Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seabreeze Food Trolley and the Devil Crab

To the best of my knowledge, the devil crab is the only culinary creation whose lineage traces back solely to the Tampa Bay area. Sure, we're known for our Cuban sandwiches, but Miami has those, too (and they say theirs is the authentic version), and you can talk about indigenous seafood like mullet and crab, but that's more of a generic Florida thing. Although its origins are somewhat murky (as is the case with most good foodstuffs), the devil crab is believed to have arrived on the local scene in the 1920s as a street food for hungry cigar factory workers in Ybor City. One of the earliest and well-known vendors of this tasty snack (basically a croquette stuffed with a spicy mixture of shredded blue crab and sofrito, a condiment with its roots in traditional Spanish cuisine) was Victor Licata, who operated a seafood shack beginning around 1925 on the 22nd Street Causeway in what's now a heavily-industrial area of urban Tampa. Called Seabreeze by the Bay, the shack eventually morphed into a restaurant best known for its devil crabs, which were churned out daily by the truckload to satisfy the public's appetite for them. Over the years, the neighborhood changed and the dining operation subsequently closed in 2001, forcing hungry Tampanians to look elsewhere to get their fix.

The story doesn't end there, however. The Richards family (who were the last owners of the restaurant) continued to run a catering business and eventually acquired an old seafood market on North Boulevard (2111 N. Blvd., to be exact) in Tampa Heights to sell their freshly-caught crabs, shrimp, and fish from the Alafia River. As caretakers of the original Seabreeze devil crab recipe, they began selling them again, only now in much smaller quantities.

When the opportunity to purchase an old trolley that could be repurposed into a food truck presented itself, the family jumped on it, parking the beast in the weedy lot next door and rechristening it as the Seabreeze Food Trolley. The trolley offers a slimmed-down version of the bygone Seabreeze by the Bay menu (mostly fried fish), including those beloved devil crabs.

If it's a nice day out (as it was when I visited on a Friday afternoon), there are few better places to sit at a picnic table overlooking the nearby Hillsborough River and munch on a foam container full of fried goodies.  The clam strips and fries were very good, while the hush puppies had a bit of an odd flavor that made me think of dryer sheets for some reason.  I also enjoyed the house cole slaw and small cup of strawberry cake (desserts are free on Friday) that accompanied my order.

As for the famous devil crab? Well, I found it to be on a par with Brocato's version, which is the other iconic devil crab maker in town, that is, to say, good, but not necessarily destination-worthy.  The filling had an adequate amount of heat to it and the exterior was nicely crispy, certainly crafted with a little more experience and care than the behemoth mini-footballs at Brocato's.  If the neighborhood surrounding the seafood market and trolley (which is largely vacant) continues to gentrify like nearby Higland Avenue (home to Ulele), I see greater things in the future for the Richards family and their heritage operation...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ambrosia Ice Cream (Sun Groves - Safety Harbor)

It's January, the thermometer is dropping all the way down into the 40s (I know, I'll get no sympathy from those of you braving single digits up North at the moment), and we here at the Canteen are contemplating ice cream - not just any ice cream, mind you, but what I deem to be the best ice cream flavor in town (with all apologies to Bern's/Publix and their respective macadamia nut ice creams, a close second in my book). If you head down Florida State Road 580 from Tampa across the causeway towards Dunedin, you'll encounter a small produce stand, warehouse, and gift shop on the south side of the street with a sign out front saying "Sun Groves", primarily known as a purveyor of fine citrus fruits since 1933. I suspect at one point this territory was flush with these types of operations that catered to tourists looking to buy into the golden myth of Florida as a land awash in freshly-squeezed orange juice; nowadays, you have to look pretty hard to find the survivors.

We speak from experience when we say that the fruit at Sun Groves is stellar (the family is currently enjoying grapefruits, orange juice, and Honey Bell oranges all purchased from the gift shop); however, let's get back to the ice cream. The shop in Safety Harbor sells about 20 different flavors and none are better in my opinion than ambrosia, which might conjure up frightening images of an atomic green Jell-o mold your Aunt Mabel used to make at holiday parties, but the Sun Groves version features ample amounts of coconut, Maraschino cherries, and tiny marshmallows mixed into a base of orange-pineapple, all the promises of a tropical vacation rolled up into one scoop.

