happy. Here’s hoping you had many of your own this year - and many to come in 2014.

California Grill - Pork Belly Sushi

Pork belly sushi at the grand opening of the renovated California Grill atop the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. In my perfect world, pork belly would be resting atop most food items. Including breakfast cereal.

Capital Tacos - Catawampus

Catawampus tacos at Capital Tacos in Lutz. This place was a total surprise - and I have colleague and superior eater Brian Junge to thank for it. Think hipster tacos with great ingredients in an easy-to-miss strip mall in the middle of almost nowhere. The Catawampus was served with deep-fried chicken, pico, queso dip, lettuce, Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses and poblano ranch salsa. Yee. Hawwwww.

Elevage - Shrimp and grits with peppers, scallion, pork belly and soft-cooked egg

Shrimp and grits with peppers, scallion, pork belly and a soft-cooked egg at the new Elevage restaurant inside the Epicurean hotel in Tampa. I believe I said at the time that this dish tasted like like French kissing Kate Upton for three days.

Buena Vista Deli - Lemon tart

The lemon tart at Buena Vista Deli in Miami’s design district. I don’t know how they made this fluffy, light, beautiful, delicate creation in the middle of all that Dade County humidity and madness. I don’t ask questions. I just eat. And then I cry joyful tears of lemon curd for the next three months.

Felton's Grocery - Parking Lot Tamales

You might not expect tamales with homemade salsa verde sold out of a Ford Explorer in the parking lot of Felton’s Grocery in Plant City to make a year-end list, but indeed they have. I was hungry. They were perfect. The salsa tasted like it came from an abuela’s kitchen. They were perfect. I was happy. I did not share.

Anise Global Gastrobar

On a hot afternoon after the Gasparilla Music Festival, I made the acquaintance of a flight of gourmet deviled eggs at Anise Global Gastrobar in downtown Tampa. We struck up a friendship. Then I ate them. I agreed to honor their memory forever in a blog post. This is that blog post.

El Mago de las Fritas - Flan

Best flan I’ve ever had. At El Mago de las Fritas in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. There, I said it. Boom. Whatevs.

::::::::: drops the mike :::::::::

The Stein & Vine - Loaded Tots

Loaded tots at The Stein & Vine in Brandon. Think of this as a potato tot rugby scrum with fried egg, chili, cheese, jalapeno, bacon and onion. In this match, though, everyone wins.

Chicken and Taco Loco - Barbacoa Taco

You at this point may be saying, “My goodness, the boy eats a lot of Mexican food. I would reply, “And your problem with that would be?”

This was a barbacoa taco at Chicken & Taco Loco in Brandon. It was perfect. And it was mine. And I loved it greatly because of the fresh flavors and the very nice family that runs the roadside food stand. I’d suggest you get there before I do because I’m going to eat everything they have.

Revolution Ice Cream Co. - Porky's Delight

The year 2013 will be remembered of the year we got The Revolution Ice Cream Co. into our food universe. This is a very good thing, especially for Brandon. Because now everyone must drive there to eat their Porky’s Delight ice cream with bacon in the vanilla, and homemade bacon brittle on top.

Engine No. 9 - Chubby Duck burger

Laugh at your own peril at the name of the Chubby Duck burger at Engine No. 9 in St. Petersburg. The pancetta, foie gras, duck cracklins, caramelized onions and brie will surely exact a toll from your soul for mocking them openly on such a perfect culinary platform.

Country Chicken 'n Fish - Chicken and fish combo

Whatever you do, do not drive to Lakeland and eat at Country Chicken ‘n Fish. Because the fried chicken and fish will make your mouth happy. And then you’ll blab about it to everyone and make it tough to get food there. Keep it to yourself. Stay home. Save your money. I’ll take it from here.

Tampa Street Cafe - Cuban Sandwich

Best Cuban sandwich I had all year. Bar none. And I ate plenty. Nice people too, at Tampa Street Cafe. Go say hi. You’ll see what I mean.

