Apr 10, 2013
As you may or may not have noticed, I have not written anything for this blog in several months. This was due to several reasons, including personal events, an extremely busy work schedule at two restaurants, as well as moving into a new place. Certain situations have changed and are continuing to change and I am pleased to have the chance to write again. What I did always make time for was eating well, whether out or at home, and I have plenty of dining experiences to catch up on writing about. Up until this writing, I have written reviews on singular dining experiences at particular restaurants, but in order to cover some of my experiences more efficiently, I have decided to start with a much more vast article on authentic Chinese in the city of Tampa. Specifically I am covering the restaurants in the Yummy House "empire" - Yummy House, Yummy House China Bistro, and Yummy Noodle House - as well as thier almost sole competitor/peer China Yuan. I have labeled this Part 1 as I will probably always have more to write about Chinese cuisine in Tampa (for example I have yet to try YHCB for it's infamous dim sum and I have never even once been to TC Choy).
I eat more Chinese food in Tampa than anything else and for several reasons. Most people might assume it's because I grew up around Chinese cuisine or because I just happen to be partial to it... or that I'm trying to fill the void that was left when I moved 1000 miles away from my most beloved food landscape of Chinatown, NYC. That may be true to a certain extent but it has nothing to do with why I choose to eat it so often. Can you get authentic Italian cuisine anywhere in Tampa? And if you did, is it cheap with large portions? And if so, is the execution consistently good to great? And even if you did get that far, would there really be enough variety for you to eat it nearly weekly without getting bored? If you answered yes to any of these, please e-mail me. In fact, if you could switch out the word Italian for any other cuisine and and answer yes, e-mail me. I'm dying to get the same bang for my buck for something other than Chinese food in this town. Vietnamese is running a close second but that's another article for another day.
The Infamous Salt and Pepper Mix
When I first moved here and had only eaten one time at the original Yummy House, I was vaguely annoyed by the notion of Salt and Pepper Fried Stuff being considered a signature dish. I mean, it's on the menu at at least half of the Hong Kong style restaurants I used to frequent in NYC's Chinatown. It's a timeless classic - like pizza, even the not so great renditions are thoroughly enjoyable. After two years in Tampa, I can honestly say that the Yummy House restaurants have every right to be proud of thier version of the Salt and Pepper mix. I don't think I've tasted a better one here, in NYC, or anywhere else.
Pictured above is the dish that was my first introduction as well as that of many others, the Salt and Pepper Calamari at the original Yummy House. As you can see, it's loaded with cilantro and dried red pepper as well as lots of toasted garlic. It is my opinion that the heavy use of cilantro (which is not always present in other restaurant's version of the dish) and the excessive amount of toasted garlic is what makes Yummy House SP mix really shine.
By comparison, this is China Yuan's version of the same dish (yes, it's the same pic from my past review of them). As you can see, it is mainly bell peppers and onions with a few pieces of jalapeno for heat and much less garlic than the Yummy House version. This is a standard and very traditional take on the dish, but it can't hold a candle to what you get at any of the YH restaurants.
For a time at Yummy House China Bistro, you could get Salt and Pepper Oysters. They are still on the menu and I've now tried to order the twice, the first time simply being told they didn't have them and the second time being told they haven't had them in months. As a stand in the first time I tried Salt and Pepper Eggplant, and while I was obviously expected to be much less wowed than if they were oysters, they did not dissapoint. This dish is worth ordering even amongst it's protein based competitors on the menu even if you are not a vegetarian. I am a huge fan of Chinese eggplant in general, and while it is usually cooked until very soft soaking up the flavors around it, this crispy version that is just cooked through was a delightful change. In case you're wondering, the SP mix is pretty much identical at YH and YHCB.
The second time I tried to order the oysters (and was unfortunately informed of their permanent departure from the menu), I ordered the Chicken Wings in lieu of them. I'm not sure if you can tell by the picture, but they were pretty damn big as far as wings go. While the SP mix was the same as always, the wings seemed to be dredged rather than battered like most of the other SP offerings are. I also made a very interesting observation. I had noticed a very suble sweetness but couldn't figure out where it was coming from. It was so faint that I thought maybe it was even just the caramelization that occurs from toasting the garlic. Upon closer examination I realized that the wings had actually been tossed in a small amount of granulated sugar. It may sound simple or even too simple but it has an amazing effect on the complexity of the flavors while still maintaining the dish's characteristic dryness (there are very few sauceless dishes as good as these). I am now tasked with the detective work of finding out if the wings are the only SP dish that get sugar in addition to the SP mix we all know and love.
While YH/YHCB excels at SP mix, what they should be equally known for is thier fried rice. While it is true that fried rice is just as if not more ubiquitous than SP mix in Chinese cuisine, you'd be hard pressed to find a better version anywhere near this area. If you have only had takeout ("New York Style" as they call it down here for whatever reason) style fried rice, authentic Chinese fried rice may taste different to you due to it's lack of soy sauce. I greatly prefer the authentic version because I feel that the addition of soy sauce takes away from the garnishing ingredients as well as the wok hei (also known as the breath of the wok). I am a wok hei junky, and the fried rice at YH always deliver my fix.
One of the first fried rice dishes I had when I moved to Tampa was the well known Duck and Dried Grape Fried Rice from Yummy House. As you know, dried grapes are raisins, so don't get thrown off by the verbage on the menu. It did not disappoint, and I am particularly fond of YH's trademark use of cilantro. Recently I got to try a new special, Bacon Fried Rice which also contains raisins as well as diced apples. It's basically the same dish as the duck fried rice but with bacon and apples instead of duck. It was delicious. Even my daughter (who currently has 4 teeth and just began eating textured food) couldn't quite get enough of it.
Trying to switch it up a little while still sticking to a selection containing a fruit garnish, I tried the Seafood and Pineapple Fried Rice. It was good but not on the same calibre as the others. The salty/sweet balance just didn't seem to work quite as effectively considering how delicate the seafood is, but it wasn't bad by any means.
