Have Mouth, Will Travel

These places offer the tastes of exotic locales without leaving the Bay area.

By Sara Kennedy

One of the advantages of living in an urban area is the wide range of food at your fingertips. Thousands of shops and restaurants dot the landscape — everything from a posh Italian bistro perched glamorously atop a fancy hotel, to the most humble Vietnamese eatery tucked among the nondescript storefronts of your typical shopping center.

Without ever stepping on a plane, Tampa Bay residents can sample the culinary delights of dozens of different cultures, via ethnic restaurants and shops that specialize in the authentic fare of their homelands.

But sometimes finding them is the hardest part, so we have made it simple with a cheat sheet our intrepid eaters have put together. Here are a few unusual ethnic choices you'll find in your own back yard:

East & West Imports, 9001 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg (727-576-2782) — Clean, one-room market specializes in Bulgarian, Croatian, Bosnian and Middle Eastern fare. You'll find everything from Bosnian smoked beef ($7.99/pound) which resembles beef jerky, to Bulgarian feta cheese ($3.59/pound), taroroot and even frozen lamb brains from Australia. Other items include Indo-European toasted couscous; the Samoti brand of Croatian chocolate ($1.49 per bar); canned stuffed eggplant, and Dobrova marmalade from Macedonia.

Check out the freshly made items, like Greek spinach pie ($1.25/each), various kinds of phyllo pastries (59 cents-$1.25 each), stuffed with dates or nuts, or, for a fast snack, fresh Lebanese flat bread called "zatter bread," ($1.50 each), liberally sprinkled with oregano and perfect for scooping in a flavorful chick pea dip ($1.75) the store sells.

Tea Flor Restaurant, 7212 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa (813-932-2854) — Pretty blue and white tile floors, colorful tablecloths featuring parrots and ferns, and strings of twinkling lights make you feel Peruvian, if only for one meal. On the menu you'll find 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); corn tamales stuffed with pork ($4); fried green bananas ($1.50) and even imported Peruvian beer ($2.75).

Pho Quyen Vietnamese Restaurant, 4505 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park (727-545-5678) — Bright with pale blue and white walls, this unusual restaurant is located in an anonymous strip shopping center. It produces authentic Vietnamese food, with excellent Vietnamese rice soup ($5.25), various incarnations of beef rice noodle soup ($5.25), and broken rice dishes like rice noodle soup with seafood ($5.95). Wash it down with a can of chrysanthemum tea ($1.50).

La Pequena Colombia, 6312 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa (813-876-8338) — Homey little restaurant with a neighborly, south-of-the-border disposition, it serves the native fare of Colombia. In a little glass case at the counter are to-go items, including one particularly addictive dish called an empanada ($1), meat, light gravy and potatoes fried into a fist-size treat to take with you. Or, try homestyle cheese wrapped in banana leaves ($4.50) or dinner platters, such as the top flank steak in sauce ($7.50) served with salad, rice or beans and sweet plantains.

Oceanic Oriental Supermarket, 1609 N. Tampa St. (813-228-8110, www.oceanic market.com) — With fresh seafood, meat, groceries and gifts, this place is huge and stocked with an inconceivably excessive collection of items from the Far East. There's everything from taroroot ice cream bars to bok choy tips ($3), dozens of kinds of soy sauces and pastes, Taiwanese green pumpkin drink, fish crackers, woks, handpainted eggs, Eastern-style satin women's wear ($49-69) and even a 10-piece rosewood dining table, inlaid with mother-of-pearl ($5,800).

Der Dutchman Restaurant, Bakery and Gift Shop, 3713 Bahia Vista St., at Pinecraft (the Amish settlement in Sarasota, 941-955-8007, www.derdutchmanfl.com) — Celebrate the Amish's old-fashioned ways. The bakery sells high-quality, handmade food and pastry, including home-baked wheat bread ($1.60) and rich cinnamon rolls (two, $1.95), jellies and jams ($2.85). Upstairs, the gift shop stocks furniture, china, hand-sewn lace tablecloths ($24.99), doilies ($4.99-10.99), jewelry, handbags and books. Dine well in the 600-seat restaurant, specializing in locally produced, homemade "farm food."

Pickle Barrel Deli & Restaurant, Oxford Square, 9520 Seminole Blvd., Seminole (727-398-4673) On the menu are all-Kosher, Jewish favorites like the hot pastrami platter ($6.75), smoked whitefish ($7.25) or, for a complete dinner, try the brisket of beef, served with bread and butter, potato pancakes or french fries, New York cheesecake, carrot cake or rice pudding and a beverage.

