Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fuel Up at Taco Bus

First of all, I apologize for being such a slacker when it comes to taking photos while dining out.  I try to compensate for my lack of visual arts skill with scintillating prose.  [Smirk.]  My New Year's blog resolution is to take more pictures.   We'll see how that works out.

That said, after you read my profound remarks about Taco Bus, check out the link I am posting to another blog, a photographer's blog - a really talented photographer, if you ask me.  I don't know him; I just happened to look at his recent post about eating at Taco Bus and was amazed by his photos of the place.   Very nice.  With pictures like those, who needs my amateur attempts!

Okay, now for the best cheap eats you will find in this town, and not just cheap but ranking up there with the most flavorful. 

My fun and fabulous niece, Empress Ann, was visiting this week and we got a hankering to try the renowned Taco Bus.  Empress Ann grew up in Land O' Lakes and went to USF but had never heard of, nor dined at, Taco Bus.  In almost nine years of Tampa residency, I hadn't eaten there, either.  Son of Hubmeister has, though, and that picky child loves it.  He told me, "Mom, you've got to go there." 

It was high time I headed over to E. Hillsborough Avenue to sample the Mexican food I had read and heard so much about.  Son of Hubmeister said it's easy to miss the turn, so I thought it would be more difficult to find than it was.  Shortly after getting off I-275 at Hillsborough Avenue East, a sign for Taco Bus parking leads you directly to the restaurant/bus, which, by the way, is open 24/7.

Bear with me as I attempt to describe the unusual setup:  Picture, if you will, an outdoor patio sandwiched between an enclosed restaurant and a beat-up old bus - all of which are attached and surrounded by a rough-around-the-edges urban landscape.  The bus, similar to a food truck, serves walk-up customers who can take their food to go or find a place to plop down on site.  Shoot, nobody would blink an eye if you tailgated at your car, except they might be hovering for your spot.

The lot was full, so Empress and I did some hovering ourselves.  Customers here come and go pretty fast.  The place was busy, with working guys lined up at the bus, all the outside tables taken and only a few seats remaining inside. 

Newbies to Taco Bus protocol, we walked to a counter inside the restaurant and asked if we should order there or at a table.  It doesn't matter.  They are flexible at Taco Bus.  We ordered from a menu at the counter and took a seat at an empty table.  The waitress brought our drinks and, a few minutes later, our food arrived in little paper-lined baskets.

I had the lunch "meal deal" featuring two tacos with choice of filling, refried beans and rice.  A great deal for $7.50.  Taco fillings of your choice are enveloped in warm, pillow-soft corn tortillas, and topped with diced farm-stand tomatoes (not the impostors you see at the grocery store right now), mild white cheese, red onion, shredded cabbage and fresh cilantro.  I had one pollo (chicken) and one barbacoa (stewed beef) taco.  Both meats were seasoned well and packed with flavor.  

The freshness of the ingredients is what slaps you in the face. 

The refried beans were unlike any version I have ever tasted, and I think after eating these, that canned beans are all I have ever received in any American (a.k.a. Tex-Mex) simulation of a Mexican restaurant.  These were creamy with a slight sprinkle of finely grated white cheese on top, not a dry, clumpy mass of goo covered in a blanket of melted Cheddar cheese.

The orange-tinged Mexican rice, dotted with green peas, was also a winner.  Oh, and I can't forget the salsa.  Two big squirt bottles are on each table, one containing a mild red tomato salsa and the other, a hot green condiment of Mexican love.  The lip-tingling green one was my favorite.

Empress Ann had a carne asada torta and a side of Mexican rice.  The rice side could have fed a family of four.  Empress gave high marks to the torta (sandwich) of diced grilled steak, refried beans, and taco veggies and tried her best to down that gigantic plate of seasoned rice. 