Congee, or Jook as my family and most Chinese refer to it, is one of the most satisfying food substances I have ever consumed even though it is simply rice cooked in a shitload of water. It's one of the few foods that even I can barely consume right away due to how hot it is, and consumed with tea (without any cold drinks) it can warm your whole body in an almost magical way. I don't enjoy anywhere near as much jook as I used to since moving down here, mainly because of the warm weather and because up until recently I didn't think anywhere down here really made it as good as I was used to. Recently I had Fish Congee with a side of Fried Crullers at Yummy Noodle House, and it was the best I've had in a while. I'm embarassed to admit I've never had Chinese fried crullers even though I have seen them a lot, but I found out at Noodle House that they are ridiculously good with congee. Congee is usually served underseasoned, which I like because I can splash soy sauce onto the top without it getting too salty. I like when the jook is really thick and the soy sauce just sits on top - I don't bother to mix it in because I like getting that strong hit of salt and umami. As hard as it may be to consume congee piping hot, if you wait until it cools too much it will thin out and be nowhere near as enjoyable.
The Seafood Congee I had at China Yuan wasn't quite as good. It wasn't bad either, I think really I just miss having scallions on top. It may sound stupid, but scallions really do a lot for me. Other than that it was maybe slightly thinner. Not bad by any means, but scallions and crullers are enough for me to choose Noodle House over China Yuan when in the mood for congee in that area.
Random Other Dishes
The Singapore Noodles (which I always knew as Singapore Mei Fun) at Yummy House are a favorite of my former chef, Ferrel Alvarez, and an article was written about his fondness for them. I have always been a fan of this classic dish as my father would often bring it home. Yummy House does a great version of it, although it's basically up to par with what I'm used to in NYC and nothing more or less, once again you won't find it anywhere near this good anywhere else in this area.
Hong Kong Soy Sauce Chicken from Yummy House was surprisingly moist throughout both the dark and white meat, quite a feat for a bird cooked whole. The skin tastes of soy sauce but is not crispy which Americans at times seem to take issue with. I grew up eating chicken with soft skin like this and I don't mind it at all.
Grouper with XO Sauce is one of my go-to dishes at both YH and YHCB, the picture above being from YH. Aside from being one of the lowest priced seafood dishes on the menu, it tastes incredible. The soft pieces of fish float like ethereal clouds amongst the crunch of snow peas and salty punch of dried scallops.
I was steered towards Potstickers by the waitress at Noodle House when I tried to order another kind of dumpling that they didn't have. They were pretty standard, not bad by any means although they seemed a little more charred than normal and I'm not sure if it was intentional.
The same waitress also steered me towards Roast Duck Noodle Soup, which was good if not really standard as well. I think maybe I prefer my roast duck outside of my soup (considering it still has bones and you will still need to use your hands to eat it) and something more interesting in it. The problems with suggestions is they always seem to try to steer Americans towards the safe stuff, and I prefer the not-so-safe stuff. Either way, the standard Hong Kong style soup noodles and some wilted iceberg lettuce in a good broth never fails to satisfy in it's own right.
Tripe with Pickles at Yummy House China Bistro is one of those dishes that's not for everybody. Not because it's tripe, but because whichever particular type of tripe it is (there are 4 chambers to a cow's stomach, all which can be eaten as a different type of tripe) happens to be chewier than most that I've tried before. A waitress even came to the table to warn me that it would be chewy and make sure I was okay with it- at first I thought she was just assuming that because I am American I would not appreciate the chewiness that is inherent in just about all tripe. It turns out she had a valid reason to give warning. It's also misleading saying that it's with pickles because it's mostly with peppers and onions and a sauce with fermented black beans (something like what Chinese pepper steak would come with). The sweet pickles are tucked away in there and although I'm not sure what vegetable they were exactly, I do wish there were more of them. Chewiness and all, I did enjoy eating this tripe. I'm just not so sure that you will.
Chicken Lettuce Wraps are a great way to start a meal at Yummy House China Bistro. The version of this dish that I'm familiar with is usually made with squab. I once saw a show on Food Network where a chef they were doing a piece on was showing how to make his squab lettuce wraps and it turned out he just used chicken anyway but still called it squab. It really pissed me off. I'm glad they call it chicken at YHCB.
If you order Chinese Greens with Garlic at China Yuan, you can either get Chinese broccoli or bok choy. As you can see I got Chinese broccoli, somewhat forgetting that I always kind of find it to be maybe just a little too al dente for my tastes (pretty much all Chinese restaurants prepare it that way). I'm a much bigger fan of yu choy, which is the leaves and stalks of the same plant canola oil comes from. As far as Chinese broccoli goes, this was good but I could have used more garlic and more salt. Greens are one of the few things that I find tend to get underseasoned for my taste in Chinese cuisine (except of course when they are doused in oyster sauce).
Vegetable Spring Rolls at Noodle House suffered a fate that is pretty common for spring rolls - the interior just tasted like a greasy homogenous mush, and the fact that it remained molten hot for a while after coming to the table indicated that it spent maybe a little too much time in the fryer. Either way, a spring roll is a spring roll - they still got ate.
Stay tuned as I have many more meals to catch up on talking about.
Nov 4, 2012
Most people who know me are aware of my views regarding food, and particularly that I subscribe to the philosophies of the slow food movement. They also know I currently work at a farm-to-table restaurant, and that I haven't eaten major chain fast food since before attending culinary school. But regardless of all that, I'm still an American, and hot dogs smothered in countless condiments and chili cheese fries will always have a place in my heart. We may not like to admit it, but I'd like to think there's a little Guy Fieri in all of us (hopefully regarding palate and not fashion sense).
In this regard, I miss my home of North Jersey. While I thought it was pretty lacking in terms of anything culinarily advanced compared to the places I would work at and eat at across the river, there's a reason so many places there have been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I mean it's not just that we have a lot of diners, but there are "fast food" places everywhere that aren't part of any major corporation, and may just have a few sister restaurants at best (hardly what I would call a true chain). Rutt's Hut for hot dogs, White Mana for sliders, pizzerias almost on every block, and of course diners everywhere open all night. While corporate fast food as well as casual chains are commonplace, there are plenty of other options, and while not everyone agreed with me, I found no reason to spend my hard earned money at most businesses that weren't locally owned (okay, I'd enjoy a Chipotle burrito every now and again).
