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 Underbelly Tour Devours Central Avenue Restaurants In St. Petersburg
Posted May 5, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated May 5, 2013 at 10:30 AM
ST. PETERSBURG - “We don’t serve a large coffee,” the server told me, his voice grave and full of authority. As if he was telling me the Supreme Court rejected my death-row appeal.
Huh? What gives?
A large coffee seemed like the perfect sidekick to the lemon bars and apple crumb cake I was enjoying along with friends on the sunshine-bathed patio at Everything Dolce dessert bar on Central Avenue. Refuse me coffee and you do so at your own peril.
He sensed my dismay. He reloaded.
“Our only serving size is ‘Awesome,’” he said with a straight face.
OK. That made me smile.
“Then I guess I’ll have an Awesome coffee,” I said.
And so began our Central Avenue Underbelly Tour.
For the uninitiated, I started touring under-the-radar restaurants and food spots in 2007, after Tampa chef Greg Baker and his wife, Michelle, offered to introduce me to their favorite places for grub. [link to gallery]
That idea later evolved into gathering a group of adventurous souls to spend a day eating along roads not normally known for their culinary destinations. On Causeway Boulevard [link], we found a Cuban pizza spot and a Puerto Rican deli in a gas station. Nebraska Avenue [link] fed us with gator ribs and strip club bar snacks. Waters Avenue [link] unleashed a fury of Vietnamese pho, Russian pastries and Caribbean mofongo on our bellies. You get the idea.
For the latest journey, I decided a St. Petersburg sojourn was in order. Sure, downtown gets plenty of props for stylish bistros, trendy waterfront bars and grand resort dining, but once you get past the first few streets west of Beach Drive, the drop-off in attention is severe.
Which is a shame, because a bounty of great food rewards the curious eater.
After decades of near-dormancy, decay and promises of development that never quite happened, Central Avenue’s Edge and Grand Central districts are crafting a new identity with funky neighborhood bars, vintage furniture shops and independent restaurants.
To survey some of what the area had to offer, I invited a few friends and fellow food lovers to join me and my wife, Grace, for the feast: Tampa Tribune friends Brian and Lucretia Junge and David and Jane Williams; Moki Barragan and Pete Cajigal of TastyCotton.com; and 102.5 radio host Drew Garabo.
EVERYTHING DOLCE DESSERT BAR
937 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
With the Awesome coffee in hand, I invited the group to sample a variety of delicacies, including chocolate espresso cookies, chocolate-coconut macaroons and almond horn pastries dipped in chocolate, which Garabo said reminded him of a Lorna Doone cookie. Lucretia Junge washed hers down with an iced French vanilla latte.
Owner Lou Albano – yes, he knows there was a wrestler by the name Capt. Lou Albano – bought the former Café Bohemia six months ago, changed the name and remade the menu with help from master pastry chef Michael Ostrander.
During a scouting trip a few days before the tour, I ate a raspberry swirl cheesecake [pictured above] that almost made me weep with joy. I of course shared it on Instagram to drive my friends crazy with envy. My evil plot worked.
“THAT WINS!” Brian Junge said as soon as he ate the apple crumb cake. “WOW!”
His exclamation caused us all to lunge for the tray for our own taste. We agreed with his assessment and, with our lips coated with sugar and caffeine, left the table like a herd of hungry Godzillas to trample our way toward the avenue’s other restaurants.
BODEGA LATIN MARKET FOOD
1120 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
The neighborhood Latin bodega was where George and Debbie Sayegh found the best food while living in Brooklyn, N.Y. They eventually went on to start their own Cuban coffee shop.
After moving to St. Pete, they looked for a place where they could open a spot similar to the Miami restaurants that serve Cuban coffee through street-front windows.
Bodega, which has no market, mimics those eateries with Cuban flavors on the menu, a walk-up order window, sidewalk tables and outdoor bar stools that overlook the kitchen.
Because the lunchtime crowd already had swamped the place, we pulled together tables on the back patio and ordered a variety of menu items to share. In addition to the pressed and perfectly crispy Cuban sandwich, the flavorful Vaca Frita skirt steak, the coconut marinated Pollo Asado and a sweetly satisfying brick of Cuban bread pudding [pictured above], Pete Cajigal ordered a cafecito, a Cuban style of espresso sweetened with sugar as it brews.