If this is what it takes to brave January's chill, I'll gladly volunteer for the hardship...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

11 Tastiest Things I Ate on Xmas Break

Another Christmas Break (and another round-trip to Chicago) has come and gone for the Hackknife family. Because the end of the year was made for, well, end-of-the-year lists, I'm happy to contribute my own to this canon, one that's hopefully a bit more appetizing than the "10 Looniest Statements Donald Trump Made in 2015" list. In no particular order and since 10 just won't do it justice, here are the 11 tastiest things I ate on break.

Nasi Lemak, Fat Rice, 2957 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago

Chicago is home to Fat Rice, which has to be one of the few Macanese restaurants in the country. What is "Macanese", you ask? It's cuisine that's associated with the island of Macau, the former island colony of Portugal that's now a Chinese gambling mecca. This great mashup of Eastern and Western cultures results in a curious menu, one that can give equal billing to both bacalhau (salt cod) and pork dumplings. Although difficult to get a seat during the dinner hours (the eatery is small), Mrs. Hackknife and I were able to amble 2 blocks over from our rental condo at lunchtime to snag a quick bite of nasi lemak (pictured above), the national dish of Malaysia consisting of rice cooked in coconut milk, garnished with small fried anchovies, toasted peanuts, sauteed greens, spicy sambal sauce, and a boiled tea egg (I was happy to pass this on to the missus). With all those components, each bite exhibited a varying level of spice, salt, soft, and crunch, sort of like playing with an equalizer for your tastebuds.

Tacos, Carnicerias Guanajuato, 3140 N. California Ave., Chicago

I have to hand it to my wife - not only did she find a great condo for us to stay in during our trip to Chicago, its location couldn't have been better for wandering gastronauts like ourselves. Just a few blocks up California Ave. from the condo and on the far side of the Kennedy Expressway sits Canicerias Guanajuato, a large Mexican grocery store that happens to have a taqueria tucked away in the corner, which I'm told is one of the better ones in the city, and not just because they have a glass case full of giant chicharron sheets as you pass through.

The customers are mostly Spanish-speakers and the menu is no frills. I was able to score a terrific trio of carnitas, lengua (beef tongue), and cecina (a sort-of Mexican beef jerky, air-dried marinated beef not unlike Italian prosciutto, my first time encountering this filling) tacos, and though we had some trouble telling them apart, they were a sublime counterpoint to the chaotic Asian rice dish we'd just eaten 30 minutes earlier. I wonder what my dear late Great-Aunt Evelyn (who once lamented about all the "Puerto Ricans" moving in) would think of her old neighborhood now, but I consider it taco nirvana.

Onion Rings and Fried Peach Pie, The Varsity, 61 North Ave., Atlanta

If you're willing to brave the Atlanta metro traffic on I-75 and somehow navigate the sinuous streets of downtown, you can swing by what's allegedly the world's largest drive-in for a nostalgic (and kid-friendly) lunch. The Varsity has been slinging burgers and chili dogs to hungry office workers and Georgia Tech football fans since 1928. The original operation has expanded several times over the years due to its immense popularity - they say they can accommodate 800 diners at once now and it seemed that all of them were in the ordering lines at the same time we were. Still, we persevered enough to try said burgers, chili dogs, and baby aspirin-flavored Frosted Orange drinks (served in cups large enough that they lasted all the way to Nashville), although I found the stars of the show to be the onion rings and fried peach pie, leading me to believe that the Varsity line cooks are true masters of the deep frying arts.

