Deuces Wild

Winning at gumbo on 22nd St., rolling low at Seminole

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click to enlarge TRUTH IN ADVERTISING: A sunny welcome for a - rainy festival. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
TRUTH IN ADVERTISING: A sunny welcome for a rainy festival.

SEAFOOD, UNDERWATER: Holding a largely outdoor food-fest during the height of summer is a risky proposition. And though the 22nd Street Redevelopment Corp.'s second annual Seafood Festival appeared to be winding down when the rain inevitably came, it was still disappointing — mostly because I'd been hoping the shindig would catch a second wind to outdo its first.The two-block length of St. Pete's 22nd Street S. known as "The Deuces" is the perfect place for strolling and sampling foods both soul and sea; its overhanging second-floor balconies and innately old-school character lend it a Big Easy-esque sort of charm. From McCall's Family Restaurant at one end to Lorene's Fish House at the other, families and independent businesses offered shrimp, crabs, fish, more shrimp and more crabs from trailers and ad-hoc kiosks. Along with local residents of all ages, an unsettlingly high number of police officers, and two or three middle-aged white couples (who looked as if they'd probably had to laugh off at least a little misinformation from equally affluent friends on the subject of Midtown in order to come down here, and good for them), I wandered from station to station, checking the choices and avoiding the roving "news crew" from the city government's local-origination cable channel.

The gumbo for which I had so thoroughly cleansed and prepped my palate proved elusive. It seemed as if I was going to have to settle for chile-basted shrimp ka-bobs. And garlicky, buttery pita bread. And barbecued pork ribs — the kid behind the portable kitchen from legendary South Side restaurant Atwater's had an unarguable pitch: "Hey, man, please buy some of our delicious food 'fore we put it away and take it back home!" He said please. Let's eat.

We all knew the rain was coming. But we still hung around too long, chewing and listening to the smooth-jazz quartet whose singer angered a local minister by suggesting that those who didn't remove their cars from his church's parking lot would be condemned to hell. Right around the time the first raindrops hit the ground I finally realized that, despite the neighborhood's efforts, the Taste of New Orleans wasn't going to blossom into a hugely crowded block party. Soaked in a second, I made for a shop-front awning; underneath it, I noticed a small hand-lettered sign, taped to an empty chair sitting next to a giant pot steaming over a gas flame:

"Homemade New Orleans-Style Gumbo."

Jackpot.WANNA BET? The old Seminole casino was an obviously smoky and depressing place. The spanking new Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, on the other hand, is huge and opulent and loud; it goes to great lengths to distract from the fact that, at the end of the day, it serves the same purpose as its utilitarian predecessor.I didn't end up at the Hard Rock last Thursday evening to gamble. I went for the Art of Rock & Roll exhibition and wine-tasting. The soiree was held in the cavernous ballroom, whose location at the back of the casino ensures that attendees at various events will be exposed to as many Hard Rock attractions as logistically possible on the way in. I was particularly taken by the slot players. They insert cash-cards from the casino to play the machines, but remain connected to the cards via a leash. Symbolism, people.

Art aficionados, curious and/or bored hotel guests, and those of us who simply cannot turn down a catered free event queued up to get in, then queued up for the raffle. Afterward, inside the disco-light-bedecked ballroom proper — which, by the way, boasts a carpet design so loud you actually have to raise your voice to talk over it — we queued up again, for gratis wine and a gander at the colorful, largely abstract work of local artists Craig Latch and Ray Paul. Both artists are affiliated with the Channelside District studio co-op Artists Unlimited, and play together in a band called The Seventy-Ones that takes influence only from the music of that year.

"He and I are actually the Spinal Tap of art," quipped Latch. "On the poster, the chef's name is bigger than ours."

The two artists sung the praises of Hard Rock Special Events Manager Michelle Miller-Schumacher, who set up the showing after seeing their work.

"She thought our art would reflect, not exactly the theme [of the Hard Rock], but more the lifestyle," Paul said.

The beverages were doled out by attractive young women, installed in each corner of a rectangular bar that occupied the room's center. Under the watchful eye of a DJ installed roughly two stories above the social fray, they graciously responded to every physical indication that they should pour a little more into the glass, please. One of the ladies, Carrie Crockett, was coming off the first day of her second year teaching fifth graders at Lake Magdalene Elementary.

"I make more an hour doing this than I do teaching," she said, "which is really sad."

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