Yeah, we know, this much-lauded Clearwater outlet for Chef/Owner Chris Pontes impeccable cuisine has been around for a long time. Honestly, though, we havent had a better meal this year than the ones weve enjoyed at Café Ponte. Pontes success is built on a simple foundation: Hes great at the basics. He takes excellent ingredients, seasons them appropriately and cooks them correctly, just about every time. Doesnt seem too difficult, but it is.
Thanks to Floridas nearly year-round heatwave, drinking a mojito is acceptable pretty much whenever one gets the urge. Of course, like so many things in life, not all mojitos are created equal, and some cost way more than they should. The best Hemingway-approved cocktail deals we found this year were the $5 handmade mojitos served at Carmines in Ybor City. Fresh mint leaves, crushed with mortar and pestle; a glass with a small ice cube; Ronrico rum (no need to upgrade unless youre a rum snob); powdered sugar and a squirt of soda water, topped with a mint leaf and a lime wedge. Delish, and potent!
Peg's is the beloved hole-in-the-wall (or, more accurately, hole-in-the-strip-mall) that got named Best Neighborhood Mix in last year's Best of the Bay even though its characterless surroundings didn't quite add up to a 'hood. But now Peg Wesselink, Tony Dodson and son Doug Dozark have moved their restaurant into the heart of Gulfport's ever-burgeoning Restaurant Row, where they'll be perfectly situated to dole out even more of Tony's impeccably fresh fish tacos, Doug's tasty pizza creations and Peg's welcome-to-the-family charm. 3038 Beach Boulevard, Gulfport.
If you think a caffeine boost is just what you need to get you through the remains of the day, we suggest hopping onto I-275, cruising to one of Indigo Coffees two odd-shaped drive-thru kiosks and ordering a cup of either the rich, reasonably-priced house blend or a robust café latte. The service is quick, the baristas attentive, friendly and tip-worthy, and since these Indigo locations are conveniently situated right off the Interstate, you can jump right back on and return to the office before the boss even notices youre gone.
We love beer and we love cheese, so soup and dip that combines both is intriguing. Often, these dips and soups end up as dense masses of melty cheese that move quickly from elastic to rubber as the bowl cools. Not at TBBC. The dip is sharp and hot and manages to maintain a liquid consistency even after sitting a half hour, while the soup has a brothy consistency that still tastes intensely of sharp cheddar. Its addictive stuff. Youll likely empty the bowl before you have a chance to notice the thin strands of cooling cheese stretching from chin to table.
This tiny downtown St. Pete beer bar makes you feel like youre in a real city, surrounded by others who crave the same thing. The truly cool, unpretentious hang out here and that, of course, means us. We bask in Delirium Tremens on draught, or Chimay or Rogue or any number of craft beers rarely found, much less celebrated, anywhere else around Tampa Bay (strong exception: New World Brewery). Simple beer-sign décor slathers the exposed brick walls, and the communal drinking table makes drunken bonding easy. Early, middle or late night, the Independent is always a good place to be, whether youre hip or not.
Every November, near the Skyway, a group of diehard fanatics celebrate a dying traditional art of Old Florida: smoking mullet for fun and prizes. The smoking rigs vary depending on the ingenuity, carpentry skills and sobriety of the competitor they range from complicated systems of levers and pulleys to the traditional rusted-out oil drum. No matter the vehicle, though, these good ol boys smoke some mean mullet, the fatty Florida fish redolent of mangrove or crepe myrtle. Did we say good ole boys? The winner of the contest two years ago was a 12-year-old girl named Brittany. Maybe theres hope for these kids yet.
Last years Best New Restaurant keeps us coming back, and quite often for the simple pleasures of the fettuccine bolognaise. The hardy bowl of homemade pasta comes with a meat sauce thats both bold and delicate. The key: nuthin fancy. The completely house-made sauce includes finely ground beef, some white and red wine, a few secret ingredients (finely chopped celery, onion and carrots, OK?) and probably some other stuff that we failed to pry out of Chef Arno all blended into a lush, tomato-ey nectar.
Were not usually inclined to hand out kudos to chains, but we have to deliver a begrudging nod to Total Wine and More, where you can bask in the joy of cheap, cheap wine. Their almost shameful-yet-great-for-the-wallet prices are easily $2 to $4 cheaper than the indie stores, even if you do give up a bit of your support-your-locals soul. That said, steel yourself, go in with a few bucks and a list of wants, and youll come out somewhat clean well, as clean as going to Walmart.