Maple Donuts, Nord's Bakery, 2118 S. Preston St., Louisville

Should you ever wake up early on a Sunday morning in Louisville and need to pick up some baked goods to bring to a holiday party hosted by your sister some 300 miles away in Chicago later that day, you should stop into Nord's Bakery. You should get there early before the fabulous donuts (like the maple-bacon yeast cruller and the maple cake donut pictured above) are sold out, and you should buy at least 4 of them and eat them all in the shop with no intention whatsoever of sharing them with your extended family at the party in just a few short hours (in a nod to politeness and civility, however, you should buy an apple kuchen and a butter kuchen, also fabulous, and share those instead). You should do all of these things.

Fried Chicken, Big City Chicken, Navy Pier, Chicago

In one of his last articles before departing the Chicago Tribune, food reporter Kevin Pang pointed out the unlikely existence of a top-shelf fried chicken stand mixed in amongst the food kiosks on Navy Pier, which is not exactly known for its distinctive grub. Big City Chicken is a Lettuce Entertain You venture that I had to try based on his recommendation, especially since I was already there with my brother-in-law Dan taking our respective sons to the children's museum. I appreciate that the server gave me a choice of white or dark meat chicken (of course, I don't waste any stomach space on white meat) and I also found the bird to be crispy-yet-not heavy or cloying (owing to its cooking in soybean oil), much like M. Pang did. I salute you, sir, and wish you Godspeed on your future food writing endeavors - you will continue to have my rapt attention.

Momotaro Tartare, Momotaro, 820 W. Lake St., Chicago

The now bursting-with-restaurants Fulton Market District in Chicago also sports a new temple of Japanese gastronomy called Momotaro (of the Boka Restaurant Group). The ambitious menu covers a lot of ground, dazzling diners with cold/hot dishes and robata grill specialties on one side, many sushi options on the other. Mrs. Hackknife and I indulged in bonito tataki, unagi don (bbq eel rice), washugyu (wagyu skirt steak with shishito peppers and foie gras), scallops with bacon, and curry udon noodles, but the best dish was all vegetarian. Following Phil Vettel's advice (the Tribune's still-employed head food critic, at least for the moment), we tried the house's sleight-of-hand version of beef tartare, an artfully-plated mixture of Japanese sweet tomato, crispy rice, Maui onion, and shiso leaf, mimicking almost perfectly the taste and texture of real beef tartare. If all vegetarian cuisine could be like this, I say send the cows on permanent holiday.

Praline Pecan Terrine and, Like, a Thousand Other Ingredients, Longman & Eagle, 2657 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago,

Longman & Eagle is another restaurant I was able to cross off my Chicago hit list by virtue of staying in a condo just a few blocks away. We were never able to visit this hipster whiskey tavern when we lived up North, but I can tell you the kitchen is still kicking ass and taking names (as evidenced by the Michelin Star hanging on the wall). The missus and I deliberately skipped dessert at Momotaro in favor of a nightcap here and were bewitched by their sweet offerings, especially the praline pecan terrine (pictured above). I had to take a photo of the dessert menu so I could recall all the components of the dish (caramel, bourbon, espresso, honey foam, chocolate oil, malted ice cream, molasses syrup, chocolate powder), the kind of multi-faceted indulgence that makes my eyes roll back into my skull. I can put up with a lot of Mumford and Sons on the jukebox for some of this nirvana.

Cheese and Sausage Pan Pizza, Pequod's Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn Ave., Chicago

The great Burt's Place may be gone now, but you can still consume part of its legacy. Our rental condo was conveniently perched right on the edge of Pequod's delivery area, so we were able to partake in Burt Katz's famous pan pizza one night (although you won't find his name anywhere on the website - ungrateful bastards), right down to the burnt cheese ring on the crust. Here's hoping Pequod's owners will come to their senses one day and rightfully credit the man who originally conceived their star dish.

Hook Breakfast Sandwich, Reno, 2607 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago

Just down the street from the hispster Longman & Eagle is the hipster coffee bar and pizzeria, Reno. If you like good bagels, show up when the doors open at 9am (better to serve their customers who've been out drinking the night before) and get the Hook breakfast sandwich, an amalgam of togarashi-cured lox, a schmear of artichoke cream cheese, cucumber, avocado, and red onion on a poppyseed bagel, a slightly-modern take on the ubiquitous lox and bagel combo that can be found on every convenience store counter in New York City - messy (don't try to take it on the subway), but tasty.

