Tampa might be one of the last cities on any foodie’s bucket list but that shouldn’t be the case. Known mostly for it’s endless beaches, bays, and buccaneers, Tampa’s food scene boasts some hidden gems. While it would have been easy to make a reservation at a James Beard award-winning establishment prior to my arrival, I opted to let the universe guide my gut.
Friday night, I wandered into Ulele, a relatively new restaurant that received over $6 million in updates on the desolate Riverwalk. With “no reservations” on a Friday night, I posted up at the bar and waited roughly an hour. Lucky for me because I was able to enjoy their in-house brewed beers and barrel aged cocktails. The decor was stellar, but it did not outshine the food. The ‘Alligator Hushpuppies’ were everything.
The crispy cornmeal stuffed with alligator, duck bacon, corn, and jalapeño was perfection on a plate. The honey datil pepper sauce and fresh-ground horseradish aioli was so tasty that I almost licked the plate clean. Other standout dishes included the ‘Crab Mac & Cheese’, ‘Crackling Pork Shank’, and the ‘Candied Duck Bacon Maple Fried Ice Cream’. Typically, I do not save room for dessert but I am so happy that I did. While the cinnamon cornflake duck bacon crust could have been crunchier, the maple bourbon ice cream with sweet potato crisp was nom nom nom. The saltiness of the duck bacon against the bourbon anglaise provided the consummate crescendo to my dining experience.
On Saturday, my palate led me to The Refinery in Seminole Heights. At first glance, the scenery appeared to be hipster heaven for a Southerner. Located in a quaint dwelling, James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef: South Greg Baker is dishing out elevated food for people from all walks of life to enjoy. Lucky for us! I ordered the acaraje with salsa verde and mojo sauce as well as the sweet potato soufflé. Think falafel with ground black-eyed peas instead of chickpeas. Both dishes were okay, but the entree was divine. The roasted chicken breast with roasted pumpkin was amazing. The skin was perfectly crisp although I would have been happy if there was a little less salt. The combination of the slightly bitter wilted Swiss chard against the sweet and earthy roasted pumpkin with duck bacon and walnut jus was elegant and comforting at the same time.
Before I left the city, I had to step into Ybor City, the unofficial hipster haven. While there, I grabbed at drink and veggie burger at The Bricks. Being immersed in the food and beverage culture, my eyes perused the menu and locked in on the ‘Fernet About It.’’ It was a nice balance of herbal against citrus and went well with the house made black bean patty. Even more so of a surprise was Tampa’s food scene. Despite what my celebratory cocktail infers, I definitely can’t forget about it and cannot wait to go back.