Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish

When Chicago food writer Michael Gebert came to visit the Tampa Bay area earlier this year, he had just a handful of restaurants on his list to visit and ultimately designated only one of them as a "must-stop" destination; that is, Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, located out on the further reaches of the St. Petersburg peninsula (1350 Pasadena Avenue S. in South Pasadena, which reads a bit like a palindrome). The "famous" moniker in the name is earned, by the way - there aren't a lot of dining establishments in this town that can be considered institutions, but Ted Peters is definitely one of them. Open since 1951 in its current location, its namesake founder capitalized on the postwar wave of prosperity and tourism by offering up a slice of Floridicana to hungry beach visitors in the form of smoked fish, using techniques he'd learned while working at a nearby fish camp in the 30s. The 4th and 5th generation of family members is now running the place and, 60+ years in, their fare is still popular as ever. TPFSF has been near the top of my own to-dine list ever since we moved here, and the perfect opportunity to stop in finally presented itself as we were passing through the area at dinnertime on the way home from a weekend in Ft. Myers Beach.

The Gulf of Mexico isn't far away (maybe a mile?), but you wouldn't be able to tell that from the parcel of property on which TPFSF is perched - it's all pavement and squat buildings on a heavy retail strip of Pasadena Avenue. If waterside dining is what you're after, I'd say check back in about 100 years when sea levels have risen accordingly. Anyway, other than a fresh coat of chocolate brown paint and some new blacktop over the years, the family compound appears to be largely unchanged since its inception. Patrons can eat inside a small dining room (featuring refrigerated air "during the warmer summer months" as they say) or take advantage of the temperate climate and eat outside under canopy (we chose the latter).

As I stated before, smoked fish is the house specialty (in fact, there's not much else on the menu). The placemats helpfully describe the smoking process, which takes place in wooden cabinets housed next door in a smokehouse. Raw fish are butterflied lengthwise and laid flat into the cabinets, where they're cooked for 4 to 6 hours over smoldering red oak coals.

We'd have been remiss if we didn't begin the meal with a hearty helping of the house fish spread and we weren't disappointed. A giant scoop of the spread (think of the meatiest tuna salad you've ever tried and you'll be in the ballpark) was served in a bowl with enough crackers to feed an army. The kids ate the crackers while the adults did their best to polish off the spread (a cold mug of Miller High Life helped to wash it down). When the Smithsonian is ready to open its national food court (hmmm...that's an idea), there should be a Congressional inquiry if the fish spread doesn't come from here.

For entrees, Mrs. Hackknife ordered the mackerel dinner and I tried the mullet (the progeny ordered burgers and hot dogs - I was actually surprised at the number of customers with burgers). What arrived at the table was two massive plates of ruddy fish (bones included, by the way) with healthy-portioned sides of German potato salad, Cole slaw, pickle, tomato slice, and lemon, probably more food than we could eat in two sittings. I enjoyed both of the fishes (Mrs. H let me sample hers), which were surprisingly mild and subtly smoky, if not a little on the dry side (next time, I think I'll go for the fattier salmon). The slightly warm potato salad (family recipe, of course) was terrific and the Cole slaw wasn't bad, either. All told, the grub here isn't exactly the most highfalutin in town, but the combination of retro-ambiance and unique seafood make it a quintessential Florida experience...

Thursday, May 14, 2015


When you consider Tampa area restaurant dynasties, there really are only two that immediately come to mind: the Laxlers (of Bern's, Elevage, and Haven Wine Bar fame) and the Hernandez/Gonzmarts (of the Columbia Restaurant Group). While the Laxlers have taken steps to surf the foodie wave that's swamped the nation over the past decade (opening both SideBern's and the Epicurian Hotel complex), the Hernandez/Gonzmart crew remained largely stagnant, instead relying on expansion of their historic namesake property (Columbia in Ybor City) to other parts of Florida (for example, the family and I dined at a Columbia in Orlando recently); that is, until last year. As part of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's initiative to revitalize the riverside neighborhood of Tampa Heights (just north of downtown and I-275), the Columbia folks signed on to transform the historic Water Works Building (built in 1906, but largely derelict since the 1970s) into a modern restaurant. This section of the city had long been ripe for gentrification, some of which had even begun before the economic downturn landed a good chunk of it in insolvency. Now, the restaurant (named Ulele after a 16th-Century Indian princess that allegedly saved the life of a captured Spanish explorer) was to anchor the new development, including a splash park, boat launch, performance stage, extended riverwalk, and natural spring (more on that in a bit). Nearby amenities aside, Ulele (pronounced "you-lay-lee" was hotly anticipated by the local press as a dining destination, featuring a giant wood-fired grill (plopped in the middle of the dining room) for grilling steaks and oysters, an on-site brewery using water from the spring next door, and a menu emphasizing native Floridian cuisine. As of this date, dinner reservations are still difficult to come by (a problem not normally encountered in this town); however, the missus and I were intrigued enough by the buzz to grab a very early supper there one recent Friday night to see if the hype was warranted.