Pecan Sticky Bun and Belgian Buttermilk/Rye Waffle, Milktooth, 534 Virginia Ave., Indianapolis

We discovered on our ride back to Florida that hipsterism isn't limited to Chicago - apparently, the scourge has spread full force into the surrounding states as seen at Milktooth, which may very well be the Midwest's trendiest cafe in the trendy Fletcher Place neighborhood just south of downtown Indianapolis. Sure, the restaurant is in an old garage and, of course, our waitress had a yellow ski cap, and, yes, there was a pithy, confusing saying about tigers on a letter board in the foyer, and is that tatooed patron really wearing a bathrobe? (I half expected Zooey Deschanel to wander out of the kitchen playing a trombone), but here's the thing: Milktooth is also quite possibly the best breakfast place in the Midwest now that Ina Pinkney is retired. Chef Jonathan Brooks (one of Food & Wine's Top 10 Best New Chefs in 2015) has taken the diner concept of old and elevated it into the stratosphere, serving a pecan sticky bun (fuzzily pictured above) so gooey and supercharged that it must certainly contain some radioactive material, while the Belgian buttermilk and rye waffle (not pictured, with maple persimmon coulis, whipped marscapone, salted chocolate caramel, and macadamia nuts) belongs in the Breakfast Hall of Fame, although my kids still wouldn't touch it. For good measure, I included a photo of the local apple Dutch baby pancake topped with vanilla-rum parsnip puree, powdered sugar, and brown butter hazelnut dukkah, and I can say that if Chef Jonathan keeps this up, we'll be staying in Indy next Christmas and commuting the 3 hours to Chicago for family gatherings so we can get more sticky buns (I'll be sure to bring my bathrobe).

Slaw Dog, Nu-Way Weiners, Macon, GA

No trip through Georgia is complete without stopping in Macon for a Nu-Way Hot Dog Combo. The original diner in downtown Macon is still rebuilding from last year's fire, but you can swing by one of the other 8 locations in the greater Macon area (as we did) to get your fix. Now that we've had a couple of times to try them, I find myself partial to the slaw dog over the chili dog - either way, you'll leave the place satisfied and rarin' to go for another 6 hours in the car.

In case you're curious, I gained 8 pounds consuming this glorious bounty over a 10-day period and I'm currently working it off in January. Kickboxing, here I come...

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Shifting Directions and Apple Bread

Hello, dear readers - some of you may have taken notice of my dwindling output of postings over these last few months. The reasons for this are varied, but most of them can be traced back to the fact that I'm in a bit of a life transition phase at the moment. My kids have grown to the point where they no longer need my undivided attention most days and I've become aware (with some prodding from those close to me) that I need to identify a new path for myself, one that will alter my job title from stay-at-home parent to whatever it is that defines the next phase of my existence. Since I left the workforce 10 years ago, I have had some vague ideas regarding my future career that have remained mostly idle daydreamings, but I now realize that they must be sharpened and put into action lest the relentless passing of time eventually render them meaningless. I don't yet know exactly where I'm going to land, but, geographically speaking, my focus has shifted from Tampa to the St. Petersburg side of the bay as we're in the process of beginning to build our future home (due to complete in 2017) over on Snell Isle. If you continue to follow this blog, you'll probably notice more posts coming from Pinellas County, and they may be less of the traditional "here's where we went and here's what we ate - insert a few pictures" format and more reflective of my developing career arc. That may mean oral histories of beloved area dining institutions (possibly in conjunction with the local history museum - I've started volunteering there) or the in-depth examination of particular neighborhoods (I have a yet-to-be-named 49th Street project in my head) or research into the story behind local dishes, or perhaps none of these things (life, as you know, is a moving target). I still plan to document meals of note (we're going to Miami in February to eat at Alinea's pop-up there, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to blab about that), but I suspect the gaps in that sort of coverage will widen somewhat until the new enthusiasm kicks in. So, thanks in advance for your patience in waiting for me to figure out what I want this blog to become.

