Monday, September 2, 2013

Pei Wei: Pronounced "Yum"

"Mom, I don't think it's pronounced 'pee wee'," said Son of Hubmeister, chuckling at the dinner table as I launched into an account of my recent experiences at my new favorite chain, Pei Wei Asian Diner.

I'm glad that kid was home on summer break to set me straight (Don't you hate it when your kids correct you and they're right?). So, it's pronounced ''pay way," but however you say it, this place shines in the realm of "fast casual" eateries.

I rarely review chain restaurants because I avoid their contrived atmospheres and formulaic food, but Pei Wei has ensnared me with its fresh flavors and made-to-order stir-fry dishes. A scaled-down offshoot of P.F. Chang's, Pei Weis are few and far between in Tampa, with only two locations, both on Dale Mabry Highway, one in Palma Ceia and the other in Carrollwood. I've never noticed either one and haven't tried them yet, either. The store I have experienced is the lone Pei Wei location in Sarasota, off University Parkway in the shopping center on Cooper Creek Boulevard near I-75.

Things are "wok-ing" in the open kitchen. (Good things.)

We stumbled upon this spot after working up a hunger on a grocery run to Sarasota's Trader Joe's, then on to Total Wine & More, which is only a storefront away from Pei Wei in an expansive shopping complex.

Inside, a brightly lit menu board stopped us in our tracks as we made our way to the service counter where we ordered, paid and were handed a number to place on our table. Drinks are self-service and food runners deliver meals to each table, which might take the form of a booth, a high-top, a standard table or the diner counter overlooking the open kitchen. You seat yourself, so take your pick.

The contemporary décor features warm, earthy colors and the setup is inviting for those dining alone. Other reviewers have complained of deafening noise levels when the place gets busy, but neither of my visits left my ears ringing.

Unlike most Asian restaurants, the menu won't overwhelm you with mind-numbing choices, but a reasonable number of appetizers, salads and entrees is available. On our first visit we tried the Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad and Mongolian Beef. The salad ($7.75) was large and made a lovely presentation, with seared chicken, crisp lettuces, Napa cabbage, carrots, cukes, snap peas, scallions, rice sticks and tomatoes, all finely chopped and tossed with a light lime vinaigrette. I won't be trying to mimic the dressing at home, but this salad was a fresh-tasting, healthful option.

Hubmeister went for the Mongolian Beef, which the counter person said was a popular choice. No wonder. It was so tasty that we both ordered it on our return visit.

A delectable dish: Mongolian Beef and Brown Rice

The beef had an appealing and addictive crispness, and the sweet garlic-infused sauce, which also enveloped white mushrooms and scallions, was downright delicious. It seems this dish is a direct descendent of P.F. Chang's version but a heck of a lot cheaper ($8.95). We both got brown rice, which I normally pass on due to its weird texture, but I will always order it at Pei Wei. It was fluffy.

Hand-rolled egg rolls and a lightly spiced dipping sauce

We also tried the egg rolls ($3.95 for 2), which were stuffed with pork and veggies and did not appear to be out of the Sam's Club frozen food section. You can actually see pieces of pork in them. They were accompanied by a semi-spicy dipping sauce that I loved. Did I detect a trace of peanut butter in it?

Here's what else I loved: The food arrived steaming hot, and over at the self-service area was a shelf packed with spices for added five-alarm power. The iced teas were a step up from the generic restaurant versions, although Hubs didn't care for the chai or the other Asian tea (that I can't remember) that was offered. I had the chai and I liked it a lot.

Here's what we didn't like: There was one bathroom for each gender, as in, one toilet. If that one toilet is occupied, you need to watch for the door to open and make a beeline for it when it's available or you'll stand outside waiting in the dining room. Think: airplane routine.

Though it'll be hard to break away from the Mongolian Beef, on my next trip to Pei Wei I know I'll be trying the spicy Korean Steak Lettuce Wraps. Yum!

Verdict: Solid link in a chain

Pei Wei Asian Diner on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 29, 2013

Keegan's: Not Flavor Town

While Sister Foodie was visiting last week during her Summer Couch-surfing Tour of 2013, we ventured to the beach to get some soft-shell crabs at Keegan's Seafood Grille. The few meals I've had at this relaxed seafood standby in Indian Rocks Beach have left a good taste in my mouth (heh..heh). Too bad this visit had to be the exception.

