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Tampa trip report - variety

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So I'm in Tampa on business (still here, actually), thus this is a trip-in-progress report. Some of these destinations were based on recs, some on researching this board and some on serendipity.

As I noted elsewhere, I don't have a lot of time for driving around, so while I might like to get over to Indian Rocks or something, that isn't in the cards.

Monday night, based on a rec from kentski, Mitchell's in Westshore Plaza. I was coming off a travel day, so it was calm and all, but kind of uninspiring. I can get air-freight seafood almost anywhere; a mile from salt water I should be able to do better. A five-oyster sampler was $8.50, which is a lot, and the closest origin was the James River. No Apalachicolas on the menu. Jeez, I'm in Florida, why not? And nearly every fish entree was from the airport as well; only the snapper and grouper were local. The Shang Hai style red snapper was very good, but again, I thought I could do better here in FL. One drink, one app, one entree, one dessert and I was in the $60 area. The place was largely empty, but it was a Monday.

Tuesday lunch I shot up to I Ai Sushi, based on some reading here. It's in a plaza on the northwest corner of Waters and Dale Mabry. A hit. This place is the real deal. I had cold soba noodles with shrimp tempura, quite a bargain for $8 -- excellent noodles, two large shrimp and five pieces of vegetables tempura-fried just about perfectly. Eating lunch at 1:30, there were two customers besides me.

Tuesday dinner I went to Tampa Bay Brewing in Ybor. Frankly I was more interested in beer, and I had a pint of a fairly uninspiring blonde ale followed by a pint of a really good IPA. Full menu service at the bar, so I had the Cuban-style pulled pork, which came with black beans, rice and fried plantains. The meat and beans were good, richly flavored and amply portioned; the rice was weak; the whole thing wasn't plated all that well, as the meat or beans had too much residual liquid -- I really don't like puddles on my plate. But did I mention I really liked their IPA? Once again I was struck by the emptiness of the place, both TBBC inside, and the neighborhood. It was my first time in Ybor, but it was a veritable ghost town.

Wednesday lunch I lucked into Guadalajara, which I drove past on the way to my work, and I thought since it was nearby and looked decent, I'd give it a try. A nice, authentic-looking American Mexican place in a plaza on the south side of Hillsborough near the airport. Lunch specials were $6.99, and more than adequate in quality and quantity. Above-average enchiladas, and really quite surprisingly good refried beans. 1:00 pm lunch, and the place was pretty well hopping, with half or so of the patrons looking like Mexicans. Later read decent reviews here, so my instincts were OK.

Wednesday dinner was at Sa Ri One, a Korean place on Cypress between Lois and Dale Mabry. I'm not an expert on Korean, although I have eaten in Korean places both in NY and in LA's Koreatown, so I'm not a novice, either. From the outside this looked like the sort of place that might have the grill in the table, but no such luck. But the people were very nice, and to my eyes looked Korean. I had yaki man doo (fried dumplings, like Japanese gyoza) for an app, and Gal Bi (short ribs) for a main. The dumplings were very good, certainly not seeming like they came from a Costco bag, and served with a sesame-chili dipping sauce that could have been spicier. The gal bi were served on a fajita plate, since there was no in-table grilling, and with about five small plates including spinach in a sesame sauce, dried squid, tiny anchovies with some kind of sliced green hot pepper, "fish cake" and a really ho-hum kim chi. Oh, the gal bi were nicely done and richly flavored in a smoky, sweet-ish sauce, and quite a large portion for $17.95. I wasn't able to finish everything. The resto itself looks a bit sketchy from outside, like it should be a strip club or something, but I was reasonably impressed. It was no more than half-full at 8:30 pm.

Thursday lunch was at Pho Quyen on the south side of Hillsborough east of the airport. I had the "all-in" pho (my name, not theirs) with flank, brisket, tendon, tripe, etc. I was mostly impressed -- a really well-flavored, complex broth with ample portions of every sort of meat. The only demerits were that the bean sprouts served on the side were just not super-fresh, and the rice noodles in the pho gave the impression that they had been pre-soaked too early in the day -- they just didn't have that light freshness I like. But then again the last few times I've had pho were at street stalls in Hanoi, so my standards for freshness are high. The resto is large and inviting, and at 1:00 for lunch was fairly full, although it seemed there were more Chinese than Vietnamese patrons.

All in all, the variety has been good so far, and I've not had any serious disappointments, nor had to drive all that far. I'll probably go back ti I Ai for dinner tonight to see how they do with sushi.

