There's no substitute for visiting another country. Disney can have Epcot. Vegas can have its phony Paris and Venice replicas. These recycled American versions are as flimsy as the plastic porticos that adorn them. They offer no real interaction with people who think, act, smell and speak differently than you. The food is custom made to be palatable to American tastes; the decor is trite and insulting.
There are places, however, that offer an authentic, foreign experience. They're owned and frequented by people who are the real deal. Their products and atmosphere transport you to the places they represent.
At Oceanic Oriental Supermarket, 1609 N. Tampa St., Tampa (813-228-8110), you'll experience Japan, China, Vietnam and Thailand all at once through exotic and beautiful groceries and produce. A stroll through Oceanic can both pique your curiosity and bring out the xenophobe in you. You'll find grass jelly and all manner of gelatinous goo. Wince at the store's alternative for potato chips: dried, crispy anchovies — eyes intact! Other delicacies include black chicken meat, boneless duck feet and pig stomachs. Let's not forget the wide assortment of canned fish and fowl and all the wonderful ways to pickle their ova. (Quail eggs, anyone?) But visiting Oceanic is not just an "Ooh gross, how weird" experience. The crowded aisles, sweet and savory smells, festive anime-inspired packages, rows of colorful cookery and clerks who don't speak English (one turned around in fear when I asked where the rice noodles were) will no doubt take you somewhere east of the Pacific.
Also, be sure to visit Din Ho Market at 8502 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa (813-933-7230). It's almost as big as Oceanic and boasts a vast, Pan-Asian selection as well. I bought a bag of muscat grape gummy candy there. The bag says, "Its translucent color so alluring and aroma so gentle and mellow offer admiring feelings of a graceful lady."
Armenia Avenue, especially the stretch between Hillsborough and Waters, has many a mom-and-pop Latin establishment. You can visit the Peruvian restaurant Tia Flor, 7212 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa (813-932-2854). Decorated with blue and white tile floors, colorful tablecloths with parrots and ferns, and strings of colorful lights. Try the traditional dish jalea, breaded, deep-fried fish and seafood, topped with marinated onions and tomatoes, and served with fried yucca and cassavas ($12.95). Also on the menu are corn tamales stuffed with pork ($4), fried green bananas ($1.50) and even imported Peruvian beer ($2.75). While dining, don't be surprised to find a group of men seriously intent on watching a soccer game via satellite.
For another South American experience, be sure to visit La Pequena Colombia, 6312 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa (813-876-8338), or La Hacienda de la Mona, 7803 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa (813-935-9011). These places offer a country, down-home atmosphere. At La Hacienda, my companion was served a giant plate full of beef and pork with a fried, sunny-side-up egg on top (!). In other words, don't opt for Colombian if you're a vegetarian or on a strict cholesterol-intake diet. Colombian food is meaty, hearty and high fat.
A new haunt, Templo Antonia, 7007 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa 33615 (813-930-0800), is as no-frills as a corner pub can be. It's dark and dank with just a bar and pool table, but the patrons and bartender will strike up a conversation quite warmly. Bartender Marta, from Medellin, Colombia, who just moved to the United States four months ago and doesn't speak a lick of English, will play Mexican and South American pop CDs and serve a modest selection of beers: Bud, Bud Light, Natural Light and Coronas. If you know a little Spanish and want some practice, this is the place to go. Added bonus: The little bar transforms into a discoteca on Fridays and Saturday nights!
Travel to Europe, Asia and Australia via East & West Imports, 9001 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg (727-576-2782). The clean, one-room market specializes in Bulgarian, Croatian, Bosnian and Middle Eastern foods. You'll find everything from Bosnian smoked beef ($7.99/pound), which resembles beef jerky, to lamb brains from Down Under.
Put a little oom-pah-pah in your party Saturday nights at the German American Society Germania Hall, 8098 66th St., Pinellas Park (727-541-6782), where elderly native Germans prance around in dirndls and lederhosen to a live band that performs waltzes and polkas. Toast and chant the drinking song "Ein Prosit," which has as its finale the chant now made famous by Comedy Central's The Man Show: "Ziggy-Zaggy! Ziggy-Zaggy! Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!"
For a festive Irish experience, visit the Harp & Thistle, 650 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach (727-360-4104) or Flanagan's Irish Public, 465 Main St., Dunedin (727-736-4994). Whereas the Harp & Thistle offers a tourist-friendly version of the Celtic experience, Flanagan's offers a more authentic ambiance, with regulars who hail from the Emerald Isle. Live music is featured just about every evening at both places. Plus, Flanagan's has satellite football matches. (For more on taking part in the UK soccer experience, read Fran Gilpin's feature, "Real Football: World Cup at the Pub.")
For a more somber stroll but infinitely interesting adventure filled with beauty and surprises, visit L'Unione Italiana and Centro Espanol cemeteries on the block squared off by 24th and 26th streets and 21st and 22nd avenues, in Tampa. The first cemetery, the one belonging to the Italian club in Ybor City, was founded when the organization bought the land from the Armwoods, a prominent African-American family in 19th century Tampa. Along with visiting the graves of mob bosses Santo Trafficante Jr. and Sr., you can see the resting place of Blanche Armwood, a nationally renowned educator and the first black woman on the Hillsborough County school board. Other prominent Tampa citizens are laid to rest at the cemetery, people with the names Nuccio, Ferlita and Alessi. The newer graves are in a grand, Romanesque mausoleum designed by architect Joe Calpagirone. The older graves date back 80 to 100 years, and the tombs look like ones you'd find in New Orleans or at Pere Le Chaise in Paris, with once-opulent statues, usually decapitated or covered in mold. The graves are raised and made of marble and granite, with pictures of the deceased.
Some of the sites have been vandalized, and the cemetery sits in a depressed, crime-ridden area of town. But the unofficial groundskeeper, Lorenzo, a middle-aged fellow with an eye patch and predilection toward brightly colored track pants, will keep an eye out for you as you visit the dead.
There's so much not mentioned here — clubs, organizations, restaurants, grocery stores ... geez, there's more than a dozen Mexican mercados in Clearwater alone! We're blessed to live in an area rich in cultural diversity. It's a waste to shop only at malls and watch Bucs games, and not experience Tampa Bay's international offerings.
For more info about various ethnic groups in the area, visit the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair's Web site at www.spiffs.org.
Thanks to Weekly Planet Food Critic Sara Kennedy, who contributed to this report.