On a hot and sunny beach day, we entered the weathered, nautical-themed seaside dive that shares a shopping plaza with a salon and a few other businesses. The odor of bleach permeated the air as we sat ourselves in an empty restaurant at the height of lunch hour. I'm glad the place was clean, but I can do without the chlorine vapor at mealtime. Save for a couple of other tables, we were the lone diners. Perplexing. I've always been wait-listed here.

My usual order is the soft-shell crab dinner, which features two fried soft crabs, coleslaw and corn. A seriously reasonable $15.99, the crabs are decent size, carry a light crust and, upon the initial chomp, produce the requisite squirt of crabby nectar. Although I usually sauté them in butter after a dredge in Old Bay-seasoned flour, I don't mind a deep-fried soft crab every now and then. Much to my disappointment, Keegan's had 86'd the soft crabs the day of our lunch visit due to a sellout the previous evening.

Yes fans, hanging on the wall is a poster of Guy "Never Met a Dish I Didn't Like " Fieri

As I tried to erase the image of Guy Fieri grinning -- creepily -- at me from the wall opposite our table, I perused the menu in search of Plan B. With that autographed picture threatening to ruin my appetite, I debated between the blackened grouper sandwich (a favorite of Son of Hubs) or the grouper cheek po' boy (on the specials list). I got neither. Sister and I decided to share an appetizer of fried grouper bites, a plate of steamed shrimp and an order of mussels.

Served with lifeless tartar sauce overwhelmed by mayo, the fried grouper bites were piping hot, moist and tender but the batter was just plain bland. Grouper may be a great fish but it still needs a smack of seasoning. A slice of lemon and a scoop of mayo aren't going to tickle any taste buds. A missed opportunity.

As Sister tossed the mussel shells aside, she shook her head at the tasteless, watery broth in which the plump Prince Edward Island mollusks were swimming. Served with a big hunk of garlic bread intended for a soak in the shellfish pool, the mussel dish failed to bring forth any dipping motion from Foodie's hand. Where, oh where, was the white wine, shallots, butter and garlic bath that normally enriches a bowl of steamed mussels? Those ingredients may have been in the kitchen but they weren't enhancing this dish. Neither was the cup of melted butter in the bull's-eye of the plate (above).

The steamed shrimp were served hot (as ordered) but were led down the same ho-hum path. Although fairly large and fresh, the shrimp needed a flavor boost. True to their menu description, they had only a touch of seasoning. They would have been so much better with a wallop of Old Bay followed by a steam bath in beer, but the saving grace was the cocktail sauce, which packed some horseradish punch.

We also got a side of french fries, which did not deviate from the emerging pattern of acceptable but uninspired cooking.

Service was friendly and I loved the fact that our server didn't rush us to order entrees when we requested the appetizer and a couple of beers. She knew we were there to relax. Then again, only a handful of folks were in the place, so why would she care how long we lingered?

Keegan's is a reasonably priced and hospitable place that serves fresh seafood, but it is in no way Flavor Town USA. By the way, if my research is correct, Guy "Donkey Sauce" Fieri filmed his "Triple D" segment here several years ago before the restaurant changed ownership.

Verdict: Needs seasoning.

Keegan's Seafood Grille on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Piquant Has Promise

When you hear the word "piquant" do you automatically think "cronut?" Around these parts you'd think piquant meant something other than its Webster's definition of "agreeably stimulating to the palate," but I guess a cronut might fit that bill. I wouldn't know because I've been to Piquant twice and they didn't have any samples of the half-donut, half-croissant creations. Due to the current cronut craze, you must now pre-order them. 

Hats off to Piquant's pastry chef/co-owner for putting this place on the map by frying up dough until he supposedly replicated the latest food fad that's captivated New York's sweet freaks. I look forward to snapping one up when the furor dies down.

In the meantime, I've broken bread at this spot for breakfast and lunch and, true to its proper dictionary definition, it's quite pleasant -- but not without issues. Hubs and I cruised down to Hyde Park Village for a late breakfast on the 4th of July. As always, the Old Hyde Park shopping area was a ghost town -- totally inexcusable for this charming, historic section of Tampa. By the way, Williams-Sonoma has closed, joining the numerous stores and restaurants that have packed up their Hyde Park inventory and run for the hills.