Frankies is a Connecticut hot dog restaurant that began in 1937 and proclaims itself to be "The Gourmet of Fast Food". It now has a handful of locations in CT, as well as this one on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, a few blocks away from where I live. The Tampa location was started by a University of Tampa student who had worked at one of the CT locations of Frankie's while in high school. While "gourmet" may be a stretch, I would much rather satisfy my occasional cravings here than with whatever the clown and the king have to offer. While the prices, like almost all non-corporate "fast food" restaurants, are slightly higher than the big chains, they have all types of deals running on different days (2 for 1 hot dog happy hour, 2 dollar burger night with unlimited toppings, etc.). I recently found an offer on Groupon for $20 worth of food for $10, and since Groupon gave me a $15 bonus to use towards anything, the $20 coupon was free. So there are deals to be had here, sometimes even better than the corporate alternatives.
I ordered about 33 bucks worth of food and drink, which was more than enough for Terika, Jewel and I, but since I only had to pay the $13 difference after the coupon, it was more than worth it.
Serria Nevada on tap is 9 bucks for a pitcher. There are a few other "premium beers" as well. Domestic beer is 8 bucks a pitcher and Jai Alai is 10.
Jewel had a Frankie Jr., which is a shorter kid's version of their Famous Frankie hot dog. The nice thing about the kid's menu or any combo/platter here is that "choice of fries" means steak fries, curly fries, tater tots, or onion rings. Since we ordered a side of curly fries with chili and cheese, and I don't find steak fries or tater tots particularly interesting, I got her onion rings so I could evaluate one. They were good, breaded like classic diner onion rings (as opposed to battered) and very crispy. They looked and tasted homemade, so if they were frozen they sure had me fooled.
Terika normally would order an Italian sausage sandwich with peppers, onions, marinara and provolone, but to her (and my) disappointment, it was taken off the menu. She decided instead to get an order of fried clam strips. Growing up, I really loved fried clams (they formed sort of a trifecta with fried shrimp and fried calamari) but all too often, even down by the Jersey shore, a young underpaid cook would drop a handful of frozen clam strip into the fryer and let them ride until they resembled rubber bands with a dark brown crunchy coating, tasting more of old oil than anything else. At Frankies, they were cooked perfectly. Probably still frozen, but I'm okay with that. And unlike good oysters, clams - whether fresh or frozen, raw or fried - just beg for cocktail sauce. They offer tartar as well, but trust me, you want cocktail.
One of the offerings that keeps me coming back to Frankies for more is the curly fries with chili and cheese. You can get steak fries or tater tots this way also, but I doubt either would be as good as the curly fries, which are of the "coated" variety like most curly fries and therefor extra crispy. Sure, the cheese is processed and fake, and the chili is just heavily seasoned tomatoey ground beef, but together something magical happens. Pasteurized processed cheese product is something I'm usually vehemently opposed to, but for some reason, when it's of the sauce variety and smothering french fries, it's just hard to resist. Would I prefer a mornay in it's place with perhaps legit chili con carne? I don't know, I'm sure gourmet chili cheese fries would be good but unless it's going to cost $3.99 - or in this instance pretty much free - then I'm not just ready to give this stuff up entirely.
A Famous Frankie is perhaps the real draw here (in addition to the chili cheese fries of course). The bun is toasted rather than soft and squishy, which I kind of like although the squishy (and even sometimes steamed) bun definitely has it's place in the world of hot dogs. The dog itself is long (a foot) and thin, with a casing that becomes wrinkled and even charred in places. Without toppings I would say the dog itself is great and the bun is good. But the real beauty of a Frankie's hot dogs are all the free condiments at a station in the corner of the restaurant. New York onions, hot relish, sweet relish, diced onions, and/or sauerkraut all make for a great custom hot dog. I put all of the above on mine except sauerkraut because by the time I got to it I had no more room. I guilded the top with deli mustard, but maybe next time I'll remember to put that on the bun first. They offer a few different "Internation Frankies" with different toppings based on the country (although I'm not sure why a "French" would have nacho cheese) but I never bother with those. Although they are only 30 cents more, the free stuff is all I need.
Not nearly as good as the hot dogs are the burgers. A 1/4 lb cheeseburger was dry and shriveled enough to seem like it was 1/8 lb after cooking, with a good half and inch of bun extending past the patty on all sides. While fast food buns are often bleached out and full of preservatives, this one was just dryer and crumblier than it should ever be. The classic fast food accoutremants - american cheese, iceberg lettuce, mediocre tomato, onion, pickles, and mayo - were the same as they always are, which is to say neither great nor bad. But the bread and the meat were the downfall.. I would only order one again if they bring back burger night, where cheeseburgers were $2.50 (hamburgers $2.00) and had unlimited free toppings (that would normaly be $.50). Even then, I would try to convince them to "undercook" (aka properly cook) my burger as well as pretend they are just big sliders.
In summary, stick to the dressed up curly fries and dogs, as well as beer and if you don't go here often -- which you probably shouldn't - try to catch a deal because there's more than enough of them. It should more than satisfy your fast food cravings, although I'd go elsewhere for a burger.
909 W. Kennedy Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33606
Oct 28, 2012
In my recent post about the nearby Yummy Noodle House, I mentioned regularly dining at China Yuan when in this area. While there are some things that Yummy House and it's siblings do better, China Yuan is pretty much invariably a good place to eat. I recently had my daughter and her sisters under my watch while going to get my hair braided around the corner, and we had dinner here afterwards. While I normally enjoy crispy pig intestines and other interesting goodies when here, I decided to keep it pretty classic and safe because I had the girls with me. They are pretty adventurous, but I like to cover the basics that they haven't experienced yet.
Who doesn't love crispy skin roast pork? This classic Hong Kong style dish often starts out hanging in windows among ducks, chickens, char sui, and other "BBQ" goodies at southern Chinese restaurants and groceries. It is served room temperature, cooked well done with crackling crisp skin and a side of hoisin sauce. In most cases (and I believe in this one) it is made with the universally-loved pork belly, once again demonstrating the versatility of this cut. While I have never encountered a bad version of this dish, China Yuan's is particularly good, with the crispest skin possible that is not in the slightest bit tough or chewy. The kids devoured this dish, although Jewel refused to eat the skin or try the hoisin sauce (which I would expect to be a kid's favorite elements). Just the plain meat alone was good enough for her to attempt to gorge on it and evade eating anything else, which of course I couldn't allow to happen, partly because I wanted her to try more, and partly because I wanted some more pork for myself.