I had been under the impression that dining at Taco Bus would be like camping out, but inside dining was perfectly comfortable with its sunny-yellow walls and peppy Latin music providing a cheery backdrop for authentic, excellent Mexican food.  This is a mood-lifter of a place to grab a quick bite with a friend or to dine alone.  My only regret is that I didn't discover it sooner.

Verdict:  A busload of magical Mexican food.

Want to see what it looks like?  Here's the photographer's link:

Restaurant Info:
Taco Bus
913 E. Hillsborough Ave
Tampa FL 33604

Taco Bus on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lacking: Liang's Bistro

Thinking about where to go for lunch?  This is the first in a series of posts featuring several places I have tried recently....the good, the bad and the ugly.

Liang's Bistro

I read the list of awards received by this New Tampa spot and it prompted me to suggest to Sister Foodie that we try it during her visit to Tampa last week. 

What a letdown!  Honestly, is Florida Trend kidding when mentioning this place in the same breath as Golden Spoon.  Either I dined there on a bad day or it's gone downhill since its 2006 review.   

I'll set the stage:  It was a rainy, dreary MLK Day and a hot, spicy lunch was in order.  We love Thai food and Liang's bills itself as an Asian bistro specializing in Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai cuisines. 

Off we went to a casual, pleasant atmosphere but one surprisingly Americanized for an Asian restaurant.  Where were the chopsticks and the soothing sounds of the Orient?  We were seated in a rather empty dining room, consisting of a lady dining alone, a few people on business lunches and some seniors who braved the elements.

The smiling waiter presented an extensive menu and asked if we would like tea.  That sounded ideal on this bone-chilling day.  He brought us a pot of fragrant hot tea, heightening our anticipation of enjoying equally satisfying flavors from the kitchen.  Then he told us that the lunch items were not available due to the holiday; we could order anything else, meaning the dinner items.  Weird, but whatever. 

We started with pan-fried pork dumplings, which were fine but unremarkable.  The thing we liked best about them was dipping them in a flaming-hot red chili condiment.  That stuff was fiery, but that was the extent of our happy inferno.

Next, we ordered Thai Basil Leaves Beef and Singapore Rice Noodle entrees. The menu indicated that the beef was spicy and the Singapore Rice Noodle was bathed in a lightly spiced curry sauce.

The beef dish was tasteless.  Sister Foodie and I wondered if we had really seen a little chili pepper on the menu indicating this dish had some punch.  That's how bland it was. 

It consisted primarily of broccoli and thinly sliced beef stir-fried in a typical brown sauce, which Sister found heavy-handed on the cornstarch.  I actually dipped the boring beef into the red chili condiment that remained on the table.  Sister resorted to the soy sauce.  We opted for brown rice instead of white, and they get points for offering a choice.

The noodles, coated in a mild curry sauce with slivers of chicken, scallions, scant asparagus and some egg tossed throughout, weren't spicy, either.   However, there was a standout item in this dish:  the shrimp.  It was fat, juicy and really tasty. 

Something else that looked to be a Liang's strength was the egg roll appetizer.  We saw burrito-sized egg rolls, cut on a diagonal, delivered to a nearby table and were sorry we didn't order them.  I might order some from their drive-through window one day.  Yeah, they have a drive-through, but thankfully it's not visible from the dining room.

Our plates runneth over, so the waiter boxed up our leftovers, mentioning that most people order an appetizer apiece and share an entree.  It would have been nice if he suggested that when we ordered, especially since this was lunch!   The tab for two was $43, including tax and tip.

Verdict:  Disappointing.  Definitely failed the Thai test.  Expect standard Chinese fare served in a comfortable, American-influenced setting.

Restaurant Info:
Liang's Bistro
17515 Bruce B. Downs Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33647
(813) 978-1225

Liang's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Restaurant Round-Up

I have a backlog of holiday dining experiences worth mentioning and no time for details, so here are the highlights. 

