Best Of 2006

The best thing to happen to fast-food breakfasts since the Heart Attack Eggwich or whatever that gigundo thing is called at Burger King, Panera’s soufflés are savory little pies in three flavors (four cheeses, spinach and artichoke, and the champ: spinach and bacon) that taste like they’re good for you — or at least they taste much better than the stuff that’s bad for you at the other chains. Sure, the name’s a little redundant — soufflés are always baked, and we’re pretty sure they always contain eggs — but hell, they’re great with coffee. Various area locations.

Cafe Alma (Photo by Valerie Troyano)

This hip St. Pete day- and nightspot is hands-down the best place to get a little hair of the dog on a late, lazy Saturday morning that’s more like an early Saturday afternoon. They bring you the vodka of your choice iced down in a pint glass, and you make your own medicine from a spread that typically features two very original Bloody Mary mixes (the one made with a splash of Guinness is a widespread favorite), along with everything from Tabasco sauce and horseradish to pickled okra and baby corn. Plus, the brunch menu is uniformly excellent.

For the newcomers: Café con leche is the Spanish version of Café Au Lait, requiring nearly a quarter cup of sugar placed underneath the grounds of a strong, finely ground espresso coffee, then drip-brewed and topped with heated milk. The result is a strong, sweet brew that titillates the senses as much as the brain. And although Tampa has its share of great Cuban cafés offering the drink, the key to any café con leche is the espresso, and no espresso beats El Molino’s. Unlike most of the chain coffee shops in the area, El Molino roasts its beans on premises at the 85-year-old Naviera Coffee Mills, creating a fresh, unique espresso shot with much more kick than anything Starbucks could ever create. 2012 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City, 800-531-9587,

It’s the best chain pizza in the land, with that ideal crust combination of chewy, crunchy and creamy that makes all the difference, with the usual choices of meat and veggie toppings along with wacky combinations like pesto and jalapenos. Mellow Mushroom also has one of the best beer selections — more than 20 taps loaded with real microbrews — in the Bay area, chain or no. It’s almost enough to forget how places like this are crushing local restaurateurs — and your soul. 10959 Causeway Blvd., Brandon, 813-685-1122; 11955 Sheldon Road, Tampa, 813-926-3600.

See full review.

See full Good Eats listing.

Roast chicken is a perfect test of a kitchen’s skills, along with being one of the cheapest and most overlooked items on the entrée list of most restaurants. At Ponte’s Tuscan, it’s also one of the best. It’s half a small bird, chopped into manageable chunks, united by exceptionally moist, seasoned meat and a crisp skin impregnated with chopped herbs, black pepper and garlic. Fabulous. 2544 N. McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater, 727-724-5716.

See full review.

This little pizza ’n’ subs delivery joint/sort-of sports bar in St. Pete has quietly become a mainstay with lazy Old Southeast munchers. The pizza is great, and there’s beer on tap for those who want to hang out a bit, but The Italian Way’s secret weapon is its Buffalo wings. Forget the plethora of exotic sauces and heat indexes most chicken wing merchants are offering these days. The Italian Way’s straight-up hot wings are the perfect size (not so big as to raise suspicions of genetic enhancement), the perfect color (that neon orange hardcore wing aficionados recognize as the real deal), and the perfect flavor — namely, HOT, much hotter than most restaurants’ regular “hot” wings, but not quite at the choke-on-snot threshold. Get back to basics, and be more than satisfied. 400 45th Ave. S., St. Petersburg, 727-867-4300,

Sure they have all that mocha chai latte crap, but Latitude is really the coffee shop for people who actually like coffee. Twelve different blends are brewed at all times, including a couple of decaf and a couple of organic/free trade varieties. They have different grinders tasked to caf, decaf and organic beans, so there is never any cross contamination. There may be hipper places to get a cup o’ joe, and there are certainly better places to hang out, but nothing tops Latitude’s coffee. Except maybe some skim milk (in my case). 330 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg, 727-551-0201.

Ancient Chinese secret? Sorry, couldn’t resist, because there is a secret to China Yuan’s version of this largely ubiquitous and — at other places — largely forgettable sauce. This one is chunky, with whole roasted garlic cloves, brick red pepper detritus and atomic pink oil, as well as that extra something that adds brightness and freshness to the whole thing. Ask owner Peter Chan nicely, and he might tell you the secret. 8502 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa, 813-936-7388.

There are half a dozen places in town that serve proper Chinese dim sum — TC Choy’s is a fine choice — but I have to give props to Sidebern’s take on this style of dining. Each night, the restaurant offers a dozen or so items on its dim sum menu — each at under $5. Each contains a taste of Chef Jeannie Pierola’s skill at combining disparate flavors into one coherent dish. In fact, it’s where she and her kitchen shine, the small scale forcing them to distill down to only the absolutely necessary components. 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa, 813-258-2233.

See full review.

See full Good Eats listing.

Among the several styles Mr. Empananda serves, we’ll take the traditional, tangy beef, a half-moon of greasy, meaty deliciousness. The shell usually gets juicy from the innards, while still somehow remaining golden brown and crunchy. The best part lies within — the beef is vibrant with spices and pepper, and the inclusion of olive bits is a nod to the cultures that originated this treat.