On that note, I present to you apple bread, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal on November 3, 2015 (see the recipe here). This recipe comes from a 1981 Junior League of Rochester, New York cookbook and was the perfect way for me to use up some old eggs and apples in the fridge, at the same time providing a tasty homemade dish for the progeny's piano recital reception. If you're like me and you decide to use sour cream instead of buttermilk, a word of caution: I omitted the baking soda and had to sweat it out during baking to see if my very-dense batter might actually rise at all without the benefit of any leavening agent (it did, but not much). Next time, I plan to mix the soda into the sour cream (or just bite the bullet and buy buttermilk) to get that "lift" into the final product. Happy baking and happy holidays!!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Northeast Ohio Eats - Revisited

Here at the Canteen, we are now in the middle of what can probably best be described as an "old-school" dining phase, whereby the missus and I have been visiting a number of classic, clubby, frozen-in-the-1980s restaurants lately. This has not been a conscious decision, mind you, nor has it been a negative experience by any stretch of the imagination; rather, I'm encouraged to see that there are proprietors out there who are able to successfully pull off mid/late-20th Century standard American cuisine (i.e., before everyone went farm-to-table cuckoo) in a modern atmosphere, even though these types of places are becoming a rarity. Case in point - while in Ohio for a wedding recently, we had the opportunity to return to an eatery that we very much enjoyed the first time around. Ken Stewart's Grille has been a dining stalwart in Akron since it opened in 1990 - my aunt and uncle (people who know a thing or two about good food and wine) brought Mrs. Hackknife and me here about 10 years ago, proclaiming it to be their favorite restaurant (and they still say that now).

KSG definitely isn't trying to be a proto-gasto-wonderland targeting millennials with fancy craft cocktails and bacon/Brussels sprout-laden small plates; rather, the crowd hums along to Sinatra while ordering another Manhattan and adjusting their hearing aids.  On a Thursday evening at 6, the dining room remained largely empty while Mrs. H and I sipped a pre-meal drink in the bar/lounge with a few other patrons and the Golf Channel on in the background.

Almost all of the appetizers on the dinner menu feature some kind of seafood. We dug in to a wonderful tuna tartare stack (consisting of avocado, marinated tuna chunks, and wonton crisps) with a schmear of sambal aioli to add some kick (do not adjust your monitor to remove the yellow haze - this really is how the lighting looked in the restaurant).

Nearly as tasty was my salad of field greens with candied nuts, figs, and a liberal topping of brie slices. This is more of the type of simple salad I'd be able to throw together on a weeknight at home in a pinch (and be perfectly happy consuming it).

Mrs. Hackknife will nearly always choose steak from a classic American dinner menu; however, I can't resist the urge to still try something local to the region I'm in. This pan-seared walleye (straight out of Lake Erie? Who knows?) came doused in a beurre blanc sauce and sported sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, scallions, and basil - I finished it down to the last bite.  We also ordered a basketful of the house's tarragon pomme frites, served shoestring-style and voluminous enough that there were leftovers.

Our server clued us in to the seasonal dessert special, a lusty pumpkin bread pudding a la mode with caramel sauce. Again, no gimmicks, just solid, delicious food served in a classy environment. Every town needs a Ken Stewart's to celebrate life's special occasions (or not-so-special occasions, like Thursday nights).

Although the reason for our Northeast Ohio trip this year was a family wedding, we try to come to this corner of the state at least annually to see relatives. Many times, we'll stop in at one of Youngstown's own Handel's Ice Cream stands, a hometown favorite in these parts since 1945. Handel's started out of a gas station back when the local steel mills were cranking out product for the war effort and have since expanded throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, out West (California and Nevada now), and even into Florida down by Bonita Springs (it's amazing what you can discover by looking at a website).