Speaking of restaurants that bravely gave it a go in Old Hyde Park, if you ever ate at Restaurant BT or Sophie's, you'll recognize the Piquant space. The bakery case anchors the same place it occupied at Sophie's, and sits where that eye-popping bar stood at BT's. A chalkboard menu adorns the wall behind the case.

A conversation area at the far end of the restaurant encourages coffee drinkers to lounge on a sofa and hang out, while a high-backed, padded black banquette accommodates diners and helps break up the large dining space that's replete with black tables and clear acrylic bistro chairs. French tunes complement the modern décor and round out the Parisian mood. If a controlled climate isn't your thing, al fresco dining also is an option on a spacious, covered patio that fronts the meandering, pedestrian-friendly Snow Avenue.

Since it was a holiday, Piquant had extended their hours for breakfast service, so Hubs ordered an omelet and I got a fried egg, bacon and cheese baguette. We both had coffee and split an almond croissant. A patisserie and café, Piquant features a bakery case full of tarts, cakes, croissants and other sweet temptations. My biggest complaint about bakeries is that everything typically looks great but tastes past its prime. I'm uncertain whether age was the case with the almond croissant or whether the construction simply lacked the layers of flake and fluff that make eating a truly great croissant a memorable experience. This one was doughy but had a nice exterior almond glaze.

That's the only less-than-sweet thing I have to say about our breakfast. The Buddy Brew French roast coffee was excellent and the server kept it coming. Hubs special-requested an egg-white omelet, a dish Hubster thought noteworthy because egg-white omelets usually are tasteless; he raved about this one containing smoked Gouda cheese and Canadian bacon.

On my side of the table, thick and flavorful Applewood smoked bacon, aged Cheddar cheese and an over-hard fried egg were piled on a crunchy, crusty baguette, making one savory and satisfying breakfast sandwich.

Neither the sandwich nor the omelet was accompanied by a side dish or garnish, so don't expect home fries, toast, a slice of orange or even a sprig of parsley to appear on your plate. I realize food cost is a major concern but a little garnish would go a long way. Sides exist but they're all a la carte.

Because we thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast, I didn't have any difficulty persuading the Hubs to return for lunch -- and I even took a few photos!

Hubs had an "oops" moment when he bit into the chicken salad on croissant (above) and discovered diced onions or shallots. He balks at the onion family in raw form and was surprised to find it in chicken salad. Just as he does when I try to sneak onions in at home, he poked and prodded around them; otherwise, he gave good marks to the smoked chicken salad with apple, brie and avocado. He said the croissant itself was dense and lacked freshness. The thin-cut french fries, on the other hand, were hot, crispy and addictive.

I tried the puree du potage et lardon (potato and bacon soup), which was super thick, laden with heavy cream, pureed potato and chunks of bacon. It was too heavy and somewhat underseasoned for my taste.

Knowing a pastry chef was in the house, I bypassed the salads and sandwiches on the menu and zoomed in on the quiche simply to sample the crust. Served a bit warmer than room temperature, the bacon and Gruyere quiche was remarkable in texture and flavor. The crust was buttery and flaky, not the least bit soggy from the tender custard. Similar to the breakfast presentations, except for a zigzag of balsamic syrup, the quiche stood alone, but priced at $5 for a substantial slice, it's an incredible bargain.

One last comment about lunch: The coffee was not hot. When refilled, it still was not hot. When replaced with a fresh cup because it was tepid, it still was not hot! At $2.95 a cup, you'd best get that coffee hot. I'd hate to see this place packing up their cronuts.

With a few tweaks and the cronut craze getting people in the door, Piquant could be the eatery that succeeds where others have faltered. I hope so. The staff is eager to please and it's obvious that they are making the effort.

Verdict: A few bumps but worth a visit.

Piquant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Gastrogrub: Tampa Trifecta

As our friends and relatives will attest, Hubmeister and I have been known to darken the door of a pub or two. In fact, soaking up good adult beverages in fun, interesting places ranks high on our list of great excuses not to do yard work. It's an added bonus if the drinking establishment serves decent food. Unfortunately, bar food typically is -- how do I put this delicately -- crap. With the onset of the gastropub explosion a few years back, that tendency thankfully has started to change. Even here!

