A bounty of blessings

Five things I'm grateful for in the Tampa Bay food and drink scene.

click to enlarge BLISSFUL ARRAY: Cafe Ponte is among the area’s diversified dine-out options. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
BLISSFUL ARRAY: Cafe Ponte is among the area’s diversified dine-out options.

Now that I’ve been able to experience the region’s culinary prowess through a food writer’s lens (a professional blessing I still can’t believe qualifies as “work”), the time has come for thankfulness. The local food and drink scene’s bounties continue to grow, and both longtime haunts and warmly welcomed newbies make it so. With our late-afternoon Turkey Day spreads upon us, here’s to celebrating a handful of eats, libations and people that make our culinary world go ‘round.

Fleets of festivals

The Bay area hosts an array of traditional and offbeat food and drink fests throughout the year. Kumquat Festival? Check. Food truck roundups? Check. Winefests, beerfests, shindigs for chili fiends, and chowdowns for veg-heads? Yep, got those as well. We sample chocolates, Greek dishes, gumbos, rums, mac and cheese, margaritas and Cuban sandwiches while listening to live tuneage, or watching chefs and novices compete to determine whose offerings reign tastiest. There’s even one gathering dedicated to the jiggly goodness that is flan.

Grubbing and giving

We’re damn good at eating, but also at giving back. Many restaurants and bars donate a portion of their sales to nonprofits around the holidays. And some do it year-round, too. The Kind Mouse’s food pantry benefited from El Gallo Grande diners last Saturday. Chefs from eateries like Cena and Irish 31 dueled in an October pumpkin-carving contest for Feeding America Tampa Bay. And more than 50 spots, including Habana Café and Casa Tina, helped the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas during its Dining Out for Life fundraiser in April. (Mark your calendars for the next one: Apr. 28, 2015.)

Local beer

Regionites know it, drink it, and play cornhole or life-size Jenga while holding it. We’ll fill, and refill, a 64-ounce jug of the stuff to keep hydrated at home, and stand in mega-long lines at our favorite brewery for limited releases. The locally brewed beer biz is booming. It’s become embedded in the area’s culture, from Tarpon Springs to Treasure Island, Odessa to Ybor City. And, thankfully, it’s here to stay.

A culinary cornucopia

Our tastebud journeys take us to walk-up order windows and formal sitdowns. Some of us could find ourselves at a cocktail-pairing dinner just as often as a shoulder-to-shoulder lunchtime dive. The area’s recurring lineup of farmers’ markets offer up a whole ’nother realm of food and drink experiences, with neighborhood doers vending international cuisines, fresh juices, gourmet sweets and artisanal ingredients.

After-hours nosh spots

If it weren’t for CL Music Editor Leilani Polk, this one would’ve slipped right by me. She named Angelo’s as her go-to place for chow after an evening of drinks in downtown St. Pete, and plenty more late-night food havens are out there. How good does a slice of pizza taste after 1 a.m., or the stinky bunz from Anise Global Gastrobar? What about Ribit’s Bar-B-Que’s pulled pork sandwich? There are food-slinging bars, breakfast-all-the-time diners, and a Mexican restaurant-on-wheels that serves into the early-morning hours to fufill our cravings. And that’s something to be thankful for. 

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