When arriving street-side to 1810 N. Highland Avenue (this is the way you will approach the property unless you're on the riverwalk or in a boat), the view overlooking the restored building and parkland towards the river is nothing less than stunning. Similar comments can be made about the restaurant itself - the Gonzmarts spared no expense during the renovation, utilizing historic brick, wood, and glass (the windows alone allegedly cost a small fortune) to create a legacy for the family's next generation. A quick walk around the exterior leads to the now-revitalized spring, which has enough of its own history to fill a book. Pumping 80,000 gallons of water per day into the Hillsborough River (a mere 50 feet or so away), the water and its attendant wildlife sustained generations of Native Americans and provided pioneer Tampanians with drinking water. Eventually, a recreational pond and (later) industrial concerns entombed the spring (then called Magbee Spring, named after a local circuit court judge from the 1870s who apparently was more famous for his drinking exploits than his accomplishments from the bench), where it remained more or less forgotten until its recent rechristening as "Ulele Spring" to honor its native heritage.

Our reservation was for 4:45pm, and while there were plenty of empty tables at that time of day, there was also a large number of patrons waiting for attention, along with a vague vibe of "we're too cool to seat you right now, so just wait until we're ready" from the primped and aloof hostesses. At around 5, we were finally led upstairs to our table in the mezzanine, the sole patrons up there save for one other party (why the wait then? No idea...). As with most farm-to-table operations these days, cocktails and craft beer (in this case, brewed in the warehouse next door) are a large part of the experience, so I partook in a very refreshing mojito to start, followed by a glass of the house Magbee's Honey Lager (which was just ok). A review of the menu revealed a number of "native-inspired" dishes as they call them here, a less-risky marketing ploy by the Gonzmarts to have a casual tie-in to old Floridian cuisine rather than a more rigid interpretation of Cracker recipes like one might find at Fodder & Shine (after all, there's not much popular demand for hardtack). Right away, the charbroiled oysters (with grated Parmesan/Romano and garlic butter) and the alligator hush puppies (alligator meat, duck bacon, country ham, corn, and jalapeno, served with horseradish aioli and honey datil pepper dipping sauce) jumped out at us - both were rich and delicious.

We were equally pleased with our salad course, a vibrant dish of roasted beet, balsamic-charred red onion, and saffron-poached pear, perched on a riot of color in the form of blackberry honey gastrique, plus watercress, whipped goat cheese, and toasted almonds. This was one of the better salads I'd had in recent memory and the kitchen was kind enough to divide it onto two plates for us. So far, the food was definitely living up to the lofty atmosphere.

Unfortunately, things started going off the rails when the entrees arrived. The brontosaurus-sized pork shank I ordered (1.5 lb of crispy pork roasted on the wood grill and garnished with firecracker apple raisin chutney) certainly drew envious glances from surrounding patrons, but had very little flavor depth (thank goodness for the chutney, I say). Mrs. Hackknife had a similar opinion of her cast iron-seared tuna steak, which sounded great (pumpkin seed crust and ginger soy grapefruit reduction) and tasted just average for the $27 it set us back. I did a casual survey of entrees at other tables and found pretty much the same pattern repeated over and over; that is, large wood-fired protein atop a massive mound of garlic mashed potatoes (while good, I couldn't have eaten all of them in three sittings) or rice and a few token vegetables (like 4 whole asparagus spears).