Before I get to my reviews, though, I would like to address a disturbing trend and put it out there that, unlike a growing number of Tampa food bloggers, I do not blog for food (or drink). Food and Loathing in Tampa Bay features unbiased opinion based on a typical dining experience. I do not attend manufactured blogger events or accept free meals in exchange for restaurant reviews. Nice try with those invitations, however.

Now that you know my stance on the bribing-the-blogger phenomenon, without further ado I present a few local watering holes where Hubs and I, as always, showed up anonymously and used our own cash to grab a bite and enjoy a few cold ones.

New World Brewery - Ybor
Nestled behind a wall of leafy green foliage, this cool spot sits near the corner of E. 8th Avenue and N. 13th Street in Ybor City. On a cool spring day we strolled through an inviting outdoor beer garden and into a bar filled with old-world ambience. The atmosphere is pub-like, with brick walls, a dark-wood bar and distressed flooring.

New World runs a weekday barbecue buffet from 11 a.m. till 3 p.m. Sold by weight, you can load up on meat that is smoked on site, along with an array of barbecue-type sides. The Hubster and I loathe buffets of any kind, mainly because we are germaphobes but also because we can't stand seeing food sitting comatose under lights.

We opted for something straight from the kitchen -- away from the sneezing, finger-licking masses -- and got a stone-seared 14-inch pizza that was pretty darned good. The crust had a satisfying bite and lived up to its "super thin" menu description. A mozzarella/Romano cheese blend was a nice change of pace from a standard mozzarella-topped pie, but if you fancy trying different pizza bases and toppings, this place offers several creative options, from a black bean base with Italian sausage, green pepper and onion to a white-sauce pizza topped with artichoke, smoked chicken and feta cheese. Recipe wizards also can come up with their own concoctions, but New World's suggestions look good to me.

The bar features a ton of draft and bottled beer and the bartenders are happy to suggest a brew to suit your taste. There's a fully loaded jukebox to liven things up when a live band isn't performing. Check the website to see who's lined up on the calendar.

Verdict: A bar find and a fine bar.

New World Brewery on Urbanspoon

Independent Bar & Cafe - Seminole Heights
This converted gas station/garage on Florida Avenue sits next to Cappy's Pizza in Seminole Heights. Hubs and I were puzzled when we first went inside because you can sit anywhere you want but, similar to pubs in England, it's up to you to approach the bar and order. You also place food orders at the bar and when the dish is ready, somebody runs it to your table.

The evening we checked it out, the weather was nice and most people were imbibing outside, enjoying the sights and sounds of picturesque Florida Avenue. (Come on, you know that's funny!) Okay, maybe not. Anyway, we chose an inside spot and pretended we weren't on Florida Avenue.

If you plan to order more than one small plate, sit at a normal table. Only thing is, I don't think they have one. Maybe outside. The few inside tables are Munchkin-level low to the ground. What this establishment does feature are plenty of industrial-looking wood-block drink stands that don't provide enough room for more than a couple of drinks, much less plates of food. Eventually we moved from an uncomfortable wooden bench along a wall to an uncomfortable child-sized table.

Overall, the interior vibe beckons the 20-something hipster: one who enjoys alternative music and sleeps soundly on a futon. Read: Hubmeister and I are getting old.

Our aging butts aside, nobody inside was ordering food, but, hey, we felt compelled to try a few things. Hubman bellied up to the bar and ordered German pretzels, a bratwurst and sauerkraut plate, and a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese sandwich, you snobbishly ask? Mais oui, mes amis! This is the Indie Grilled Cheese, not "cheese food" smashed between squares of greasy grilled white bread.

The Indie combines Gouda cheese with pears that have been sautéed with honey and spices. This lovely combo, served on rye and pressed to oozing opulence, is served with a tasty salad of field greens, blue cheese, walnuts and grapes, all splashed with a poppy seed vinaigrette.

The pretzel is standard fare and comes with a sweet German mustard. As for the bratwurst, Hubs downed his beer-infused link in short order. (Hint: Spring for a second sausage if you have any semblance of an appetite.) The dish is served in trendy "deconstructed" fashion, with the grilled sausage, sauerkraut, beer onion sauce and toast points each staking its claim to the plate.