Minced beef and cilantro soup was the only dish we ordered that I haven't had before. I had to make a point of trying at least one new thing, even if on the safe side. The tiny bits of beef and just wilted cilantro were mixed into what was basically an egg drop soup. Delicate soups in this family, like the pork skin soup at Yummy Noodle House, tend to lack salt for my tastes (which is a situation that can fortunately be rectified at the table if a salt shaker is present, however I wouldn't use soy sauce like I do in congee for fear of overpowering it) but their lightness is greatly enjoyable in the beginning of a meal, stimulating the palate while not disrupting the appetite (which you almost always need for whats to come at Chinese restaurants).
While Yummy House and Yummy House China Bistro are well known for their salt and pepper mix, I like this boldly flavorful preperation so much (and long have before moving to Tampa) that I'll order it even when I'm somewhere that may not make it quite as good. I also factored into my decision that the kids would probably like it as well as that I was on a limited budget and this dish (the salt and pepper calamari) is less than 9 bucks. As it turned out, the Yummy Houses may have the better version, but only with a very slight edge. The China Yuan version contains less fried garlic, and more bell pepper than the Yummy Houses' version (which I believe don't contain it at all). While I love the near overkill of garlicky crunch one encounters at YHCB, this version is more sentimental for me as it is more reminiscent of the version I would often encounter in New York's Chinatown. I ended up eating more of this than the kids. It's hard to resist.
Singapore style rice noodles (or chow mei fun) are also a classic standby. While I can't recall if I've tried them at YH/YHCM, my friend and mentor Ferrel Alvarez (executive chef of Cafe Dufrain, where I currently work) was recently featured in an article where he praised their version of this dish, so I can comfortably assume it's very good. This is also one of the few dishes than recieves comparatively minor bastardization when ordered at American Chinese takeout restaurants, and I often thoroughly enjoy it in that incarnation as well. China Yuan's version, unfortunately, was not memorable among others I've had. It was light on curry and skimp on garnishes. Was it enjoyable? Yes, I still ate quite a bit of it. It's just not something I would order from here again because they have better dishes to offer, and other places (even, dare I say it, American Chinese takeouts) make better versions of it. It's very possibly that this version, lighter on seasoning and sparse on garnishes, is closer to the norm encountered in Hong Kong (I don't know because I've never been there, just tons of restaurants in NYC Chinatown that may or may not tweak dishes to local tastes), but what's traditional isn't always what tastes better to me... although the times when it isn't are definitely in the minority, particulary when it comes to Chinese.
China Yuan remains one of my favorite and most visited restaurants in Tampa. If I needed only one Chinese restaurant in Tampa to satisfy my needs because Chinese cuisine wasn't pretty much my favorite cuisine to eat as well as the most nostalgic to me (a completely hypothetical situation which couldn't be further from true), I'd probably settle on Yummy House China Bistro. Honestly though, I don't know how anyone with half a palate could put Chinese cuisine that low on the totem poll. If you are anywhere near here and hungry, you should eat here. You won't regret it.
8502 North Armenia Ave. #1A
Tampa, FL 33604
Oct 26, 2012
On a recent sunday, many of my co-workers and their kids and/or significal others met up for a few hours of bowling. I brought my daughter's older sisters Diamond and Jewel, and we had a great time. Afterwards, Grayson (a fellow cook and blogger at GNATV) and his wife decided to grab something to eat. While we were on Armenia Ave. not too far from Yummy House, Yummy Noodle House, and China Yuan, I've been eating so much Chinese food lately that I needed to switch it up. Given the area, we decided on Colombian, and headed to La Pequena Colombia, where I have had a good experience in the past.
I have been fond of Colombian food for quite a while. When I lived in Jersey City, NJ near the border of Union City (one of the most densely populated and diverse Latin American communities anywhere), I rarely ate Latin food that wasn't Colombian, even though you could take a step in any direction and encounter a myriad of restaurants flying different flags. It's not that I necessarily thought Colombian food was more complex or utilized better flavors... I just found Colombian restaurants to be much better at execution and the food always seemed fresh (many everyday Latin restaurants overuse steam tables in my opinion). This was one instance when I was happy that the food took longer to prepare than 5 minutes, especially when it was the overindulgent bandeja paisa (a countryman's platter containing chicharron, a fried egg, thin pounded steak, sausage avocado, arepa, beans, rice, and plantains) or a fried whole red snapper.
When we got to La Pequena Colombia, we were told they were closing but we could go to it's "fast food" counterpart (which is open until 1 am except for friday and saturday when they close at 6 am), which is on the corner opposite the plaza that the original restaurant is in. While I have never experienced the "fast food" version of Colombian food, I figured it would probably be an even more casual version of what I was used to, but it turned out to be something like a Colombianized version of American (and Americanized Mexican) everyday food. There was hot dogs, hambugers, pizza, and both arepas and tostones topped in the fashion of tostadas or nachos. Fortunately, it wasn't true fast food, either in the sense of being a corporate chain or having that style of service (there are waiters here). It was more like a Colombian diner.
The Colombian version of Chicharrones is actually chunks (or sometimes thick strips with slashes in them) of fried pork belly. Apparently the Colombian method it to rub the skin with baking soda which aids in it's crispiness and later on cover it with water to render out it's own fat and then turn up the heat to crisp once the water evaporates. While they are very crispy, they are also very chewy because they are not cooked long enough to become tender inside like braised or confit (or even slowly roasted) pork belly. Because of the very intense browning and high surface area, they are even more chewy than say, Chinese crispy skin roast pork, which is also made from belly and cooked without braising. They served them with fried yucca, green tomatoes, limes and an arepa. The acidity from the limes and green tomatoes helped cut through the fattiness of the pork and the yucca. I'm not sure if they used unripe tomatoes on purpose, but in this instance they worked. The arepa was dense and mealy like most I've had, and I'm not sure what it's use is on this dish. I'm waiting to one day meet an arepa I like, because so far they seem like one of those things you have to grow up eating to understand.