Handel's ice creams consistently appear on lists of the country's best (no joke - check out the line on a chilly November evening), and with over 100 flavors to select, the choice is not an easy one. I picked a cupful of Buckeye (a flavor created to support of the Ohio State football team) hoping that it would reflect some unique Ohio character that the Bonita Springs location couldn't duplicate; sadly, this wasn't the case, but the blend of peanut butter ice cream studded with big chunks of "buckeye" candies (really just chocolate-peanut butter cups) was mighty fine.

On our way back to Akron-Canton Airport at the end of the weekend, we had to make one last stop for some nourishment before the long return flight to Florida.  I'd both read and heard good things from the locals about Swensons Drive In, a true drive-in burger operation that started in these parts in 1934 and has grown to include 7 locations in and around Akron. I was told that the most famous item on the Swensons menu is a burger called the Galley Boy, two beef patties with American cheese, two sauces (mayo-onion and bbq), and a butter toasted bun, all for only $3.50. It just so happened that one of the Swensons locations is just down the street from the airport, so pop in we did.

My first impression was that the building housing the restaurant is surprisingly large for a place with no indoor seating (when they say "drive-in", they mean it quite literally). For service, patrons park and simply turn on their lights - almost instantly, a server appears rapid-fire style to take your order (apparently, speed and attentiveness are prized qualities amongst the staff).

In just a short minute or two, our Galley Boys arrived to the vehicle on an old-fashioned window tray. The burgers are minimalist (being neophytes, we didn't realize we could have ordered a number of extra condiments/garnishes - all for next time) and, although I wouldn't go as far as to proclaim them "America's best" (as a few have done), I can say they're head and shoulders above most (ed. note - the olive on a toothpick was originally outside the wrapper and repositioned by me to enhance the photo). The house onion rings were equally good, as was a butterscotch milkshake that my lovely wife ordered. My drink choice was something called a California, which was explained by our server to be a mixture of ginger ale and grape soda - not bad, but I don't need to have another for a while. Still, all told we had a great meal for approximately the same cost as one of those pedestrian snack boxes and a soda on the airline...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Coney Island Grill

Now that I'm spending more time in and around downtown St. Petersburg these days, I felt it was time to revisit the Tampa Bay Times's Best Hot Dogs in the Bay Area list from earlier this year and correct what I consider to be an egregious oversight; that is, I hadn't been to Coney Island Grill yet. CIG (side note - I'm pretty confident that the locals never refer to it in this fashion) has been located on a scruffy stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. (250 N., to be exact) since way back in 1926, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in Florida. Original owner Pete Barlas followed the lead of many other Greek immigrants coming to America at that time and opted to open a Detroit-style hot dog stand, topping the sausages with a chili sauce that sports a sizable ground meat component (likely beef trimmings and other less-desirable castoffs of the cow). Over the years, the neighborhood went from prosperous to less so and now back towards gentrification, but the grill has remained pretty much unchanged both inside and out.

Upon entering, I found the similarities between CIG and Chicago's dearly-departed Ramova Grill (1929-2012) to be uncannily close, down to the sparse menu, flattop grill (no fryers) near the front window, old-school refrigerator unit, waitstaff exchanging disapproving glances at strangers taking photos, and "we-don't-really-see-the-need-to-brighten-things-up" beige decor. Clearly, the subsequent owners (Pete's son, Hank, now deceased, and his son, Pete Barlas II, the current proprietor) are selling nostalgia as much as their chili and hot dogs (to great effect, I might add).

On my first visit, I stuck with the house specialty of chili dog (served with mustard and chopped onions, ketchup is a nickel extra) with a bowl of chili on the side. While the price was right ($2 for each), I can't say I was terribly impressed by either dish, both constructed more for plain sustenance than style. I discovered after the fact that you could add shredded cheese to your hot dog, which I did on Trip #2, not really noticing much of an improvement.

