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.
Most Recent Entries
- Join The Plate Licker’s Club; Leave No Morsel Behind
- Greg And Michelle Baker To Follow The Refinery In Seminole Heights With Fodder & Shine
- Weekend Eats: Homemade Moussaka, French Fries With Cheese Gravy, Meatball Banh Mi Sandwiches
- The Sip: Drinking In ‘The Great Gatsby’ With Martinis And Mint Julep.
- Mouth Safari: The Stein & Vine Brings Great Eats, Outstanding Drinks To Valrico
- Weekend Eats: Pork Tonkotsu Ramen, Spicy Chicken And Waffles, Oysters With Crispy Shallots
- The Underbelly Tour Devours Central Avenue Restaurants In St. Petersburg
- Hot Rod’s BBQ In Lutz Serves Up It’s Last Plate Of Barbecue Fruit Bat. Or Whatever It Was.
- Hank Shaw - Hunter, Gardener, Fisherman, Cook - Wins A James Beard Award
- Gary and Amy Moran Out At Wimauma Restaurant In South Tampa
- This Is Tampa Style. This Is Who We Are. Take It And Eat It.
- Weekend Eats: Snickers Flapjack, Thai Donuts, Sushi On The Beach
- The Sip: The Best That A Very Thirsty Tampa Has To Drink
- Rooster & The Till; Seminole Heights To Get New Restaurant
- Weekend Eats: Nutella Latte, Foie Gras Wagyu Burger, Rootini
Join The Plate Licker’s Club; Leave No Morsel Behind
Posted May 15, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated May 15, 2013 at 01:57 PM
I was scraping everything I could from the plate. I was doing a lousy job.
Chef Chad Johnson had just served a plate of huckleberry braised pork cheeks with crispy scrapple made of pig brain and a gastrique with cardamom and maple flavors.
Johnson made the dish at SideBern’s in Tampa as part of a snout-to-tail menu for a private tasting dinner by Knob Creek bourbon whiskey.
The dinner showcases the whiskey’s versatility as well as the chef’s ability to utilize the entire animal, complete with a butchering demonstration. (Knob Creek did a second dinner the next night at Datz in Tampa.)
Johnson was a happy man.
His dish prior to the pork cheeks and srapple: cannelloni made with ham hocks.
The dish before the cannelloni?
Frustrated that I couldn’t get every drop, I looked to my right to see my dining companion, food writer Arielle Stevenson of Creative Loafing, licking a succulent glob of pork cheek from her very shiny, very pointy dinner knife.
It then occurred to me: I want to do that.
So I did.
Here we were, two alleged professional journalists in a very nice, expensive, dimly lit white-tablecloth restaurant, licking our utensils clean.
It looked so wrong.
It felt so right.
I was immediately transported back to my childhood, when I would sneak a lick of peanut butter off the knife while making a PB&J.
It felt like all those times when I would drag a finger through a bowl of cake batter that conveniently hadn’t poured all the way into the baking tin. Or the mornings when it was more convenient to chug from the orange juice carton than it would be to pour it politely into a glass.
It reminded me of the time I saw “Animal House” in college and then took to slurping mouthfuls of Jell-O Bluto-style at the campus cafeteria.
It was, in a word, fun. It made the already extraordinary food taste better.
There was only one direction to go from there.
When the dessert arrived at the table, I did the polite thing and used my fork and spoon to eat the blood custard with candied pork belly, chocolate chicharron and chocolate mole.
And then without regard to decorum or manners, I picked up the bowl shaped like a flying saucer and licked that thing clean to the white enamel. To Arielle’s credit, she soon followed suit.
Rudeness was not my goal. If anything, I saw dragging my face through the bowl as the highest compliment to the chef and his staff. The resulting stickiness in my goatee was my trophy.
Word traveled fast. After dinner, I told Johnson about licking my way through what was left of dessert.
“Yeah, I heard,” he said.
Apparently I have a reputation. On a wall dedicated to identifying local food writers, SideBern’s keeps the following notation:
But I have company.
A couple of nights later, I joined food writers Matt and Ted Lee, authors of “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” for a late-night snack at The Refinery in Tampa. The nosh on the upstairs patio included a bowl of spicy boiled peanuts with lavender, miso, Japanese togarashi chili pepper and bean sprouts.
After the peanuts had been plucked, shelled and eaten, the Lees took turns picking up the bowl and sipping the broth. Ted (pictured below) took a good long drink. Matt suggested it could be used as a soup. The gesture was high praise, considering the Lees ship their own brand of peanuts from boiledpeanuts.com.
Again, it looked so wrong. But it was the right thing to do. Without question.
When did we get so full of ourselves and our own grandiose notions of What My Food Says About Me that we chucked away the fun that went along with eating delicious food? There was a time when describing something as “finger lickin’ good” and then actually licking your fingers clean was the blue collar equivalent to a four-star review
Well, it’s time to go back in the other direction. Enough of decorum. It’s time to show real joy through inappropriate public behavior.
