Tampa isn’t big on street food (though street food-style restaurant projects have been cropping up as of late), probably because so many of of us spend so much time in our cars. And while food trucks get trotted out for festivals and other special events, they’re not a part of daily life for all.
The region does have its own kind of folk cuisine catering to the road mentality, though. In gas stations throughout the area, you’ll find kitchens tucked behind the candy racks and scratch-offs, dishing up excellent, filling, affordable fare that sees busy people through their days.
I’m not talking about chains hawking shrink-wrapped sandwiches (though I almost never pass up a RaceTrac burrito). Everything on this where-to-stop list is made to order, and most of the operations are locally owned.
When you hit the road in Tampa this summer, integrate one of these joints into your route.
Sligh Petrol Mart: Biscuits & breakfast
Sligh and Central avenues
We start our tour in Seminole Heights, where a half-dozen diners and shmancy brunch spots can’t whip up a single decent biscuit between them. So thank goodness for Sligh Petrol Mart, where the kitchen manager clocks in at 4 a.m. daily to roll out a batch from scratch. They’re towering, airy, buttery things, which one customer described as biscuits “on steroids.” The white gravy fits into no diet ever, but if you’re a traditionalist, it’s flawless. Order the breakfast, and your biscuit is accompanied by four or five slices of bacon, two scrambled eggs, two hash browns, a round of sausage and cheesy grits for $4.99. And that’s the
Chevron: Polar Cups
Busch and North boulevards, across from Chamberlain High School
The Polar Cup is a Tampa original that’s close to its curtain call. During the ’90s and 2000s, a fleet of white vans schlepped full coolers to high schools and sports events to dish up the unique shaved-ice formula. It’s smoother than an Icee and way more flavorful than a Slurpee. It’s like eating a cup of light but dense snow. These days, the Polar Cup is only available at a handful of spots, including this one in North Tampa. The Cup's creator is retired, and only supplies old friends. That means flavors shift almost daily depending on what small batch gets made, but go for lemon or watermelon if they’re available.
Lillie Mae’s Southern Café: Caribbean soul food
Marathon at Hillsborough and Nebraska avenues, and Chevron at 56th Street and Sligh Avenue
Lillie Mae’s owner Lester Benton has more than 20 years in the restaurant industry (by day he’s a midlevel exec with McDonald’s), but the food created at his two LM’s locations shows zero fast-food sensibility. The ingredients are fresh, the spice is rich and the preparation is meticulous, resulting in food that moves way past authentic and into the realm of grassroots gourmet. His biggest seller is oxtail, a particularly flavorful cut of meat that simmers for nearly a full day. I can also vouch for the greens, which feature occasional huge chunks of pork, the rich-yet-not-greasy picadillo and the fiery jerk chicken. For $10 an order, you might think you’re out of bargain territory — until you taste it.
Sunoco: Chicken and waffles
Osborne and Nebraska avenues
You’ll want to shove these $5 Seminole Heights waffles into your mouth immediately. They come out of the press hot, however, so take a moment to savor their smell. They’re heavy on the cinnamon, and fluffier than they are crispy, but that’s why there’s fried chicken. You’re losing money every moment you’re not eating a plate (er, styrofoam clamshell) of these.
7 Star Food Mart: A dang good sandwich
78th Street and Temple Terrace Highway
Sometimes when searching for diamonds in the rough, you realize that the rough is a diamond. This 7 Star drags its belly across the line between down-home and downright sketchy. Its off-the-shelf ingredients are nothing to write home about, but keep your Mojo Roasted Whatever. For $4, you can get a mouthful to remind you why mustard, ham, pickles and fresh-toasted bread were combined by God on the seventh day. The sandwich is best enjoyed with one of those 99-cent cans of insanely sugary tea, on your way back from a sweaty hike at Trout Creek Park.