The real finds, however, are the chili burger and the chocolate milkshake. The burger arrived at my barstool thin and crispy after a good charring on the flattop, with the same toppings as the chili dog. At $3, it was well worth the extra buck. The milkshake is one of the most expensive things on the menu (except for the BLT, which I'm told is also a must-try), but still a smooth, rich, happy tummy bargain at $3.45. If you want a better hot dog, you need look no further than across the street and down the block to the newly open Chi-Town Beefs and Dogs (to be featured in a future posting), but diners seeking a great chili burger with a dose of time capsule will be perfectly content with Coney Island Grill...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Marker 39

With Cub Scout activities in full swing and our new ownership of a property in St. Petersburg (of which I will be taking on the role of slumlord), I have come dangerously close to experiencing my first missed month of posting since this blog's inception. I am just able to sneak in under the wire here, however, a few short days before the arrival of Halloween and the 1st of November. Mrs. Hackknife and I have recently discovered a gem of a restaurant tucked away on a quiet street in downtown Safety Harbor, until now best known as the place where we go to church, but quickly becoming a local hub for great dining experiences. While wandering down 2nd Street N. one evening looking for pizza (that would be Pizzeria Gregario, another noteworthy joint that will appear in these pages sometime in the near future), we happened across Marker 39 (which happens to be Sunshine Key on the Overseas Highway in case anyone's curious) and its quaint-looking shack done up in vibrant tropical colors. After a once-over of the menu, we opted to stop in here instead and were immediately gratified by our decision.

Chef Justin Murphy is a skilled practitioner of Florida's famous Fusion (or as he calls it, "Floribbean") cuisine, a melding of Latin, Caribbean, and Floridian influences with a touch of Asian and African thrown in for good measure. He learned his craft at the hands of several Fusion masters, including Norm Van Aken (one of our favorite chefs) and Michael Schwartz, putting in some time with Jose Andres (another of our favorites) as well, building up an impressive resume in some of the most well-respected kitchens on Florida's Atlantic Coast. According to the natives, Marker 39 is packed on weekends, but seems to be lightly visited during the week - on our first sojourn (a Thursday night), there were only 2 tables occupied besides ours, while we were the sole diners on a recent Wednesday evening. This, of course, was not an issue as we were grateful to have the extra attention from the waitstaff.

What you see below is the only dish that the missus and I ordered both times - a traditional Florida smoked fish dip served with BBQ potato chips (paired here with a Toasted Coconut Porter from Orlando's Orange Blossom Brewery). Having now tried about five different versions of this dip since we relocated to Tampa, I'd say this one is probably the best we've encountered, meaty and rich.

We went crazy with the small plate offerings on the menu, each one as impressive as the last. Not pictured is the house "pappas rellenos", mashed potato balls stuffed with chorizo and fried to a crisp exterior, served with sriracha mayo and charred tomato salsa. These put to shame the similar (but mega-sized) fried potato ball I'd had at Brocato's not long ago. We also enjoyed the roasted plantain-stuffed crab cakes (with greens, mango mustard, and plantain chips), a nice tropical twist on a Northeast favorite. One dish I did manage to photograph was the Bahamanian conch wonton you see below, served on a bed of tasty greens and sauces.

Another home run was the cornmeal-crusted Gulf oysters, pictured here with a kicked-up pasilla pepper and corn relish, roasted poblano pepper remoulade, and more greens, making us feel good about how healthy we were eating all this time.

Our only foray into entrees was equally impressive. Chef Justin's Cuban Pork Crisis features mojo-marinated and slow-roasted pork with pickled onion, black beans, maduro plantains, queso blanco, and jasmati rice, a party of flavors and textures that Mrs. H and I fought over until the last morsel was gone. Even the desserts didn't disappoint, including a bacon-topped doughnut that was consumed faster than the camera shutter could capture it and a Key lime ice cream sundae with a guava sauce, toasted almonds, and a fritter thrown in for good measure (see below).

After 2 trips, I'm of the mindset that there is no bad dish on the Marker 39 menu, leaving me quite anxious to return for some further exploration. Maybe someday we'll make it over to the nearby pizzeria, but only if we approach it from a different direction...