But wait, toast points and bratwurst? The Germans are laughing. In any case, it was all good, especially the beer sauce.

Verdict: Neighborhood hangout with amped-up food and drink.

Independent Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cigar City Brewpub - Carrollwood
Although it's more restaurant than pub, Cigar City seems to fit into this bar-hopping post. Must be the vats of beer looming within a chicharron's throw from the bar. Be that as it may, the mood created by those industrial tanks does nothing for me. They remind me of the old Hops restaurants that met their demise a couple of decades ago, when I thought dining among enormous stainless steel containers was cool.

So we noted the huge vessels near the front door and were shown to a booth where we joined the Mississippi Maven and her beer-lovin' Mississippi Man. We promptly ordered pints of Cigar City brew, appetizers of chicharrons and Cuban egg rolls, and burgers.

While enjoying the mighty fine beer, I absorbed the former TGI Friday's space: bar on one side, a couple of rectangular-shaped dining areas on the other and additional table seating on an outside patio. The view: dismal parking lot, garden-variety strip center and endless traffic on Dale Mabry Highway. Maybe this is Hops! Nope, Hops didn't have beer can chandeliers. 

Cigar City has gotten some mixed reviews, with critics lauding the food and many everyday diners panning it. Here's what Hubs and I thought: The chicharrons, a.k.a. deep-fried nuggets of pig skin, were oversalted. Hubs is now chiming in that he has had them in Miami where they were far superior because these, he complains, were not crispy enough. After all, nobody wants flabby skin. The rest of us have no frame of reference so you have to trust Hubster, who spent many a business trip pigging out in Miami.

The egg rolls were more to my liking. Picture a large egg roll, composed of Cuban sandwich ingredients, that's cut in half, providing two people with a normal-sized bite. Then imagine those fried Cuban morsels of pork, ham, salami, cheese and pickles diving into a mustard dipping sauce. How can one go wrong with these? Well, one can't.

As much as I hate restaurant groupthink, all of us ordered the house burger, which is made from grass-fed beef. Mine was cooked to a perfect medium, which is no small feat when I'm manning the grill at home. I find burgers really hard to get right, so I appreciate one that's perfectly cooked. A-plus on that score. The flavor profile was interesting, meaning I liked it, ate it, but wouldn't repeat it. Served on a brioche bun, the burger included plantains, bacon, sofrito (a seasoning of pureed tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onion and cilantro) and roasted garlic aioli. The sweetness of the plantains put me off somewhat. Asked if we wanted more garlic aioli, I should have said yes. It would have counteracted that sweetness and provided additional moisture too. 

Accompanying the burgers were malanga chips. Popular in Cuba, malanga is a tropical root that resembles a sweet potato. I liked the chips, but I wouldn't make a return trip for them.
Our server was attentive and dutifully explained the beer offerings, the restaurant's theme of adhering to Tampa's cultural roots, and the Spanish- and Cuban-inspired menu. He inquired if we wanted dessert and we declined, or at least declined what most people would consider dessert. As we were about to leave the table, the Maven's Man hesitated, contemplated and finally caved. In anticipation, we waited for his request...a piece of flourless chocolate cake or perhaps bread pudding du jour? Ah, we should have known, he got another round of Cigar City Jai Alai IPA. Now that's what I call a sweet finish.

Verdict: The beer is the star.

Cigar City Brewpub Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Friday, March 29, 2013

Divinely Inspired: Mazzaro's

Forgive this lengthy post, but Mazzaro's is the only place in the Tampa Bay area that gets me as fired up about food as my favorite stomping grounds in Atlanta. Could it be the hustle and bustle, the selection of imported wines, cheeses and meats, and the freshly prepared breads and pastries? Perhaps it's the handmade pasta or mozzarella cheese that's so fresh it's still warm when you put it into your basket. How about the old guy who serenades diners on the patio while strumming Italian tunes? Or the inexplicable church-sized statuary, pope photos and saint tributes adorning the display of tea? Look above the coffee bar and there's the Infant of Prague positioned next to a photo of the Mona Lisa. Oh yes, things definitely are out of this world at Mazzaro's!

It's all good at Mazzaro's.