I’m starting The Plate Licker’s Club.
Our motto: Leave No Morsel Behind.
Want to join? Here’s your challenge:
If you can’t lick ’em, you can’t join ’em.
Greg And Michelle Baker To Follow The Refinery In Seminole Heights With Fodder & Shine
Posted May 14, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated May 14, 2013 at 08:10 AM
In today’s Tampa Tribune, Rich Mullins and I have a story about the second restaurant in Seminole Heights by Greg and Michelle Baker, owners of The Refinery. [link] The new restaurant, also on north Florida Avenue, aims to open in December or January.
Where The Refinery is often described as “eclectic” with its play on classic dishes, Fodder & Shine is expected to bring a more approachable dining experience, albeit one with plenty of native game.
As the story says:
Cracker cuisine The name Fodder & Shine is a two-part tribute to very old school Florida culture, with “Fodder” paying homage to the earthy practice of creating something special from spare parts, and “Shine” a reference to Florida’s moonshine heritage.
Much of the menu is still in development, but while the Refinery has a lineup of dishes that changes every week, Fodder & Shine will have a more stable lineup. Baker aims to take advantage of the best Florida veggies, meats and seafood as well as the state’s heritage of African-American, Native American and Spanish influences.
The size of the restaurant will give Greg Baker more room to play, including a walk-in cooler dedicated solely to making charcuterie in house and another just for craft beer. Their current refrigerator at the cooler is smaller than many walk-in closets.
The 2,000-square-foot kitchen will be significantly larger size than at The Refinery, where having more than three cooks on the line leaves little elbow room to maneuver. It includes an outdoor kitchen where Baker can smoke and grill steaks from heritage Yellow Hammer cattle.
What it won’t be is a southern food restaurant. Greg Baker intends to delve into old Cracker cuisine using native ingredients. To do so, he is researching old cookbooks and taking oral histories from pioneer families.
The menu price point will differ from The Refinery as well, with plates spanning $3 to $30.
“When you say $30, it will be because Greg is using Yellow Hammer cattle, which is as rare as it gets in Florida,” she says.
I had a chance to talk to the Bakers as the toured the former garage on Friday. The facility, which used to be a former garage, is barren except for discarded calendar with bikini models and a giant silver hot dog cart.
JH: Is it all going to be open-air?
MB: No, no, no. These are just the bones. The only thing that will be kept are the steel beams and the interior walls.
JH: There will be a 2,000-square-foot kitchen. What else?
MB: There will be an outdoor kitchen where Greg can do his smoking. He’ll have dedicated charcuterie space. The office will be here. The front, we’ll keep that room area so we can do private dining. Bar will be up front.
JH: How much of this space will be dining area?
MB: We’ll do a white tile wall where there are windows and you can see everything that’s going on in the kitchen.
GB: Probably to the first beam. We’ll take the roof off and make it into an atrium.
MB: The hot dog cart is awesome. We said we wouldn’t buy it unless it included the hot dog cart.
GB: You guys don’t understand. I’m less excited about owning this building than I am about that hot dog cart. [laughs]
JH: Maybe you should make it into a foie gras cart.
MB: A foie cart?
GB: We could take and use it as our booth in Atlanta [at the food festival]?
MB: Not a bad idea.
JH: What’s your target opening time?
MB: December or January.
MB: C’mon. Who are you talking to?
JH: I’m not doubting you.
MB: I told the architects, “We will be on time. I will be on this job site every single day. This will happen.”
JH: The ceiling will be exposed? What are you going to do?
GB: Yeah, the beams are going to be exposed. We’re going to keep the existing roof. All this will get sand-blasted.
JH: Who is taking over The Refinery?
GB: Eric is for the most part is going to be driving The Refinery along with Katie. I’ll bring over one of my people with me for this. This will be more straightforward food.
JH: Like what?
GB: I want to delve back into old Cracker cuisine or old Cracker ingredients.
MB: It’s going to be a combination. You have African influence, you have native American influence.
GB: Spanish influence.
MB When Greg described it to me, he said it’s going to be wild game, it’s going to be quail. There’s going to be lots of seafood. He’s going to be a lot of preservation, from charcuterie to canning. We’ve got the farms getting lined up. We have fields that will be growing for us. John Matthews [of Suncoast Food Alliance] is over the moon excited because that’s going to keep them going.
GB: We’re trying to get back kind of the renaissance that came over the low country, but in order to make the dishes good again you need the ingredients to work with. I’m tracking back and researching ingredients and looking at oral histories of old Florida families and trying to get a sense of their food.
JH: The thing people will ask will be, “What will the difference be between this and The Refinery?”