Dessert was a slight improvement, yet still left us wanting a bit more. Our server had talked up how tremendous the candied duck bacon maple fried ice cream was (you certainly can't beat the description), a concoction of vanilla ice cream coated in cinnamon corn flakes and candied duck bacon, lightly fried, then plopped onto a Knob Creek Bourbon creme anglaise/caramel sauce and served with a sweet potato waffle crisp and a protruding slab of said duck bacon. Looks right, sounds right, tastes, well, not as awesome as all that.

It's a shame that the meal didn't quite live up to the hoopla of its resident history and surroundings. At the end of the day, our first experience at Ulele reminds us of our experiences at their other restaurant, Columbia - there's a terrific backstory and structure, it's a fun place to dine with a large group, your relatives will love the food, but they're not exactly a temple of high gastronomy (even though that appears to be a goal here). I'm aware that the Gonzmarts have sunk a lot of capital into this venture and both the family and the city have a lot riding on its success - given the crowds, I suspect that they'll hit their targets and Tampa Heights as a whole will be buoyed by the rising tide (indeed, the old trolley building/armature works next door is being renovated into something big). I think it's admirable what they've done and the complex is clearly a civic benefit, I just hope that the food can someday inhabit the same strata...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Loli's Mexican Cravings

I have to say that I've been on something of a taco kick lately. It all started a few months ago when we stumbled across Senor Taco in Pinellas Park and indulged in their decadent, Yucatecan-inflected fare, which was soon followed by a visit to Taqueria Acapulco in Tampa, a more authentic experience with actual abuelas behind the counter cranking out tortillas and carne asada. Now comes my latest encounter (courtesy of both my wife and FOB Eric R.) at Loli's Mexican Cravings, a ramshackle diner located on a scruffy stretch of Benjamin Road (8005 Benjamin, to be precise) in a largely undeveloped corner of Tampa's Town & Country neighborhood.

Unless you happened to be seeking Loli's out, you probably wouldn't find it. The restaurant (which appears to have been a house and/or small office at one time before opening in August 2014) shares its property with a granite/marble warehouse and features a Country Inn & Suites, a WaWa convenience mart, and a vacant lot (discarded office furniture provided at no extra charge) as neighbors. When walking over from your impromptu parking spot in said vacant lot (the small vehicle area next to the building is almost always full), you can wave to commercial jet pilots on landing approach to Runway 19R at TPA.

Takeout is primarily the way to go here as indoor seating space is limited (there are maybe 6 tables to accommodate the ample lunch crowd). Although there'll likely be an ordering line out the front door if you arrive between 11:30am and 1:30p, the Loli's crew is pretty efficient - on both of my crowded visits, I waited less than 10 minutes for my food.

Owners Josue and Maria Garcia appear to rely on a strategy of limited size menu that emphasizes technique and ingredient quality (for example, I saw one of the staff hand-making flour tortillas even during lunch rush - no prefab here). Diners can choose from about 10 different fillings (mostly meat and fish) presented in either taco, quesadilla, or sope form. They also offer a few varieties of tamales (Thursday through Saturday only) and tortas - that's about it. For my first order (see above), I opted for a shrimp taco, a chile relleno tamale, and a campechano (mixed grill) taco, plus a medium jamaica (hibiscus) drink to wash everything down. Back in my car, after applying a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a touch of dark chipotle salsa to my quarry, I dug in and was instantly pleased. The house shrimp is marinated, not fried, and served with a handful of shredded cabbage for contrast, while the mixed grill taco included mostly marinated cubed steak with hearty chunks of tomato, avocado, and onion. And, yes, the chile relleno tamale was as tasty as it was unique (I can't recall ever seeing one of these before).

Visit No. 2 was just as successful. This time, I tried a carnitas (shredded pork) sope, featuring an open-faced, thick and crunchy tortilla topped with a healthy-sized mound of refried beans, meat, lettuce, sliced avocado, queso blanco, and sour cream (eaten at home, I might add - no way this was going to be consumed in a vehicle), messy and filling in equal measures, and all for only $3.

Of course, there were also more tacos (plus a horchata), including fish (lightly breaded with cabbage and pico de gallo) and my personal favorite, lengue (beef tongue) with onions and cilantro. While I still have a slight preference for the fish tacos at California Tacos to Go, I had no issues at all with these.

Clearly, Loli's has established its bona fides as a taco force to be reckoned with in the Tampa Bay area, and at only a 15-minute drive from the Canteen, I daresay they have earned their status as my new go-to taco joint whenever the espiritu moves me...