I could kick myself for not checking out Mazzaro's sooner. My first trip to this colorful Italian market took place in November and I think I have made the 45-minute drive to St. Pete every week since. I'll be darned if I can figure out the joint, though. It must have been a church at some point, but I am having a hard time getting an answer to that question. A cashier told us that the owner simply designed it to look like a church. Really?

I am confounded further by the warehouse of statuary adjacent to the property (that in some way seems to be linked to Mazzaro's) and by the cute, hand-painted minicars in the vast parking lot, where on several occasions I have seen customers posing for photos.

I'd like a pig and some horns on my car.

This is one intriguing business -- and one popular attraction! It almost always has a crowd. As a lady remarked to me one Saturday as we waited for our sandwiches in a line of about 50 people, "This is not a place you want to go when you're in a cranky mood."

With that sage advice in mind, join me as I elbow my way past everyone at the deli counter to snag a number, which is essential for placing an order.

The sandwich counter - Put on your Big City panties and assert yourself!

The ordering process doesn't take long, so have an idea of what you want by surveying the menu boards hanging high on the wall behind the deli cases. Keep your number handy because now you simply wait for them to holler when your food is ready. This can take several minutes. Remember, kids, patience is a virtue!

Once you have your precious meal in hand, a few sit-down options present themselves: You can head to the breezy, covered patio; perch yourself on a stool at the coffee bar if you're lucky enough to land a seat; or picnic on the grounds at one of several outside tables. A few drink fridges positioned throughout the store provide ample choices of soft drinks, beer or a million other beverages to accompany your meal. Feel like a little vino? Stop in the wine room and an expert will suggest a bottle from an impressive, fairly priced selection.

Patio dining - Pay at the outside register before taking a seat.

Statuary abounds.

Choose from an assortment of salads at the deli counter and from knock-your-socks-off cookies, homemade gelato, cakes and pastries at the bakery counter.

Bakery counter - Get the Kalamata Olive Bread if they have it.
(They only make it three times a week.) 

Believe me, though, if you're getting a sandwich you won't need much else. Portions here also fall into the other-worldly category.

Oh boy! A Hot Italian - Hard for this red-blooded American girl to resist.

High on my list of favorite sandwiches are the Hot Italian, the Muffuletta and the Reuben. The Hot Italian was recommended to me by an elderly patron as I sat at the coffee bar savoring a pumpkin napoleon last fall. A grilled Italian sub roll stuffed with charred ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion and banana peppers, the Hot Italian is doused with a spicy Italian dressing, and it is one hot mess. The bread gets soaked, but the roll has enough structure to withstand the deluge of sauce. I have never had anything like this 10-napkin extravaganza. Warning: Do not try eating this while driving!

The Muffuletta features the same terrific cold cuts but with the addition of mortadella, onion and the traditional layer of olive salad. Roasted red peppers are thrown in for good measure. All components are exceptional and deliciously salty.

Beautifully grilled, the Reuben contains the usual suspects: sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, corned beef and thousand island dressing. They stack it to the gills, enough so that when I ordered, the lady at the counter asked if I was splitting it with someone. Ha! They'd have to fight me for it! Reubens can be too dry or too wet, too full of dressing or too greasy, too salty or too fatty, but not this one. This Reuben fires on all cylinders.

The Food and Loathing family also has sampled the Meatball Sub and Italian Sausage and Peppers Sub.

Meatball - Have your Tide stain stick handy.

Hubmeister consumed what had to have been an entire pound of ground meat, but it was more like smashed meatballs because nothing in that sub resembled a sphere. The sandwich was topped with melted provolone. Through a big, saucy smile, he said it was awesome.

I would have liked some of that red sauce on my Sausage and Peppers Sub because it was rather lackluster.

Sausage and Peppers - Needs sauced.

The sausage was tasty but the sub needed some sauce to help fuse together all of the sandwich elements. Without that gravy, it's just peppers, onions, sausage, cheese and bread. It needs some juice. From my home cooking experience, I assure you that Mazzaro's hot sausage goes well with red sauce and makes one heck of a lasagna ingredient.

The Hubster has also demolished the Chicken Parmesan Sub, which proved more manageable than its meatball sibling.

Chicken Parm - So "parmed" good.

The moist chicken breast was breaded and fried, topped with red sauce and provolone and served on a soft hoagie roll.