MB: The Refinery is more artsy sister. This is going to be a hangout. Obviously Greg is going to do his thing, but the cocktails are going to be good, the beers will be craft. We’ll have awesome wines. I’m having the furniture built. We’re using all re-purposed wood. The whole point of it is to be comfortable and hang out. I look at this being the stoner sister and the Refinery as being the artsy sister. You’re not going to see foie gras on this menu.
JH: Were there any ingredients that will be here and not The Refinery?
GB: I’m working on sources for old Cracker cattle, Yellow Hammers, things I can’t necessarily put into The Refinery’s price point. More game that I can’t put into The Refinery’s price point. I’ll have the liberty of doing something as simple as a rabbit stew. I can’t put a rabbit stew on the menu at The Refinery.
JH: What price points are you aiming at?
MB: $3 to $30
GB: Some of the beef is going to be more expensive. I’ve got a menu of bar snacks and apps…
MB: Some of the plates, you can share if you want to.
MB: In the entrees, we’ll have that big, thick steak.
GB: It’s going to be a more widely approachable menu, but still done to my standards.
JH: So the obvious question is can this neighborhood support $3 to $30?
MB: So many people ask us, “Why are you under-charging at The Refinery?” When you say $30, it will be because Greg is using Yellow Hammer cattle, which is as rare as it gets in Florida. That’s sad, because that’s what the cattle were back in the day.
JH: Where is the Yellow Hammer coming from?
GB: I’m working on some sources for that now. I’m talking with one guy whose father was the last person to still drive the cattle overland to the market in Kissimmee. It’s all grass-raised in Polk County. We’re working out USDA processing. We’ll get it worked out.
JH: Now at The Refinery, you only have a closet for a walk-in freezer.
GB: We’re going to have a walk-in and a dedicated charcuterie walk-in. We’re going to have a walk-in for beer. Now at The Refineryh, its to the point that if we get a whole pig, I have to put a couple tables together, spread some Visqueen and do it.
JH: Is there any other restaurant doing this that you know about ?
GB: Not that I know about.
MB: I want to be clear about this. This is not just southern food. This is not shrimp and grits. There might be fried chicken, but that was an African influence. It will be done in the manner it was done back in the day.
GB: If Crackers had fried chicken, it was at a restaurant. They didn’t have time for that at home.
JH: Where are you sourcing the food?
GB: Lots of old cookbooks. I’ve been working on this oral history project. Talking to people my age who are multi-generational getting me in touch with grandma and grandpa. Remembering, “Oh yes, the butter beans. They looked completely different than they do now.” So I go back through seed catalogs and try to find that.
Weekend Eats: Homemade Moussaka, French Fries With Cheese Gravy, Meatball Banh Mi Sandwiches
Posted May 13, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated May 13, 2013 at 05:25 PM
I could go on with a bunch of blah blah blah and wax rhapsodic about the virtues of marrying pasta with melting dairy product.
But what is there to say about a giant, sticky bowl of Mac & Cheese at Datz restaurant in south Tampa that doesn’t speak for itself?
Well, you say, “Hey, that bowl of lovely goo just won Weekend Eats for Twitter friend @WholyCheesus.” And then you heap praise and congratulations.
The grand prize for this achievement in gustation:
The book is a guide to making home-style dishes less fattening and caloric.
Why anyone would do that to a bowl of Mac & Cheese, I have no idea. But the dish is on the cover, so that must mean something arterial is afoot.
Not hungry enough by now? Check out this week’s Gallery of Noms:
The Sip: Drinking In ‘The Great Gatsby’ With Martinis And Mint Julep.
Posted May 7, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated May 7, 2013 at 03:13 PM
It’s understandable if you get the urge to tipple a few cocktails after watching the film version of the book “The Great Gatsby.”
I know I’ll want a cocktail, but that’s because everything Baz Luhrmann directs gives me a headache.
Alas, that’s another blog post.
The boozy reminders are everywhere in “Gatsby.” Author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel liberally uses drinks to define characters and frame the excesses of their gilded lifestyle amid the Prohibition Era’s restrictions.
Flappers in the book massaged champagne into Gatsby’s hair. The sweet French wine Sauternes was what Daisy got drunk on before her wedding. And mint juleps are the drink of choice at the Plaza Hotel when Tom, Gatsby and Daisy have their dust-up.
I asked Dean Hurst, director of spirits for Bern’s and SideBern’s in Tampa for a few Gatsby recommendations. He and bartender Danny Guess of Fly Bar in Tampa released an e-book late last year called “25 Classic Cocktails.” [link]
He suggested a julep made with high-proof bourbon – he used 100-proof Four Roses, a distillery that operated in the 1920s. (The company stayed in business claiming it was making medicinal alcohol. Medicinal, I guess, was in the lips of the beholder.) Hurst says a high-proof bourbon will fight off the watering down effect of the julep’s crushed ice.