Speaking of arepas, a "taco" arepa was covered in avocado, lettuce, beans, chicharrones, and cheese. Grayson was a little dissapointed because he was expecing something more sandwich like, but apparently arepas are used in many different fashions. This one was a flat square used like a tostada shell. It was good in the way good bastardized mexican food usually is (especially considering I had some beers in me), but the arepa itself was the weakest element. I just don't get it. It's not crispy, it's not flavorful, it's just whatever. Like I said, I'm hoping one day I meet an arepa I like, but until then I just don't dig the dry texture, and I usually wish I could detect some salt (although I know certain varieties traditionally contain none).
Sweet plantains were among the best I've ever had, although I know it sound's like it should be difficult to fuck up. All too often though, they just aren't ripe enough... it's that perfect point where the plantains turn almost completely black, but not to the fully ripe stage where they are mashed up and used in desserts, that's when they make the best maduros. I don't know if they are always that sweet, but that day, they were perfect.
Mainly for the kids, I ordered a pizza with pineapple and ham. I tasted a slice and the first thing I noticed was how sweet the pineapple was. Definitely canned, and pretty overpowering. The crust was thin, like a premade cracker. The cheese was cheap and copious, and slid off my slice completely before I laid it back on in one piece. It's hard for me to pretend that even bad pizza (and make no mistake, this is definitely bad pizza) isn't enjoyable enough to eat (especially after or with beer), but this was about on the level of a supermarket brand frozen pizza, possibly a few points lower just because of how bad the pineapple was. Ordering it served it's purpose, as the kids sure didn't have a problem eating it... and to be honest, this is the quality of pizza you normally see served when ordering off a kids menu (not that things should be that way), or maybe in a really shitty bar that only has a toaster oven and deep fryer in the back. I wouldn't advise anyone to order this.
There were also some interesting things (by interesting I mean scumbaggish) on the menu that I didn't get a chance to try, including tostones con todo, with all different kinds of meat and toppings which I can't remember, as well as a hamburger costing nearly 19 dollars that is cut in quarters like a pizza for several people to share. But I doubt I would come back unless I was tipsy and nearby late at night. I would definitely choose the non "fast food" La Pequena Colombia if given the option.
La Pequena Colombia Express
6204 N. Armenia Ave.
Tampa, FL 33604
Oct 24, 2012
The day after going to Saturday Morning Market and Z Grille, I checked out the opening day of the Seminole Heights Market Sunday Morning Market. Once again, none of the food venders had anything that I was really in the mood to eat, so I decided to go out for brunch once again. I decided not to stay in Seminole Heights, but to return to my neck of the woods and give Boca a try. Boca has been open quite a few months, and even though I live nearby, this was my first visit there. I arrived shortly after they opened and there was already a line to get in, but most of the people were there for a baby shower. The hostess told me the only place there was room to sit was the bar, which seemed odd because I didn't see anyone sitting outside, and the weather was beautiful once again. I didn't fret and took a seat at the bar.
While normally I would have opted once again for a bloody mary, I figured since I had two the day before I might as well enjoy a beer instead. I decided to try the Terrapin Hopsecutioner IPA on tap. It was enjoyable... I'm not as good of a beer critic as I am a food critic, so I'm having trouble remembering exactly what I liked about it, but I do know I liked it.
Once again in my sandwich mood during brunch, I this time ordered a breakfast BLT and was able to incorporate an egg into the meal as well. A duck egg in particular, along with heirloom tomato, hydro petite romaine, bacon, and avocado mayo. The crisp bacon and runny yolk duck egg were both cooked perfectly. The bread was griddled but still blonde, as if rushed, but this was redeemed by the bread being of very high quality and fresh enough that it would have probably been good even if not griddled at all. The heirloom tomato was underripe, adding good moisture to the sandwich but not much great tomato flavor. Avocado mayo was in no way distinguishable from mayo mayo, and sometimes I wish people would save me the "creativity" and just put a few slices of avocado on my sandwich. The fries were obviously homemade, which also equated to them being limp... but I have admitted this before, limp fries are a huge guilty pleasure of mine (don't tell any of my chef friends though). With a more golden exterior, juicier tomato, and evidence of the existence of avocado somewhere within, this could be an amazing sandwich. As it was, it was still a great sandwich, by far better than a diner BLT (which I don't ever turn down either). For twice the price though, and in a restaurant which markets itself by the ingredients it proclaims to use, I felt I had to be twice as objective in my critique. That being said, I definitely enjoyed it enough to return, and am curious to try the lunch menu and especially the dinner menu.
901 W. Platt Street
Tampa, FL 33606
Since moving to the Tampa Bay area, I have found it much safer to dine at ethnic restaurants and places that would give Guy Fieri a hard-on than to spend my hard earned money at hip, modern, and supposedly creative restaurants. Too many times they just don't deliver and I wonder if the locals who rave about them have actually eaten at any restaurants in the country that actually matter, or if their tongues are capable of sensing contrasting textures or even just salt (or the lack thereof, rather). Sometimes I wonder if the chefs pick the flavors to use in a dish out of a hat, as I've seen better ingredient combinations thrown at chefs on Chopped. Because I am in the industry, and also because I believe it to be bad karma to bash local businesses just because I dislike their execution and/or creativity, I will refrain from discussing or mentioning by name restaurants that have let me down, at least until they sway my opinion (I always give second chances and sometimes more). What I will do is gladly discuss the ones that have delivered... the ones that don't make me feel like I'm gambling with the money I worked so hard for (in a kitchen cooking better food).
The first Tampa Bay restaurant I dined at (other than my place of employment) that fit this genre and actually delivered on the plate was Z Grille. Terika and I went to dinner there earlier this year, and while it was incredibly busy and we had to wait for a table (understandably so considering we didn't make a reservation and it was a weeknight), the execution was more or less flawless. While I'm often not the biggest fan of restaurants who's inspirations span the globe (at least not when done too literally), Z Grille gets away with it by keeping the Latin dishes Latin, Asian dishes Asian, and so forth, and by using ingredient combinations that actually work instead of emphasizing creativity over flavor like many of it's peers. Not only is the food good, but the bustling downtown vibe and great decor (featuring much Japanese style tattoo art, similar to the type that adorns the owner Zack as well as myself and countless other chefs) exemplefies exactly what this type of restaurant should be. It caters to the educated foodie more than the average hipster that think's he's a foodie, while easily pleasing both at the same time.
