Eclectic Avenue

A night out with The Armenia Avenue Restaurant Gang.

click to enlarge DINNER AT CASTILLO’S: Clockwise from top, Voeller, Glamsch, Midula Reller and daughter Marley. - Larry Biddle
Larry Biddle
DINNER AT CASTILLO’S: Clockwise from top, Voeller, Glamsch, Midula Reller and daughter Marley.

Does this sound familiar?

“We were driving down Armenia looking at all the different ethnic restaurants,” recalls Kerry Glamsch, “and saying, ‘I’d like to go to that place, and that place, and that place…”

The difference between Kerry and the rest of us is that he didn’t just file away that thought and forget about it. Tapping into his pool of Facebook friends, he formed the Armenia Avenue Restaurant Gang, aka AARG — a tribe of urban explorers who’ve set about to sample as many restaurants as possible along Tampa’s most multi-cultural street.

Glamsch is a well-known actor/director/professor who taught at USF and now teaches at UT; his girlfriend (full disclosure) is CL’s art critic, Megan Voeller. Between them, they know just about everybody in Tampa Bay’s creative class, but they realized that many in their respective circles didn’t know each other. So Glamsch planned the dinners around a “rotating cast”; each time, the mix of attendees includes both AARG regulars and newbies, the only connective tissue being that they like to meet new people and taste new foods.

Last Wednesday, the seventh gathering of the gang took them to Castillo’s Cafe, a Spanish/Italian/Cuban-inflected restaurant that recently moved into the former home of NoHo Bistro at 1714 N. Armenia. The guests included Creative Pinellas’ Hampton Dohrman; lawyer Ann-Eliza Musoke Taylor, co-founder with Dohrman of Philanthropic Young Tampa Bay (PYT), and her husband, artist Brian Taylor; Mitzi Gordon of the Bluebird Books Bus and the Tampa Museum of Art; architect Ken Cowart and lawyers Tim Garding, leaders in the fight to save the Friendship Trail Bridge; Tampa Theatre’s Tara Schroeder (“This is my first AARG!”); Tempus Gallery’s Tracy Midulla Reller and her 9-year-old daughter Marley, who may be Tampa Bay’s youngest food blogger; USF profs Tamara Zwick (history) and Michael LeVan (communication and visual culture); Michael’s partner, neurologist Melissa Freeman; librarian Elizabeth Williams; Carmen Alvarez and Darrell Lettiere, partners in life and accounting; actor Zo Vallejo-Bryant — a group as eclectic in its way as the cuisines they’ve been sampling.

AARG has traveled all over the map without leaving the avenue, from Mexico (La Cascada) to China (China Yuan), from Honduras (Los Jarrones) to Colombia (La Cabaña, La Pequeña, Brias del Valle). La Pequeña was a favorite of many of the regulars, while others liked La Cabaña for its rotisserie chicken (though its logo, a happy chicken carrying a platter of… chicken, seemed to send a contradictory message).

Tonight, the gang has grown especially large, and as more and more diners keep arriving, the restaurant owners, gregarious twin brothers Henry and Raul Castillo, add more tables and chairs. The atmosphere is more family dinner party than formal restaurant, with people standing and chatting before settling down to eat, or seat-hopping to catch up with friends at the far end of the table. Ken and Tim talk about a Hillsborough County Commission hearing that took place earlier in the day. Mitzi tells Tamara about her plans to have her book bus in the St. Pete Pride parade in June. Marley Midulla Reller talks about her blog, The Yum News. Tamara and Melissa, longtime friends, bicker good-naturedly about the relative merits of China Yuan (Tamara’s Melissa's preference) and Yummy House (Melissa’s Tamara's). [NOTE FROM DW: Yep, I got the preferences reversed. Sorry, Melissa and Tamara. I owe you both some dim sum.]

“Except for the stupid things she said about Chinese food,” taunts Tamara, “she’s very smart.”

There’s a playfulness in the group, a curiosity, that extends to the way they order. When Hampton orders the evening special, a whole baked fish, head and all — because, well, why not? — Tim chimes in that he’d wanted to order that, but he’d had it at another restaurant the night before and who wants to have whole fish, head and all, two nights in a row? Which leads Brian to recall an anecdote about the alleged sexual mojo to be gained from eating the fish’s eyeball, and Hampton is sorry to find that his eyeball has been cooked away, or maybe pre-plucked. And several people who order the crab enchilado are surprised to find that it’s not anything like a burrito (the Castillos get that reaction a lot), but more like spaghetti. But the tomato-based sauce is full of crab, and everyone agrees it’s delicious. (So is my dish, the shrimp salteado: shrimp, chorizo and ham sauteed in wine, olive oil and other goodies; the serving is generous, the individual flavors pop, the accompanying rice and beans is exemplary and it’s all only $13.95! Another reason to habituate the restaurants of Armenia Avenue: the prices.)

“No one leaves here without trying my mom’s flan!” declares Raul. His mother is 84. “If I don’t let her make it, she cries.” He and his brother, who are 56, got into the restaurant biz late in life — ironically enough, after losing almost 500 pounds between them through gastric bypass.

As the evening draws to a close, Raul plays the same trick he likes to play on patrons on Friday nights, when the restaurant is open later: he flashes the lights on and off and yells, “We’re closing, now get the hell out of here!” No one is fooled on Fridays, and no one’s fooled tonight.

Kerry hasn’t decided the next dining destination for AARG — Montauro’s Italian, maybe, or Happy Fish Peruvian Fusion. But wherever the gang lands, dinner will be about more than just food. It’ll also be a way for people in different fields to connect — suitably enough, by inter-mingling over the mixed-up culinary culture of Tampa, as embodied on one eclectic avenue.

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