Hurst also advises not to muddle the mint in the julep too hard. “That way you get the oils of the mint leaf without getting the more vegetal notes,” he said.
He also picked a gin martini, using 2 ounces of gin with 1 ounce of dry vermouth like Dolin or Noilly Prat, and a dash of orange bitters.
Drink up while you can Gatsby wannabes. You never can tell what the stock market will do tomorrow.
7-8 Mint leaves
1 teaspoon Sugar
3 ounces Bourbon
Muddle mint and sugar in the serving glass, which should be a silver cup.
Add crushed ice halfway and stir with a swizzle stick until the glass frosts. Top off with more crushed ice and a few mint sprigs, add a straw and you are done.
2 ounces Gin, Tanqueray Malacca
1 ounce Dry Vermouth, Dolin
1 dash Orange Bitters
Stir and serve in a chilled coupe with a twist of lemon peel
Mouth Safari: The Stein & Vine Brings Great Eats, Outstanding Drinks To Valrico
Posted May 6, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated May 6, 2013 at 06:07 PM
VALRICO - I’ve driven past the bar twice a day for years, once on my commute into downtown Tampa, once on the ride home.
Until recently, I had not paid it much attention. I stopped in years ago and, finding the place dark and dingy and me not on probation or hiding from collection agencies, I decided not to return.
Plus, it wasn’t in the most attractive location. On the front of the strip mall in which it sits on Bloomingdale Avenue, its sign, which reads “PUB” sits next to one that reads “SMOOTH ACTION GUNS”.
Then a couple of months ago, Richard Thomson, who tends bar at Pane Rustica in South Tampa, told me I absolutely had to stop in there.
“Be sure to get the loaded Tater Tots,” he said. “They have chili and cheese on them. They’re ridiculously great.”
A bar. With tots. Loaded tots at that.
Oh, twist my arm, why don’t you.
I left him immediately, got in my truck and drove directly to the bar called The Stein & Vine on Bloomingdale Avenue.
When I walked in, I let out one of those nervous laughs you get when you feel like someone is pulling a prank on you.
Gone was the skeevy, two-packs-a-day feel. In its place was something that looked like… a gastropub?
Reclaimed Ybor City brick on the wall. Twenty-seven beer taps. A wine list with 30 labels on it. Chalkboards with the daily specials and a craft brew list.
The bar was bright and decorated with wood tones. It smelled like cheeseburgers and beer. Customers were smiling. Pennies were embedded into the top of the bar.
It felt like I had found a home.
I sat down and ordered four things on the menu immediately. The tots, of course, loaded with chili and a fried egg. Yes, a fried egg.
Okay, so maybe there are a bunch of jalapenos on there as well. And bacon. I was a little egg-drunk when I saw it on the menu. I get fixated sometimes.
Then there were the Pig Wings, small pork shanks fried to a crisp but moist golden brown.
I also asked for an order of Cajun Fried Corn on the Cob. Mostly because it was served with a Latin Lime sauce. That had to be good. Had to be.
To wash it down, I ordered a Cigar City Jai Alai IPA that had been aged in a white-oak barrel.
This photo is not that specific beer. I drank the IPA too fast to take a photo. And so I was forced to buy this very fine beer as a representative example.
I drank that one, as well.
Later, I met the owner, Ty Mathis, and found out he worked 15 years for Pepin Distributing in Tampa. If there was a Gasparilla or a Super Bowl and you had a beer during it, you can thank Ty. His first job at Pepin: Taking the old beer taps out of Tampa Stadium and installing new ones in Raymond James Stadium.
Mathis noticed three years ago that the craft beer market in Tampa was exploding, in part due to Cigar City Brewing’s growing reputation. Craft beer now accounts for up to 10 percent of the market.
He was a cook before his stint with beer – including at River Hills Country Club in Valrico - so when he felt he needed a change from slaking South Tampa’s thirst, he decided to open The Stein & Vine.
“You could see the excitement,” Mathis said. “Tampa is one of the most desired markets to be in for craft beer. I threatened my wife Lacey for years that I was going to buy this bar.”
He had a vision that it needed to be an independent bar, so he cashed in his retirement and put it into renovating the space himself with a few friends. They installed three tons of tile. In the meantime, he experimented with the menu at home before opening in November.
“I spent my own money,” Mathis said. “I don’t owe anyone. The 27 beers I have on tap (are) ones I want. I know I make good food. And I have a lot of friends in the area.”
I ate the Pig Wings. I murdered the loaded tots. The Cajun Corn didn’t stand a chance. The beer was a perfect pairing.
When I was done, I had this ridiculous grin.
Here I was, only a short drive from home. I didn’t have to drive into Tampa for great brews and fun and delicious food.
Life was, for a moment, at a perfect peace.
The lesson to be learned here: Stop every now and then instead of driving by. There might be fried pork as a reward.