Cajigal’s father is from Hialeah, so he knows his Cuban beverages.
After one sip, he declared, “This is the best cafecito I’ve had in the area.”
End of discussion.
ENGINE NO. 9
56 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., St. Petersburg
I’m telling you that the hamburger winked at me.
The Chubby Duck [pictured above], with its caramelized onions, salty pancetta, oozing brie, buttery foie gras and crispy duck cracklings looked me in the eye and threw a flirty wink at me.
I swear this is true.
That’s how I fell in love with it, unashamedly, in front of the group. So much so that I didn’t care that this restaurant one block north of Central Avenue varied from our one-road rule.
Engine No. 9 looks nothing like the Chatterbox Grill that once held this space.
Owner Jason Esposito [pictured above, right, with artist David Williams], nephew to hockey legend Phil Esposito, created a bar with great food that just happens to have flat-screen TVs and framed hockey sweaters on the wall.
That explains the plate of Macho Tater Tots swimming in chili and topped with a toupee of shredded Jack and cheddar cheese. The Sriracha Crusted Hot Wings are flavorful without being painful. If pain is what you seek, go for the Ghost Wings. But notify next of kin first.
Or just stick to the flock of 20 burgers on the menu. Yes, they have salads. They’re lovely. But you don’t want the salads. You want a burger. Trust me on this.
You want the duck burger that winks at you. Just like it did to me.
THE SPOT GRILL
1437 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
I had to put The Spot on our mouth safari. George Sayegh at Bodega recommended the burgers at this tiny storefront that looks as if it fell out of a country salvage shop.
Oh great. Another burger
I’m so glad I did.
After Brian methodically hack-sawed the Black & Blue burger into eight equal parts, we each agreed that this was one fantastically, exceedingly bodacious hamburger. It did not wink at me, but I made a mental note to return as soon as humanly possible for my own full-size sample.
“This burger is the real deal,” Brian said. “This is the way a burger should be.”
The good news is that it is surrounded by tasty friends on the menu, including pierogies, a shrimp po’ boy, a cheese steak sub loaded with onions and mushrooms and “pork wings” with Thai chili, barbecue or buffalo sauce.
For the adventurous eater, The Spot does a three-course exotic game tasting for $25 each Sunday that features unusual proteins each month. When we were there, rabbit and wild boar were the stars of the show.
ARTPOOL GALLERY & VINTAGE BOUTIQUE CAFE
2030 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
The vintage/antique scene is strong on Central Avenue. For years, the recycled treasure stores were the main occupants on the street. In ARTpool, artist Marina Williams takes the scene to a new level of kitsch.
What Williams gets and most of the other shops are missing is that all this familiar but strange stuff needs a pairing with food.
ARTpool Gallery Café’s menu, served in a covered indoor-outdoor setting on vintage patio and dinette sets, mixes comfort foods, such as pressed pimento cheese sandwiches and egg salad with “seasonings your mama used,” with healthier fare.
Sesame noodles [pictured above], veggie wraps and bistro salad make eating outside more palatable during warm months.
The dip duo of hummus and tzatziki with kalamata olives, stuffed grape leaves and pita wedges made a great group appetizer.
It was necessary, you see. Drew Garabo [pictured above] expended a great deal of energy combing the vintage vinyl LPs while waiting for the food.
The satisfied joy he exhibited after discovering the movie soundtrack from “Grease” and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” album was something you only see in drivers who have traffic tickets dismissed because the cop doesn’t show up in court.
BEAK’S OLD FLORIDA
2451 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
I picked this place for several reasons, not the least of which was that the décor in the bar looks like the inside of Gary Busey’s head.
I also chose it because itinerant chef Domenica Macchia consulted on the menu. And wherever she cooks, I follow. No questions asked.
We were ill-prepared for the avalanche of food that hit our table.
A B.L.A.T. (Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado & Tomato) sandwich sent everyone into a salty-creamy-crunchy tizzy. That was just the start.
I won’t give away any names, but several in our group openly announced that the brownie was so delicious, it made them question their identity in the universe. Which, for a dessert item, is a fairly significant achievement.
By the time the funnel cake-like carnival straws with strawberry drizzle and vanilla ice cream hit the table, we all were drunk on flavor and ridiculously happy.
So happy, in fact, that if the day came in portion sizes, it would have been labeled, “Awesome.”