You might think that food of this quality would put a dent in your wallet, but you'd be wrong. Most sandwiches hover around $5.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about distinctive places I'd miss if I moved from Tampa. Mazzaro's, you're numero uno!

Note: Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday is a madhouse and hours are 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. On Sunday, Mass is being said over by the tea, so the store is closed. Just kidding! But the store is closed Sunday.

Verdict: A godsend.

Mazzaro's Italian Market on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Get Out of Town: Lunch on Limoges

Feel like getting out of Dodge for a day? Head to Dade City. With its quaint courthouse square, hilly green countryside and Mayberry-esque downtown, you'll think you left the state. But don't expect much more than a change of scenery and lots of antique stores. Go with the mindset of spending a lazy afternoon browsing through junk from decades past and enjoying a relaxed meal at Williams Lunch on Limoges, a Southern Living magazine favorite located across from the historic Pasco County Courthouse.

Williams Lunch on Limoges. Part retail, part restaurant. Works for them!

I have been to Lunch on Limoges several times and it's always enjoyable. The theme is straightforward Southern fare -- big on calories and buttery flavor -- served by "seasoned" waitresses wearing uniforms reminiscent of Flo's from the '70s TV show "Alice." These gals can hustle, and they mean business, as in "I'm not here to chat it up or put up with a lot of nonsense, but I'll be polite and efficient." You go, Granny!

The atmosphere is one you won't find every day, unless you hang out in eateries that share space with retail stores. This restaurant cohabitates with a store that is part gift shop, part fashion boutique. A smattering of colorfully covered dining tables are intermingled with the merchandise.

Lunch on Limoges has Red Hat ladies written all over it, but last Saturday's crowd actually included a bunch of middle-aged guys. I have to say that I don't recall ever seeing a kid in this restaurant, and I got a kick out of a sign near the front door that reads "Minimum of one entree per person." How diplomatic! How about: "If you plan to share a plate, get out!" Oh yeah, we aren't in Brooklyn.

Now for those entrees...After we got settled at our inviting, fresh-flower-topped table, Flo carried over an easel-type chalkboard that listed the day's menu. Hubmeister got the pecan-encrusted chicken breast entree -- the house specialty that I have scarfed down on previous occasions -- and I ordered soup and a sandwich.

The pecan dredge on the chicken also is offered with a grouper entree.

Deliciously simplistic, the chicken breast was breaded, coated in pecan pieces and perfectly cooked, sauteed in a buttery, sugary praline sauce. It was accompanied by two sides: butternut squash casserole and potatoes. The butternut squash was a dead ringer for sweet potato casserole sans marshmallow. It was smooth and sweet. The potatoes were soft, chunky and rather boring. In fact, I am having a hard time remembering them, except for the fact that I recall their lack of pizazz.

Gobble, gobble...This is real turkey.

Soup of the day was French onion, which came alongside a turkey-stuffed croissant. The soup featured chopped onion in a light broth and, although the stock lacked a rich and beefy complexity, I didn't detect any cheap bouillon cube component. Served with a floating toasted baguette slice, the soup contained a blob of melted cheese that had mysteriously disappeared into the soup by the time the bowl reached me. All told, the soup was fair at best.

What impressed me most about my lunch was the turkey in the croissant. It was REAL turkey, not processed turkey lunch meat. Sliced from an actual turkey breast, the meat was very tasty combined with a berry-laced mayo, bacon and Swiss cheese. The croissant was pedestrian but passable.

If you look to the left of the waitress, you'll see a gigantic cake and a big ol' pie.

Desserts displayed on the service counter of the open kitchen would tempt most sweet tooths. I spied mile-high coconut cake and a towering apple pie. Things don't come small in the South, ya'll. After polishing off the basket of mini-muffins and pineapple butter that were brought to the table before lunch was served, we felt we needed to skip dessert and enjoy another round of coffee, which Flo and Alice refilled tirelessly -- after all, we did order two entrees!

Verdict: A pleasant diversion from Tampa

Lunch On Limoges on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Boca Kitchen: Cookin' Good

It's a little disconcerting to see a car wreck as you are being shown to your dining table, but Sister Foodie and I were focused on lunch when we stopped by the comfortable and creative farm-to-table oasis that is Boca Kitchen, Bar and Market.