I recently returned to Z Grille for brunch after my first visit to Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete. I don't think I had been back to downtown St. Pete since my first visit to Z Grille, but I immediately recognized the area when I got to the market. I typed Z Grille into my iPhone, and low and behold, it was all of a one block walk from the entrance of the market, and easily was the better choice for brunch than anything I saw at the market (not that the food looked bad, but sometime's I'm just in the mood to eat at a real restaurant). It was a beautiful day so I opted to sit outside, but all that was available was this small couch with a really low table (like a coffee table) in front of it. I sat there but worried it would be awkward trying to eat from a plate situated nearly level with my knees, but it turned out to be more than tolerable.
It's hard for me to imagine brunch without a bloody mary. While I developed a taste for them while trying to alleviate hangovers, now that I indulge way less often, I enjoy them simply for the taste. Z Grille garnishes thiers with a caper berry, pickled green bean (or wax bean or some member of that family, the pickling process obscured it's true identity), and a cilantro sprig, as well as rimming it with some sort of spice blend (old bay possibly?) It was quite good, not overly alcoholic but enough so that after 2 I felt much more pleasant than I did beforehand. I would have traded the cilantro for the classic rib of celery. But for 5 bucks, this is definitely the go-to brunch beverage.
I started off with half a dozen oysters. I forget the exact types, but three were east coast and three were west coast. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed the milky texture of west coast oysters, which is much more of an acquired taste than it's east coast counterpart. They were both delicious, not the best oysters I've ever had in my life (mind you my first culinary job was behind a raw bar) but definitely good. Especially with (obviously house-made) mignonette. There is nothing I hate more than places that serve oysters without mignonette. While I might enjoy a freshy harvested oyster from the most pristine waters either naked or with a touch of lemon, there are very few instances when shipped in oysters, while still alive, haven't been metabolizing thier stored sugars and losing their precious juices for long enough not to benefit from a splash of vinegar and shallots. The cocktail sauce was good too, but other than clams and shrimp, only rinsed off cheap Bluepoints in great quantities (the infamous "buffet oyster") are deserving of being masked with such an overbearing condiment.
During brunch at Z Grille, you can order not only off the brunch menu, but off the lunch menu. I really was in more of a sandwich mood than an egg mood, so I stuck to the lunch menu and settled on the kurobata pork belly bahn mi. Considering I have been consuming very little animal protein and much less fat during the week, this was quite an indulgence... but all is justified when it comes to R&D. The three hefty slabs of braised-then-fried pork belly were garnished with cilantro, pickled onions, julienned carrots, and sriracha mayo. There was also a lone slice of pickled jalapeno, which was hard to detect atop about 10,000 times it's weight in pork. The bread was really good, and actually a short baguette like this is what the term bahn mi means in Vietnamese when not followed by other words (although the Vietnamese version is much more airy, this was more traditional). The sandwich was good, but slightly dry without adding some of the extra sriracha many that came on the side (which I would have rather used on the sesame fries, which did not taste assertively like sesame). Had the carrots been lightly pickled (and maybe julienned on the thinner mandoline setting) or dressed and the pork belly brushed with a glaze of some sort, this sandwich could have been phenomenal. Still, with the extra mayo compensating for the moisture I was missing, this was thoroughly enjoyable.
I look forward to eating at Z-Grille again for both brunch and dinner. It's nice to know there's somewhere in the area that you can spend your money on something other than tacos or Chinese food and know you'll be glad you did. If only it was on this side of the bay, I'd be there much more often.
104 2nd St. South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Oct 14, 2012
While it's no secret that I greatly miss New York City's Chinatown, the presence of great Chinese restaurants and groceries in Tampa more than helps me cope with my longing. The first Chinese restaurant I tried in Tampa was the original Yummy House on Waters Ave. I'm not sure if I remember exactly what I ate that day, but I do remember it being good. I also remember waiting a really long time for it, as well as the no frills decor and somewhat standoffish service. Of course, I ate at Chinese places in NYC with this type of service and decor almost on a weekly basis, considering it a small, almost novel price to pay for great, cheap food. The big difference was that you never had to wait long to get fed.
I always wanted to go back to Yummy House. I planned to return when I started getting my hair cut (and later on braided) in the next plaza over and would be in the vicinity regularly, but I soon discovered China Yuan around the corner in a plaza which also contains an Asian grocery and Chinese Bakery. China Yuan's food isn't necessarily better than Yummy House's, but I feel the service is a bit more pleasant, the interior a little easier on the eyes, and most importantly, food will generally hit your table faster.
When the owners of Yummy House opened Yummy House China Bistro on Hillsborough Ave, Terika and I went there on opening night (or maybe it was the second night open) and let me tell you, it was busy. Waiting for a table wasn't so bad because we were able to order glasses of wine while we waited. Once we were seated, the service was great (the staff here are younger and more personable) and the food still came out quick. Not only that, but it was off the chain. And the decor is possibly the best I've seen in a Chinese restaurant anywhere... not old school in the slightest. I know some people like dives, and even believe the prices are significantly cheaper at the original Yummy House. Comparing menus online briefly, most dishes seemed to be priced the same, but I would still pay a dollar or so more for a dish (and these are big portions) if it means service and decor will be great and I don't have to wait half an hour before I can eat it.
The newest addition to the Yummy family is Yummy Noodle House, across the street and a few doors down from the original Yummy House. This location had previously been an Americanized Chinese food place that seemed not so Americanized on the outside... but I found that out the hard way. The first time I came here I met up with my friend and co-worker Grayson West (who you Tampa blog followers may know from GNATV).
We started with pork skin soup. I have long loved the way Chinese cooks stew pork skin until completely gelatinous. From what I understand, this style of pork skin starts off dried, similar to it's textural opposite cousin known as the pork rind or chicharron. While in NYC I enjoyed large strips of this braised with turnips in a well seasoned brown sauce, this soup had it diced up in a much more delicate white broth with a slight sheen from cornstarch. It was tasty, but not as tasty as the version I'm used to.
