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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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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.

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