Who doesn't like tablecloths? Nice touch.
Thanks to an impressive expanse of windows lining two sides of the Hyde Park restaurant, Sister and I -- and the other patrons lunching at the much-ballyhooed eatery -- witnessed a typical Tampa smash-up at the intersection of W. Platt St. and South Blvd.

While the victims emerged unscathed from their mangled vehicles, we, without a moment's hesitation, proceeded to order Blistered Shishito Peppers, the Kimilwick Sandwich and the Staff Meal.

Fire up your mouth for Shishito Peppers.

Sipping our iced teas to temper the spiciness of the peppers, we agreed that they would be a great diet-friendly appetizer to pair with Boca's craft beers. Although we liked the pile of peppers, I imagine that not everyone would care for them. True to their "blistered" description, they have a charred taste. Don't be fooled by the initial bites because, by about the seventh pepper, you will begin to sweat. The heat creeps up on you, but in a good way.

Bring on the sandwiches...and a ravenous hunger! These heifers are not for the timid eater. In fact, I have a bit of a bone to pick with our friendly, young server because I asked about portion size and she said the sandwiches are a "perfect" portion. Maybe for a competitive eater with a bottomless gut!

Terrific take on tuna.

We managed to eat only half of our meal but nodded our approval of the flavors as we chomped. The Staff Meal featured fresh tuna -- coarsely chopped and tossed tuna-salad-sandwich style -- placed between thick slices of sourdough bread, then grilled. Eating a tuna fish sandwich made with fresh tuna will forever sour you on StarKist, but what took this sandwich to the next level were the additions of caramelized onions, cheese, tomato, avocado and "Boca bacon," thick slices of awesomeness that the restaurant smokes out back. Let me just say that the staff was freaking lucky that day!

Plan on a nap after you down this beefer.

The Kimilwick Sandwich was piled high with juicy roast beef, horseradish sauce, garlic Boursin cheese and a fried tomato. The tomato added nice moisture, but that was some potent cheese! I would have preferred something milder, but the sandwich, served on a brioche bun (I think), was delicious nonetheless. Both sandwiches were accompanied by french fries that were so good that I believe duck fat had to be a player.

On a subsequent visit with the Mississippi Maven, we tried the Farmer's Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato and the Heirloom and Swine Flatbread. The highlight of the BLT was the incredible, thick and juicy bacon, reason enough to order it, but the smoky stack also featured a creamy avocado mayo and -- you know me by now -- an egg! I actually could have done without the egg because it didn't have a runny yolk and it wasn't hot, but this sandwich was decent and made better by the buttery grilled bread that encased it.

Keep the bacon coming.

If you still want bacon but served pizza style, go for the Heirloom and Swine Flatbread. Combined with Manchego cheese, caramelized onions and heirloom tomatoes, this thin-crusted concoction will take your taste buds for a pleasantly spicy spin.

The caramelized onions at Boca would be good on just about anything.

My only complaint -- and it pains me to complain about this foodie-pleasing place -- is the fries were soggy on my second visit. They were greasy and as limp as noodles, and at the height of lunch service when they should be at their best. (Sorry, guys, but you need to know.)

Oh, how could I forget! We got dessert. I hardly ever get dessert but it was the Maven's birthday lunch and this place rocks, so we ordered the strawberry shortcake crumble or some such thing.

Dessert took us right to the Land of Oz.

It came out blazing hot in a six-inch cast iron skillet and went somewhere over the rainbow of expectations. Whole strawberries glistening in their own juices were clustered atop half of a shortcake biscuit, then topped with a bit of crispy, sugary crumble and crowned with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. The freezing ice cream over the piping-hot, locally grown and in-season berries, combined with the contrasting textures of the moistened cake, crunchy crumble and delicate fruit, make this one outstanding dessert.
Boca reminds me of trendy Atlanta restaurants that deftly put a Southern twist on fresh, straight-from-the-farmers-market ingredients and serve their creations in an atmosphere that reflects amped-up country sophistication. The aura is inviting at Boca, if not a bit noisy when things are hopping. Yep, I'd say it's downright hospitable -- and a welcome addition to the local dining scene.

Verdict: A breath of (organic) fresh air!

Boca Kitchen Bar Market on Urbanspoon