Frogs Typhoon Style was really off the hook. Yummy House is known for it's salt and pepper mix (which is so ubiquitous in Chinatown that when I moved here I thought it was a little ridiculous that people considered it almost a signature dish... although it is one of the best salt and pepper mixes I've had) and "typhoon style" is apparently a similar application, except with less chiles and the addition of fermented black beans. Copious amounts of fried minced garlic really make the dish, which is the same way I feel about the salt and pepper dishes. Of course, frogs have bones and you have to be careful when you are eating them. The closer to the joint you get, the fishier it tastes... and if you accidentally bite down on a joint, let's just hope you have a glass of water or cup of tea nearby. But for the most part, frogs are delicious.
Fried Chitterlings, or crispy pork intestines, were good but I prefer China Yuan's version of this dish because they are slightly better there in my opinion and also served there with lightly pickled daikon and carrots which go with them very well. If you are squeamish about this sort of thing, just remember if you eat sausage, you probably eat intestine, although sausage casings are only the outer layer of the intestine. These are crispy on outside (the same layer that get's used as casings) but still have the chewy interior walls.
My second time here I had a dish of steamed fish and tofu with ginger and scallions, trying not to stray too far from eating healthier. There were several pieces of fish each atop a piece of tofu sitting in soy sauce and topped with scallions and julienned ginger (my apologies for not taking a picture). It's amazing how enjoyable something so simple can be, and I often recreate this dish during the week with just tofu and no fish. My third time here I tried seafood pan-fried noodles which was shrimp, scallops, squid, carrots, rehydrated black (shiitake) mushrooms and shanghai bok choy nestled atop crispy fried noodles which taste almost deep fried but I believe they achieve this result in a wok with much less oil. The noodles on the bottom start to rehydrate from the sauce which creates an interesting texture contrast. I always seem to forget this type of noodle is fried this crispy, next time I think I'll go for something more stir-fried than pan-fried.
All in all, Noodle House is definitely a welcome addition to the Yummy family, especially considering they stay open late. Yummy House China Bistro is hands down my favorite of the Yummy Houses, but I won't be able to say who holds second place until I return to the original Yummy House as well. You will definitely be hearing more from me about all three Yummy Houses, as well as China Yuan, so come back soon.
1808 W. Waters Ave.
Tampa, FL 33604
Oct 12, 2012
I first became interested in Ethiopian cuisine after attending a cooking demonstration at the Institute of Culinary Education (my alma mater) by Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, now New York based (an adoptee like me and just as much all over the map) chef Marcus Samuelsson. At the time he was promoting his then most recent cookbook, Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, which documented his travels all over the continent but especially emphasizing his birthplace of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, I never got to try any of the Ethiopian restaurants in NYC (a very popular one that I would often drive past was coincidentally also called Queen of Sheba). Finally, shortly before our trip to NJ/NY, Terika, the kids, and I made it over to (the Tampa) Queen of Sheba.
Other than trying a new cuisine, part of my interest in Ethiopian cuisine has to do with changes I have been making in my diet (which I sometimes excuse myself from for "R&D", aka Research and Development... going out to eat and tasting food I'm cooking). Due to my newfound interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine and just plain being "sick and tired of being sick and tired", I have drastically reduced the amount of animal products, as well as refined starches/sugars and excessive fat from my diet. Queen of Sheba has both vegetarian (which is said to be all vegan as well) and non-vegetarian food... but even a non-vegetarian meal there contains a much lower percentage of meat than a typical American meal, which is often the case in traditional ethnic meals but not always necessarily reflected in restaurant meals. Even though I considered this meal R&D, it really didn't have to be because I really didn't cheat.
It's worth noting the ambience of this restaurant. Most of the clientele is probably Ethiopian or from a close part of the world. The music and decor is very Ethiopian, and it is somewhat dark and cozy (if a little bit tight). The service was pretty slow, as it took several minutes before we were even given menus. This of course makes one wonder why, considering that stewed dishes obviously cannot be "stewed to order".
I started with an Ethiopian beer, Hakim Stout, which wasn't really a stout. It just wasn't malty and thick enough, and the color really wasn't even that dark. But it wasn't bad either. It's just nothing I'd go beating down doors looking for.
Terika and I shared an appetizer sampler consisting of Ethiopian tomato salad, veggie sambusa filled with lentils, buticha (crushed chickpeas), azifah (crushed lentils), injera (a type of thin pancake made from fermented teff flour which Ethiopians use to eat just about everything since they do not use utensils), and ana-babro (more injera, this time layered which Ethiopian spices). Although I planned on eating mostly vegetarian food, I didn't expect the sampler to be completely vegan (the menu doesn't specify what it includes). The appetizers tasted good but nothing particularly blew me away. The buticha was described to us as being like hummus, and while it contained chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, it didn't taste much like hummus at all to me. Other than just not containing tahini, texturally it wasn't nearly as pureed as hummus usually is and overall just seemed to be much blander than hummus, but that could have to do with the salt level being fairly tame as it was in just about every dish. I love to try all different ethnic cuisines, but some parts of the world use less salt than others and it's hard for a trained restaurant cook (used to having to adequately season food in order to avoid verbal abuse and possible airborne objects) not to notice. People without food backgrounds may not notice. Generally speaking, you will notice me saying things like "could use a pinch of salt" quite often. That's just the way I was trained. If it's not seasoned enough, it's not as good as it could be.