Fat Maggie's - Polk County Salad

If Tampa’s The Refinery had a baby that grew up, became a hipster and moved to Lakeland, Fat Maggie’s would be that restaurant baby. Where else would you expect to find the Polk County Salad served with corn dog lollipops. So fresh, so lowbrow, so genius.

Andres Aleman - Mintea Dream

This drink by Andres Aleman, called A Mintea Dream, was an outstanding beverage served at a tea-cocktail event at Te-Bella inside the Oxford Exchange. And it made me want to drink peach, mint julep and champagne with bitters for the rest of my natural days.

Greg Baker - Key West Pink Shrimp, Tomato Gelee

Greg Baker of The Refinery made a special one-bite amuse bouche during the Norman’s anniversary dinner in Orlando that was a perfect tribute to Norman Van Aken‘s legacy of New World Cuisine. Pink Key West Shrimp with a tomato gravy gelee, pickled okra and a chorizo rice cracker. Perfection.

South Pacific Grill - Kalua Pork Sandwich

Whatever you have to do, go find the South Pacific Grill food truck in and around Brandon and gorge yourself on their Kahlua Pork Sandwich. Then do it again. You’ll drop to your knees and thank goodness for all that is right and delicious in the world.

Hank's Catfish BBQ & More - Brisket, Catfish, greens and stewed okra

Ain’t no reason there shouldn’t be outstanding brisket and catfish in Carrollwood at Hank’s Catfish BBQ & More. Great food is where you find it. Don’t quibble about where it lives. Just dig in. and don’t forget to order the greens and sweet tea.

Piquant - Banana Bread French Toast with Chantilly Cream

The year 2013 also gave us Piquant in Hyde Park Village, a French bistro that became known for bringing the Cronut to Tampa. It also serves, among other things, incredible brunch with banana bread French toast with chantilly cream. If you can’t be happy eating that, turn in your taste buds.

Mise en Place - Mise Grilled Cheese

Mise en Place is known for it’s outstanding fine dining, wine list, catering and cocktails. But I love the place most when it gets down on my level and throws a grilled cheese at me that oozes and purrs at me while I’m eating it. My goodness, they know how to do decadent at that house of delicious repute. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, delicious repute. But now it is because of Mise. Feel free to borrow.

Mauritana Grille - Poached lobster with polenta

While you’re giving thanks for your culinary blessings this year, add the fact that Kenny Hunsberger took over the food reins at the Loews Don CeSar Resort on your list and added the poached lobster over polenta to the menu. The man has mad genius skills.

JR's Old Packing House Cafe - Beef picadillo empanada

Do you need to drive all the way to Sarasota for a good, flaky, perfectly seasoned picadillo empanada made by a lovely mother in her son’s kitchen at JR’s Old Packing House Cafe? No. Empanadas are a dime a dozen in Tampa. But you should. Because although there are many empanadas in the world, this one is special. The recipe may, in fact, have been brought to earth by epicurean angels. But I wouldn’t want to start a rumor.

Central Avenue Oyster Bar during EAT St. Pete Festival - Oysters on the half shell

Any time a raft of briny oysters on the half-shell lay in your path, eat them all without regret and ask for more. This was my tactic when the Central Avenue Oyster Bar presented at the grand tasting tent at the E.A.T. St. Pete food event adjacent to the Mahaffey. I was unsuccessful in devouring them all. I shall try again next year.

Vina Bujanda line of wines

Delicious, affordable, refreshing and surprising. That’s how I describe the Vina Bujanda line of Spanish wines I tasted late this year. Just incredible flavor and value.

Monsier Paul's - Escargot Cassoulet with Bacon

Imagine escargot, out of their shell, served on a pillow of frothy broth in cassoulet form with croutons and bacon. Can’t do it? Can’t make that jump. Then get to Monsieur Paul’s restaurant in the France section of the Epcot in Orlando. See for yourself. Because words fail me to adequately describe that amount of deliciousness on a spoon.