Wrapping up the Thanksgiving food marathon, my dad took us and whomever was still hanging around the house to Stonewood Grill and Tavern.  My folks like steak and potatoes and this American-themed, oak-grilled steak and seafood place is close to home, a high priority for my "carphobic" mother.  Bern's or Charley's would require interstate driving, tranquilizers and a blindfold. 

Stonewood is a step below those two esteemed steakhouses but, for a chain, it's above average and offers a decent steak and a comfortable stone and wood (how appropriate) atmosphere.  I had an expertly prepared medium-rare ribeye that was tender and juicy, light on fat and heavy on flavor.  Good choice.  

The totally tasty find at Stonewood is the blue cheese potato chip appetizer.  Mississippi Maven tipped me off about it and Hubmeister and I made a special trip to the bar to sample it on a separate occasion.  We got it again this time around. 

Basically, it's a variety of colorful potato chips covered with a smattering of blue cheese and drizzled with a balsamic reduction.  Served warm, this hot mess is strangely addictive and anytime I go to Stonewood, I'll be ordering it.  The Maven says she has figured out how to make this ap at home.  A mayo component as well as a store-bought balsamic glaze are involved.  More about that recipe ripoff in a future blog.

Stonewood Grill & Tavern on Urbanspoon

While prepping for Thanksgiving, I missed out on a fine lunch enjoyed by Hubmesiter and Daughtress at The Columbia.  Hubs went nuts for the palomilla steak and Daughtress got the Cuban, which she found awesome enough to get one to go for yours truly. 

After the lousy Cuban sandwich I recently panned (see "The Sad Cuban" post, I was thrilled to savor the Columbia's flavor-packed sandwich.  All of the ingredients were top-notch.  There is no denying it was the best Cuban sandwich I have ever eaten, and the care the restaurant puts into making it is evident. 

If you missed the "Sad" post mentioned above, it includes the skinny on The Columbia's exhaustive efforts to reclaim the Cuban of old.   I can't imagine that they haven't succeeded. 

I have had some disappointing dinners at The Columbia but lunch has always been stellar.

Columbia Restaurant on Urbanspoon 

Remember Mr. Dunderbaks?

As a teen in Ft. Lauderdale, I went to the one in the old Pompano Fashion Square.  We loved going there and getting their overstuffed pastrami sandwiches, Reubens and brats.  It occupied a narrow mall space with a long bar and a bunch of little tables crammed in around an assortment of imported German foods, candy and cases of Beers of the World.  It was always packed.  I recall a similar Dunderbaks at the Edison Mall in Ft. Myers. 

Hubmeister tells me this Tampa spot is the only remaining Dunderbaks.  Formerly located at the University Mall near USF, it moved about a year ago into a strip center on Bruce B. Downs Blvd., where patrons are less likely to get caught in the crossfire of a gang altercation or get mugged walking to their car, assuming their car wasn't stolen from the mall parking lot.

Extremely popular, this one is also close to USF.  You know, beer and sandwiches - the college diet.

If you're smart, you'll stick with beer and sandwiches.  Hubmeister and the kids had delicious-looking meaty creations, but I had to stray into German specialty territory. 

Sauerbraten.  The waitress assured me this was their most authentic German dish.  I don't think most Germans would be happy with the piece of shoe leather on my plate.  The quality of the beef was this dish's biggest downfall, although I have to say I prefer my gingersnap gravy to theirs, too.  I fail to understand how the meat could be so tough when sauerbraten marinates for a couple of days and then stews for hours.  The nothing-special German potato salad had that canned look and the red cabbage tasted of cinnamon, but the jovial beer hall atmosphere and the selection of beer - wunderbar

The verdict:  I'm a sucker for the chicken dance and I'll give it another shot.

Mr Dunderbaks on Urbanspoon

The drag queen at the hostess station should have been a clue. 

Hubs, Daughtress and I popped into Hamburger Mary's while shopping in Ybor.  Hamburgers sounded good for an early dinner, so the queen ushered us to an enormous booth, where our waiter introduced himself and asked if we had previously dined there. 