Terika and I also ordered a combination platter for 2. I'm not sure if I can remember the names of everything, although I know it included doro wat (chicken and hard-boiled egg stewed with spices), ye kik alecha (yellow split peas), tekikl gomen (carrots, cabbage, and other vegetables), atkilit alecha (carrots, potatoes, and string beans), gomen (collard greens), some kind of stewed beef, some kind of chicken and two more which I'm not sure the identity of. I almost wish I had ordered the vegan version because the beef was very chewy, like a cut meant for braising being cooked only to well done and no further, and the chicken was bland and boring (chunks of breast in some kind of barely seasoned yellow sauce). The other stews were all pretty enjoyable, even though some of the flavors took some getting used to even for my adventurous (but still American) palate. Sour flavors show up a lot, which can be pretty pronounced considering the injera is made from fermented flour and is already quite sour. Everyone who knows me knows I'm an acid junkie but I'm talking about more of a funky sour... but not the kind that food takes on when it's off. The injera really grew on me over the course of the meal and I think this kind of food in general could grow on me over time, but I still think it's begging for a little more salt. It's hard to judge Queen of Sheba because I have never been to any other Ethiopian restaurants. I could see myself returning here, but probably just to eat healthier vegetarian food during the week when I feel like neither cooking nor cheating. An exception to that would be to try kitfo, which is Ethiopian steak tartare seasoned with clarified butter and spices. I have always wanted to try that dish (although I did get to try Marcus Samuelsson's version of it), but I passed this time in order to try a large variety of dishes on the combination platter instead. Next time I guess.
3636 Henderson Blvd
Tampa, FL 33609
Oct 10, 2012
Our final restaurant meal before leaving NY/NJ was at a restaurant that is very dear to my heart. Everyone has that one place that they have been going to for years that they always want to go back to, and if they don't, they wish they did. For me that place is Ping's. I started going here in 2006 while still a culinary student. I had just learned of the Slow Food movement and read about Ping's in Slow Food's New York City restaurant guide. Apparently one of the Slow Food delegates from Italy ecstatically proclaimed "this is not New York, this is China!" during a dinner there. After a great many meals at Ping's, I can see why.
Unfortunately, I haven't ate dinner at Ping's in years... but that's mainly because when I still lived in NJ, I would usually try different places almost every time I would head to Chinatown at night (which was close to once a week. Dim sum on the other hand was a no-brainer. Dim sum was at Ping's. Always. I can't remember the last time I had dim sum somewhere else (other than in Florida, which didn't compare... but I do look forward to trying the dim sum at Yummy House China Bistro). I went with girlfriends, with family, with friends. I went to dim sum at Ping's any time I could.
Ping's had just opened back up after undergoing renovations (supposedly, but I didn't notice much difference). It was sometime after 1 pm on a saturday and it was the most crowded I think I have ever seen it... but then again I was with a large party once again and waiting for an 8 top to free up takes a lot longer than a 2 or 4... so maybe I just never realized how crowded it actually was in the past. One of the waiters recognized me and still remembered my name (well, my Chinese last name pronounced the proper Chinese way rather than the Americanized-at-Ellis-Isand way, "Mok" instead of Mark) but wondered how come I hadn't been there in so long. I assured him that living a thousand miles away was the only reason in the world that he doesn't see my face on the regular like he once did.
I'm not going to write this review like my other reviews (if you can even call this a review). There's no use analyzing every dim sum dish because A. they're all good, B. I don't recall the "official" names of most and C. There's so many of them. But what I will do is post pictures for you to drool over. I'll try to remember the names of the dishes as best I can.
Shrimp Shu Mai
Pork Shu Mai
Some sort of meatballs.
I forget what these are called but I love them.
Steamed Char Sui Bao
Classic dim sum but I forget the name, it's shrimp wrapped in some sort of rice wrapper.
Stir-Fried Noodles with what I think were long beans
Bamboo steamers and dishes start covering the table fast here.
Yu Choy with Garlic, the king of all greens.
Yuba (bean curd) skin, but I forget the filling.
Tea and chili oil
Carts stacked up with steamers, the way dim sum should be served.
Sponge cake like my grandmother used to make by steaming, except her's weren't rolled up.
22 Mott Street
New York, NY 10013
Oct 3, 2012
After our meal at La Tasca, we had planned to have dinner with all my family that lives in Maryland (I think all together there was around 15 of us) at Bobby's Burger Palace at Maryland Live! Casino in Hanover, Maryland (which happens to be the town my Aunt live in, and going to BBP was her suggestion). Like most cooks in the business, I'm not the world's biggest Bobby Flay fan, but I don't dislike him either (okay, I'll admit I have referred to him in the past as Bobby Flagrant and Bobby Souffle, the latter referring to his ego being puffed up). I first heard of his fast casual burger concept when he opened one in Paramus, NJ, which may have actually been the first location, but I'm not sure. We were still pretty full when we got there, so I tried to order as light as possible while still being able to try the food.
I got the L.A. Burger, which has avocado "relish", watercress, cheddar cheese and tomato on it. It cost $7.75, well above a typical fast food burger but cheaper than a burger in a more upscale formal dining establishment. Price-wise, it's pretty much on par with a diner burger, and that's kind of where the quality stands as well (not in a bad way). This more upscale and somewhat guilt-free (as far as practices, not calories) version of fast food follows in the footsteps of Shake Shack. Since I personally abstain from consuming almost any form of commercial fast food for moral and health reasons, I can occasionally indulge in the flavors I grew up with as a typical American by going to these type of fast casual restaurants. While Shake Shake serves it's burgers medium unless otherwise requested, BBP takes temps. This should be a good thing, but places like this don't usually have the caliber of cooks it would take to nail temps on a thin 4 ounce burger, so you should probably pretend you are at Red Robin and be content to have "some pink" as opposed to "no pink".
I ordered mine medium-rare, and even though it came out medium, I still enjoyed it. My cousin ordered his medium, and it came out close to rare. But hey, what are you gonna do?
I must have forgot I was in a casino, because I thought the frozen cactus margarita was going to be weak. Boy was I wrong. They must have really been hoping for me to hit the slots because this was the strongest margarita I've ever had, it's beyond me how it even stayed frozen with that much booze in it. It was a challenge just to wash down food with it... but other than that, better strong than weak.
Most chefs and people in general are crazy about fries being as crispy as possible, but I have a secret guilty pleasure involving limp fries. Not all limp fries, but sometimes they are just limp in a good way... like these fries. The fry sauce was really good too, I couldn't really place what was in it but it was more than just mayo and ketchup.
All I really had room left for after that was an onion ring. And it was good, thick cut like a diner or steakhouse onion ring instead of thin like a frozen fast food onion ring. It could have used it's own special sauce like the fries though.
Maybe Bobby isn't so bad after all... I kind of like this place for what it is.
7002 Arundel Mills Cir
Hanover, MD 21076