Where Divergent Tastes Meet

The eclectic magic of the Front Porch Café

click to enlarge HANGOUT: Owner Patrick Michael Purpura has - created a comfortable neighborhood spot. - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
HANGOUT: Owner Patrick Michael Purpura has created a comfortable neighborhood spot.

You can stuff all that flowery hoo-ha about mothers.

They can be difficult. They can be mystifying; they can be finicky; and they can be ornery.

God forbid, you should marry someone she considers second-rate, or invest in pork futures against her advice.

Still, every single person on the planet has only one biological mother. That's why, on Mother's Day, we honor the one who gave us life; whose gait we mimic exactly, whose chocolate chip cookies haunt our dreams. The person who taught us how to sew or tell time, whose laughter punctuates the soundtrack of our childhood.

On her special day, take her out to a funky, feel-good restaurant, like the Front Porch Bar and Grille.

It's a neighborhood hangout, owned by the energetic Patrick Michael Purpura, a native of New York who, happily for us, moved south almost 20 years ago. He is the perpetually moving part that keeps the place purring. Chef Kerry Koepfler has been cooking for 19 years at various venues including TGI Fridays, Cheesecake Factory and Iavarone's. Cook Ron Sherrill rounds out the culinary staff.

Mothers will enjoy the pretty lace curtains and fancy woodwork in the 105-year-old Seminole Heights mansion that houses the restaurant. But it's strictly casual, so they can come dressed-down in jeans and flip-flops if they like.

A number of regulars just walk over from houses nearby. The crowd is a weird mix, like the changing neighborhood the restaurant inhabits, of blue-collar beer drinkers, white-collar gourmands, youngish couples, teenagers, seniors and even singles who feel perfectly comfortable hanging at the bar, yakking with the bartender.

Sit on the roomy, open-air front porch and chow down on serious comfort food, like meatloaf and mashed potatoes in a pool of rich brown gravy. Or, for refined palates — gourmet fare, like grouper piccata. The food is good, the prices are reasonable and the service is fast and friendly.

Chef Koepfler does a good job with an interesting, eclectic assortment of dishes sure to please a variety of tastes. From pizza, burgers, pasta and southern pot roast to Cuban pork with black beans and rice and Thai chicken salad with peanuts and sesame ginger dressing. You'll even find more complex dishes like trout spiked with rum raisin sauce.

Start with the chicken quesadilla appetizer ($7.95), stuffed with diced onions, fresh tomatoes and cheddar cheese — crunchy and blackened from the grill — and served with cups of guacamole, sour cream and salsa. Or try potato skins ($4.95), hearty chunks of baked potato heated with cheese and sprinkled with bacon.

The restaurant also features a respectable chicken Marsala ($10.95), pounded thin and topped with gravy made from mushrooms, Marsala wine and demi-glace; sided with real mashed potatoes and a colorful trio of summer squash, zucchini and snow peas. My dinner companion tried one of the daily specials, meat loaf ($9.95 dinner, $6.95 lunch), a double-portion baked first, then grilled to smoky perfection, and lavished with a rich, flavorful brown gravy; the color of loam and the texture of satin.

Open Mike Night late Wednesday evenings draws an enthusiastic young crowd to hear a mishmash of music styles, everything from Irish ballads to gut-bustin' blues. Sometimes, the party doesn't break up till 3 a.m.

One night while the bar was full and fun, we managed to stump the bartender with a request for a trendy libation called a "mint julep martini." It's made with two parts orange liqueur, two parts bourbon, 1/4 ounce vanilla vodka, 1/4 ounce peppermint Schnapps, shaken and strained into a chilled martini glass and garnished with mint. The bartender had never heard of it, trying creme de menthe instead (the waitress apologized and offered to replace it with something else if I didn't like it). The Martini Tester ordered a regular gin martini, pronouncing it so-so.

Though the drinks were less than stellar, the food was mostly on the money. Only one dish didn't pass muster: Tempura shrimp appetizer ($6.95), which tasted more like plain old fried shrimp. Real Japanese-style tempura requires a thin batter flavored with Japanese saki (wine), peanut oil heated exactly to 360 degrees, and one or two minutes' frying time. The shrimp emerges from the wok with a paper-thin blistered crust, crisper and less oily than its American-style counterpart.

Choose instead white Mediterranean pizza ($7.95), an 8-inch pie with a chewy, yeasty crust, not greasy in the least. Served smothered in a mix of alfredo sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, artichokes, sun-dried tomato and redolent with garlic. A picture to look at — a delight to eat.

Save room for homemade desserts. Probably the best was a delicate square of chocolate-raspberry cake ($2.95), made right there, so tender it fell from the fork, a billowy pillow of real whipped cream nestled with it on the plate. Or order a simple apple pie ($2.95), with a decent crust and a zingy, fruity filling, served, if you like, á la mode ($3.95).

The restaurant also does a traditional, weekly sit-down Sunday brunch, featuring fresh-squeezed orange juice, crêpes with Devonshire cream, Belgian waffles fancied with chocolate chips, homemade biscuits with sausage gravy, breakfast meats, eggs Benedict with seafood or ham, omelets, and fruity nut breads.

Even hard-to-please mothers will like this quirky restaurant.

Food Editor Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 116.

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