"What do we need to know?" I ventured in my ignorance.

They feature karaoke and - uh oh - nightly drag shows.  Hmm.  This jogged my memory back to a review I read of this place in the Trib.  Feeling awkward - albeit everyone was friendly and the sparse happy-hour crowd seemed to be a mixture of straights and gays - we ordered a round of beers, quickly downed a quesadilla appetizer delivered to the table by another queen, and hightailed it out of there. 

This actually could be a fun place to go if you're prepared for it.  The cast of characters and the decor remind me of  "The Bird Cage."  Decked out in pinks and reds, the burlesque-y atmosphere is lively and colorful, with a jumbotronlike screen blaring music videos and a circular bar that views the drag show stage.   It's a spacious, club-type spot upstairs at Centro Ybor, overlooking 7th Avenue.  

Daughtress got a kick out of the fact that Hubs and I were clueless about the theme.  Didn't we see the stacks of gay pride T-shirts?  Oh, is that what those were?  How did we miss the "Eat, Drink and Be Mary" slogan below the logo on the sign outside?   Hey, it's not a restaurant concept you see every day. 

Regarding the restaurant, the chicken quesadillas weren't bad but my companions didn't care for the over-the-top abundance of onions and mushrooms spilling out of the tortillas. 

Believe me, Hamburger Mary's is over the top in more ways than one, and I wouldn't be surprised at anything I saw spilling in or out of there.

Hamburger Mary's Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Tale of Two Pies

My Thanksgiving pies sucked.  The Christmas pies, however, were another story.

First, let me tell you about the apple pie gone horribly juicy. 

Don't be fooled.  A river runs through it.

Something (bad) happens when you put 11 cups of apples in a pie and only one tablespoon of flour:  the juice doesn't thicken, which creates a runny mess that ruins the bottom crust.  Either my apples - a combination of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious - were extraordinarily juicy, or the recipe was incorrect in calling for only a tablespoon of flour. 

Whatever the case, it was a disaster.   After my sister and I poured the juice from the pie dish, we were left with dry apples in a soggy crust.  This sucker met its new friend the garbage can - and fast.  Apologies to my sister, who peeled, cored, and sliced her way into oblivion. 

Turkey Day pie No. 2:  pumpkin.  This one usually gets rave reviews but it was mediocre.  Pie shouldn't need whipped cream.  I don't know why I stuck with the recipe so long because it always annoyed me that it took forever to set and I constantly had to check on it and return it to the oven.  This particular creation lacked punch.  It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out some fresh spices were needed.

Now, the good news:  Food Network Magazine had an article in its November issue that included classic pie recipes and updated versions of them.  I didn't give a flip about the updated versions as I obviously am still trying - eh, struggling - to master the classics. 

First, I made pumpkin.  I was skeptical because the crust is prebaked, and I don't recall ever prebaking the pie shell for pumpkin pie.   I made my usual no-fail butter pastry (see my "Crusty Trials and Tribulations" post for the recipe), then followed the recipe directions. 

Although my crust shrunk, this pie was a treat for the taste buds. The newly purchased ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves packed a wallop in this rich and creamy pie.  Next time, I'll roll out the crust to exact specifications instead of eyeballing it.  Here's the recipe link:

After that success, my confidence was restored and I reached for the apple recipe.  This one required precooking the apples in a saute pan, another step I had never done before but one I thought made sense since the syrup consistency would be guaranteed. 

Turns out this pie is a winner, presenting a pleasing balance of sweet to tart flavors, a shiny, golden crust, and an intact slice with a decent syrup.   Yup, a very nice slice:

If you haven't checked out Food Network Magazine, give it a look.  It's loaded with interesting recipes, covering a gamut of taste preferences and culinary skill levels.  I received it as a gift last year and enjoyed every issue.  Thanks, Patty!  It also saved Christmas - my pies at least.