TOMORROW: Ghost pepper lollipops, goat cheese grits and applejack.

A Little Sumthin’ Sumthin’ Extra For Santa [Up On The Rooftop, Snack, Snack, Snack]

Posted Dec 24, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Dec 24, 2013 at 02:28 PM

For Santa

We’re only a day away from the year’s most solemn, holy and significant exchange of retail goods.

And we’re only a few hours from the most important snacking night.

On this evening, tradition calls for leaving cookies and milk for Santa to enjoy as he visits each home.

It’s a tradition that comes from a medieval German custom of decorating the “paradise tree” with cookies and apples and wafers. (At least, that’s according to the Internet, which I always believe.) Over time, children noticed that snacks disappeared between the time they went to bed and when they woke to their presents.

Bypassing the logical answer of large rodents taking care of the treats – no one really wants to welcomes Santa Rat into their holiday gatherings – the snacks moved indoors to be put by the hearth, where Santa allegedly made his entrance. Eventually, the food moved from indoor tree to tidy plate. There’s no clear answer about how milk got to be part of the tradition, other than to be eventually used as a dairy marketing tool.

As you can tell by this highly accurate Holiday CSI, traditions change and morph with time. I think it’s time this old chestnut does so as well.

This is a pay for play deal. To expect largesse while Santa loses so badly - “XBOX ONE for baked goods? Why certainly!” - is not only poor manners; it’s poor strategy.” You scratch his beard, he’ll scratch yours.

I’m no Santa, but if I were, there are plenty of other tasty local options I’d choose instead of cookies.

Have you had the Cuban bread pudding at Bodega on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg?


Santa wishes he could. They serve it warm and sticky. Perfect for a long winter’s nap.

500 Years of Florida Food Lecture

Guava cheese pastries from La Segunda Bakery in Ybor City, full of flaky, fruity, creamy goodness are delicious enough to move even the darkest soul off the naughty list.

A slice of key lime pie made by Mike’s Pies would make the jolly man pucker in the best of all possible ways.



If you live near Hyde Park Village, you could be all trendy and stuff and leave a crunchy-yet-delicate Christmas cronut from Piquant next to the tree. If you dropped one by my house, I wouldn’t refuse to eat it.

The Poor Porker

The truly savvy would hire The Poor Porker in Lakeland to make fresh, candy cane-flavored beignets for the occasion.  To be holiday appropriate, of course. (The ones pictured above are bacon and maple. Got a problem with that?)

Moreno Bakery

I have no earthly idea what a sugar plum is, nor why they would dance. I do know, that a couple bites of Russian Coffee Cake from Moreno Bakery in Brandon would make a well-traveled belly extremely happy.

To match the color of St. Nick’s crimson attire, a baker’s dozen of red velvet doughnuts from Dough in south Tampa would do nicely. It might force Kringle to go a few notches over on his belt, but so be it. He’s been there before.

I know Mrs. Claus would appreciate you leaving a cream-cheese frosting Hummingbird Cake for Santa to bring home to her from Wright’s Gourmet Deli in Tampa. And if Mrs. Claus ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Hellas Restaurant and Bakery

Non-conformists could take a different approach by loading up St. Nick’s plate with dulce de leche chocolates from William Dean Chocolates in Tampa and Belleair Bluffs. Or go for a scoop of chocolate habanero from The Revolution Ice Cream Co. in Brandon. Or maybe an Ybor City Double Espresso milkshake from Burger 21 throughout the area. Or a Gibraltar-size wedge of baklava cheesecake [pictured above] from Hellas Bakery in Tarpon Springs.

Or, you know, stick to your Toll House temptations and moo juice and see what happens. You might get lucky.

Whatever happens, you’d better not pout. I just told you why.