I’m tired of people talking trash about Tampa’s food scene. No, it’s not New York City. It isn’t supposed to be. It’s Tampa, and believe it or not, there is more to the food scene here than chains and steak houses (although we do have some delicious steak houses).
It isn’t just the slew of people in town from the convention who spread this stereotype. It's perpetrated by people who live here, who don't look past the conglomerations of homogenized chain food and find the real hidden gems.
There is a pulsing diversity in our food that is uniquely our own. Speaking politically for a moment, we know that Florida is one of the most important swing states in the country. The demographics of Hillsborough and Pinellas specifically closely resemble those of the nation as a whole. The Daily Beast described Tampa and the surrounding area as “the heart of the biggest swing state’s swinging-est district.” What does that mean for food? Everything. We’ve got a smorgasbord of influences both ethnically and economically, and that makes for one funky menu.
Ybor City’s food history is thick with Spanish, Italian and Cuban influences. From the deviled crabs at Carmine’s to the café con leche at La Tropicana Café, Tampa has plenty of incredible food and food history most know little about. One of my favorite under-the-radar finds was the Fourth of July Café on Main Street and Howard Avenue in Tampa. The corner building was a bank in the first half of the 20th century. Not much has changed; the floor and ceiling remain much the same as back then. There's little light inside, even during the day, but they serve the best café con leche and Cuban toast I’ve found. For under $5, you get a half-loaf of fresh baked Cuban bread, toasted and buttered, with a big gulp-sized café con leche.
Certainly our town is overrun with chains, but everywhere in America suffers from that. You just have to know where to look for alternatives. Working-class neighborhoods, or formerly working-class neighborhoods, almost always have the best food. The best ethnic food isn’t in a five-star restaurant, but inside the strip mall you drive past every day.
Then there are the flavors of old Florida, found in pockets across the Bay area. Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish has served up huge portions of smoked mullet for over 50 years. Raw mullet is cut in half and laid on racks over a fire of red oak, and smoking takes several hours. What results is a full-sized fish, bones and all, smoked to perfection for about $15. The beer comes in a frosted mug; I think the choices are Busch or Busch Light for $2.50. The smoked fish spread is the best anywhere and the German potato salad puts Grandma’s to shame. The fact that it's only minutes from the Gulf is only an added bonus.
Fourth Street South in St. Petersburg is home to two area classics, The Chattaway and Munch’s. Both are cash only, so be prepared. Munch’s makes the best cornmeal-fried green tomatoes around. Chattaway's, notorious for their Chattaburger, swirls in lore that Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac once dined there. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it adds to the uniquely St. Petersburg ambience.
The point is this: We have great food here, and all it takes is a little exploring. Be a food tourist in your own backyard sometime. You might be surprised at what you find.