Castellano & Pizzo Italian Gourmet Foods, 4200 S. Henderson Blvd. (813-289-5275) Founded in 1892, it's one of Tampa's oldest family-owned food businesses, featuring a superior array of imported Italian cheese, meats, produce, pastas and specialty items, plus an extensive selection of boutique wines. Settle in at the Cafe Mezzogiorno restaurant, or hit the takeout counter for delicious hot and cold fare you can whisk away at your convenience. Try the focaccia sandwich, with Italian cold cuts, spinach and feta ($4.50), or order chicken Castellano ($2.49 per half-pound) to take home.

Schiller's German Delicatessen, 4327 W. El Prado Blvd., Tampa (813-839-6666) — Another longtime Tampa institution with a fine array of German culinary products, from European chocolate bars to big jars of sauerkraut and pickles to German Tucer beer ($2.95 per bottle), Schiller's does it all. It also enjoys a brisk lunch trade at its small, eat-in restaurant, offering excellent sandwiches, soups and salads, made with the freshest ingredients and homemade breads, such as pumpernickel ($2 per loaf). Leave room for dessert; Schiller's has one of the best apple strudels in the city (serves four, $3.29).

Sahara Cafe, 624 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg (727-898-4455) — Take a trip East without ever leaving home at this minuscule cafe. Its specialties are high-quality homemade pita breads overflowing with fillings, like "Makanik," a huge pita wrap made with spicy beef and lamb sausage, pine nuts, onions, tomatoes and lemon juice for just $3.69. Also salads and vegetarian platters, like Tiropita Platter, a special blend of feta cheese and seasonings baked in a phyllo crust, served with Greek salad and humus, are real deals at prices from $3.25 to $4.75. Closes at 3 p.m.

—Bonnie Boots

Santorini Greek Grill , 698 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs (727-945-9400, www.santorinigreekgrill.com) — One of the few places in Tarpon Springs you can dine al fresco, Santorini's also is one of the few spots accessible by boat, as it sits on the Anclote River. "You hook it, we cook it," is their motto, but if you want to get there via car or foot, you can do that too. Order the Santorini Sampler, with various Greek specialties ($6.95), the Greek dish "horta," boiled greens ($3.95), or a platter of dolmades ($8.95), seasoned beef with rice wrapped in grape leaves and served with an egg-lemon sauce.

London Pride, 336 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach (727-360-4863, www.london pride.com) — Yes, the stiff-upper-lip Anglo-Saxon strain of humanity known as Brits constitute an ethnic group too. Got a hankering for Devon cream, a fluffy accompaniment to scones (four for $2.80)? This is the place. It also stocks such things as Pears Soap ($3.25), a deluxe way British ladies maintain lovely skin. Or try Chiver's Old English Marmalade ($4.95), McVities Digestives ($2.95) or delicacies like shepherd's pie, beef pasties and fish paste.

Tara's Roti Shop , 8916 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa (813-930-8272) — Ah, the islands. The warm tropical beaches, friendly locals and food that's as fresh and fragrant as a breeze from the ocean. Trinidad is just such an island. While you likely can't pop over there for a quick meal, you can dine at Tara's Roti Shop and pretend that you have. The eatery is part Trinidadian shanty and part Nebraska stucco, but the menu is pure Caribbean bliss. Try the roti: delicately spiced chickpeas and potatoes, curry chicken or a variety of other flavorful fillings wrapped in homemade flatbread. The bread is made from split peas that have been ground into flour and made into pillowy wraps that give tortillas a run for their money. Island favorites like stewed oxtail, red beans and rice and curry conch will make you feel like you're closer to snorkeling tourists in the ocean than angry commuters on Busch Boulevard. Everything on the menu, from the salt fish to the creamy coconut ice cream, is made the old-fashioned way — from scratch — with no modern machinery or processed food involved. The ginger beer has a cloying sweetness and a spicy kick that come from actual gingerroot. Try getting that in a bottle. A warning to those planning to lunch at Tara's: You may be more inclined to find a spot in the sun and nap than return to hustle of non-Island life.

—Rochelle Renford

La Fiesta Mexican Store, 1202 22nd St., Tampa, (813-241-2477, fax, 813-241-4388 — Simple Mexican market featuring packages of tortillas, fresh produce, Mexican sodas, beer and fruit drinks; big, bright piñatas, religious candles, cooking items and canned goods. Tucked among the grocery shelves in the back are a few bare, Formica booths and a tiny restaurant serving good Mexican fare. Order No. 8 on the menu — lovely, light quesadillas ($5.99), which come with a cup of tongue-numbing hot sauce, refried beans, rice, colorful pile of green salad, and an extra supply of steaming tortillas. Wash it down with Mexican soda called Jarritos Limon ($1).

—All entries by Sara Kennedy unless otherwise noted