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  1. Now that I see what kind of food you like I'd gighly recommend you head over to China Yuan off of Armenia just north of Waters. Have some fresh fish out of the tank.
    Also for seafood if you can get to the Crab Shack maybe you can get more Fl style seafood without going all the way to the beach. Crab Shack is on Gandy in Pinellas but just over the Gandy bridge so not too far to go. They usually have Apalachicola oysters.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rhnault

      Thought I'd follow up, since some of you were kind enough to offer further suggestions. I'm back home, so any more recs will have to wait until my next trip to the area, which may be a while.

      Thursday for dinner I ended up back at I Ai Sushi, having been very impressed at lunch on Tuesday. I wanted to like it, I really did, but... it just didn't hit it for me. Had 8 pieces of nigiri and one roll. Now I'm pretty much a traditionalist with sushi -- nigiri or simple rolls only, nothing with cutesy names or cream cheese, etc. The nigiri: unagi and ikura were standard, nothing to write home about. Decent rice and nori, again, on the slightly above-average side. The mentaiko roll was adequate as well, reasonably sized, decent flavor. The rest: not so much. I was intrigued by "special blue crab" nigiri, not knowing what to expect -- crab salad, heavy on the mayo, wrapped in nori in the way ikura or tobiko nigiri is presented. Couldn't help thinking of all those bad Chinese places that refer to "strange flavor" this or that. Not strange in the sense of off, just weird and not fitting with my idea of nigiri. Last, the hamachi, which kind of capped everything that's wrong with Americanized sushi. Sure the fish was OK, but it was a damn fish filet -- I couldn't even see the rice, and could barely fit the thing in my mouth. I know, some of you are saying "he's complaining about too much fish!?" Well, yes, actually. Sushi is about balance -- balance of size, of flavor, of texture. Nigiri is bite-sized. I know this is America, where more is always better, but please. Not only that, there was no attempt to flavor this in any way. Again, I know, America, where the first thing nearly everyone does with their sushi is drench it in shoyu (or, worse, "wasabi" muddled in shoyu) so you can't taste a damn thing. And this leads to what I had, obscenely large flavorless slabs of fish balanced on minuscule portions of rice, with no attempt by the chef to season it for palate or eye.

      I don't blame the people at I Ai -- they have to stay in business. Their selection of cutesy rolls was at least twice as large as their selection of nigiri, because that's probably all people eat. I can't help wondering, though, is there anywhere outside of SoCal or NYC that can support, excuse the term, sushi Nazis?

      Should have just stayed with the soba noodles.

      Afterward I went back to TBBC for a couple of beers, which was again good, and my mood was buoyed by sitting there and watching as the Celtics lost game 6.

      Friday ended up crazy, and I had no time to eat. Wish I could have gotten to China Yuan, but it didn't work out this time. Then I had to catch a flight.

    2. If you're still in Tampa and have some time, I'd highly recommend a trip to 'Datz Deli' on McDill St. in South Tampa. Fairly new, this huge deli manages to pull off the look and feel of an old style place with lots of new twists. There's a tremendous cheese selection, and a mind boggling sandich menu, but oh so much more. Lots of wines by the glass, an incredible selection of beers and a interesting choice of obscure sodas, etc. Live music and an eclectic, hip crowd round out an overall fascinating place to sit, eat, and 'watch the show'.

      5 Replies
      1. re: almostgeorgia

        I agree with Datz and add that just a few blocks south on MacDill is Pane Rustica. Always an interesting menu, great food and atmosphere.

        1. re: gator21

          Sorry, but Datz is not a great suggestion. After 6 attempts, 2 being OK-Good, the rest a trainwreck, I'm done with it for a while. I'll check back in 6 mo, but for now, they don't deserve the business.

          Love the Pane Rustica rec and Mad Dogs and Englishmen is a good place for a beer if you're in the area.

          1. re: benkodi

            Pane Rustica was a fine suggestion.

            I respectfully disagree about Datz based on my experiences. Good food. Great beers. Fine choice for a single traveler--- sit at the bar. It is what it is.

            1. re: bolognarocks

              Everytime I have dined at Datz they have screwed up my order - over 5 times!!! I had to return them to the waitors for a new order EVERYTIME! Not to mention the long waits and rude waitors on multiple occasions keep me from going there more with living within a mile of the restaurant.

              1. re: bolognarocks

                But, I do agree with Mad Dogs for excellent food and atmospher is South Tampa.