Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Neighborfood - SoHo
While trolling local restaurant websites recently (these are the things I do for fun), I stumbled across an entity hitherto unknown to me called Dishcrawl, a San Francisco-based organization that employs "ambassadors" in various cities across the U.S. and Canada to set up dining events for enthusiastic gastronomes. Near as I can tell, two different events are typically offered: one involving 4 restaurants in a given evening (the "Dishcrawl") and a second, longer variant that covers a larger geographic area and goes by the name "Neighborfood", a visit to 8 dining establishments in one stretch. Quickly realizing that I've already been doing my own rendition of these in Chicago and other places while on vacation, I excitedly informed Mrs. Hackknife that we'd be attending the next Tampa Dishcrawl event, which was a Neighborfood tour of a food-heavy stretch of South Howard Street (or "SoHo" to locals), just west of downtown.
By 1:45p on a recent Sunday, the missus and I were parked just outside of Hugo's Spanish Restaurant (931 S. Howard), our meeting point for the tour. Hugo's is normally closed on Sundays, but they had graciously agreed to host the group as we began our dining itinerary with a small version of the house Cuban sandwich. It's been a few months since I wrote about the Cuban, so I'll recap - the most common version includes ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on fresh Cuban bread (similar to a baguette, except baked with a little lard in honor of our dear friend, the pig). Hugo's Cuban was served cold instead of toasted (not sure if there's an "official" prep - I've seen it both ways) and I can now say that I think I prefer mine to be hot, so as to have crunchy bread and gooey cheese. The next stop was literally right next door at Tate's Pizza (927 S. Howard), a small, nondescript Italian joint run by 3 rail-thin proprietors who must have unnaturally-strong metabolisms (no joke - I suspect a strong gust of wind might topple them all). What they lack in weight they make up for in enthusiasm (very gracious and welcoming hosts) and prowess in the kitchen, as the house chicken wings were terrific, a perfectly balanced blend of sweet and heat in a tasty little package. Just as good was the thin crust pizza they brought out - my favorite was the Ruskin, a pie featuring olive oil instead of tomato sauce, topped with garlic, tomato, and unspecified "special seasonings". Since this was only Stop 2 of 8, I had to restrain myself from filling up on extra pizza and wings.
Trying to stay on schedule, our chaperones herded us out of Tate's after only about 10 minutes for our third destination, Green Lemon (915 S. Howard), a modern Mexican restaurant that reminded me of Chicago's Frontera Grill (although a bit hipper) or Big Star (with less whiskey and a wider menu). Unlike Hugo's, GL is alive and vibrant on Sunday afternoons, catering to a late-waking crowd seeking to shake off last night's excesses with huevos, tacos, and, for the braver souls, the occasional tequila flight (I also noticed a number of patrons sipping margarita glasses containing upturned beer bottles - not sure what that's all about). We were each served a gigante chicken taco, avocado-glazed buffalo chicken pieces with crispy onions, julienne jalapeno peppers/celery, blue cheese crumbles, and a lime Caesar dressing. Potent as it sounds, I was able to take a little of the edge off with a house margarita (sans beer bottle - see photo below).
Pressing onward, our motley group of gourmands reversed course a bit, heading back south down Howard Street and left on Morrison until we reached the Tiny Tap (2105 W. Morrison - no website, God bless 'em), not really a dining destination per se (unless you consider bbq chips haute cuisine); however, the owners were kind enough to allow Wimauma Restaurant (4205 MacDill Ave. S., new website pending) to set up a mobile catering station on top of one of the pool tables for Dishcrawl. In and of itself, Tiny Tap is a mandatory pit stop for any bon vivant, serving beer/wine to generations of Tampadres (since the 1930s, I'm told) and as quintessential a dive bar as you'll ever find (see photo below), right down to the year-round Xmas lights and a dog randomly wandering between tables.
Given the tavern's location (across the street from SideBern's and not far from its parent steakhouse, Bern's), it's become something of a second home for chefs and waitstaff looking to blow off steam post-shift, in turn serving as a place to network for jobs in the restaurant trade (indeed, Wimauma's owner Beth told us her husband, the head chef, hired a cook in the parking lot after he'd dropped off food for our tour). Speaking of the food, Wimauma had two dishes for us: pulled pork sandwiches with cole slaw and a beer cheese dip chock full of smoked sausage, scallions, potatoes, and who knows what else. The dip had a consistency somewhere between soup and spread, inflicting enough joy on my tastebuds for me to go back for seconds.
At this point, we had reached the long slog of the food jaunt, walking north about 7 blocks past many watering holes with outdoor patios (all of them hosting large hordes of patrons downing liquid refreshments) until we reached Mangroves (208 S. Howard). More swanky nightclub than restaurant (at this point in my life, I'm quite sure I'll never find myself on the premises after 6pm), Mangroves bills itself as a bastion of new American cuisine that also offers an impressive brunch menu. The chef prepared for us a surprisingly good french toast infused with Grand Marnier and some truffled scrambled eggs topped with mini-caviar that knocked my socks off, clearly the best thing I'd eaten all afternoon. From there, it was a short jog back southward to Ribit's BBQ (401 S. Howard), a smokehouse emporium built into an old gas station (see photo below).
As far as BBQ, Ribit's sprays to all fields, offering pulled pork, brisket, ribs, smoked sausage, chicken, and even Cajun food on weekends. While the geographic reach (covering Texas to the Carolinas) is admirable, they may be stretching themselves a little thin in trying to please all possible barbecue afficionados. I found the pork rib combined with the sweet sauce (available in the industrial-sized coolers you see below) to be decent, but not particularly standout (or it could have been the fact that my judgment was starting to be clouded by food overload).
Just 2 stops to go. First up was Meaner Weiner (500 S. Howard - no website), a hot dog and burger joint run by a friendly gentleman who confided to us that he'd spent some time running a similar stand in Chicago. Among his more intriguing menu items were hand-cut garlic parmesan fries (delicious), a traditional Chicago dog (even including a Vienna Beef weiner, neon green relish, and celery salt - sadly, we didn't get to sample it this time), an Italian beef sandwich (ditto), and a Coney dog with chili that was distributed to our group (see photo below). I was only able to enjoy a bite or two of this before having to step off.
Last, but not least, on our tour was dessert in the form of tiny gourmet cupcakes from Frostings Etc. (500 S. Howard, same strip mall), who gave us little Chinese food containers containing a chocolate chip cookie dough and a banana cupcake. Although I really wanted to do it, I couldn't consume another bite and decided to save our cupcakes for the progeny, who greatly appreciated the leftovers we tossed their way.
All things considered, I have to say that the Neighborfood concept really delivered bang for our dining bucks and I expect that we'll be attending another Dishcrawl event in the not-so-near-future...