* Photo of Fort De Soto above
Two “Out-of-town modern foodie explorer” questions came to mind on this trip to Florida, make that three:
- Is having family or friends to act as your local foodie-filter tour guides the best way for a foodie to travel when out-of-town?
- Can the internet as your tour guide replace relatives and friends by acting as your local foodie-filter when out-of-town?
- Or are the above both a disadvantage to your ability to make new discoveries of your own, in the name of adventure?
I’m going to keep score for each question above and see which one wins out with our recent trip to Florida to see relatives. All of the places we dined are in the Clearwater and St. Petersburg area, I believe they are all in Pinellas County, FL in the Tampa Bay Area or very close.
3 Points for Question #1:
- Greek Salad with Potato Salad on the bottom – Louis Pappas Famous Greek salad was the original salad we were introduced to by our cousins nearly twenty-five years ago, in Clearwater (it seems to be franchised now, with locations in Tampa too), at Pappa’s restaurant. This trip was the first time that I actually questioned why this Greek Salad has potato salad on the bottom (as opposed to every other Greek Salad I have eaten) and if it was specific to Greek Salad in Florida, specific to only the Tampa Bay, FL Area, or adapted from a certain region in Greece. When I started exploring this online, I found that local Tampa Bay area folks commented that all Greek Salad has potato salad in it and that all other Americans, outside of this region, commented that they had never heard of potatoes in Greek Salad before in their life. I got to the bottom of it and it turns out that Louis M. Pappamichalopoulos (original owner and founder of Pappa’s Restaurant), who arrived from Greece in the early 1900’s worked as an Army Chef and needed to sustain his troops and so he added potato salad to his Greek Salad. When he returned from the war he opened up a Greek restaurant in Tarpon Springs, FL, a very Greek Fish-town community just up the coast a bit from Clearwater. In the story on Pappa’s website it says that this version of Greek Salad soon became commonplace at the local Greek restaurants in Tarpon Springs, FL (and soon after, all over, just, the Tampa Bay Area). There is a discussion about this on a Serious Eats thread titled, “Potatoes in a Greek Salad?”
- Tarpon Springs, FL – Greek Restaurants on the Sponge Docks – We never knew about Tarpon Springs, a thriving Greek community on the Gulf coast since the 1890’s, just up from our cousin’s in Clearwater, until a new cousin-in-law told us of her love of the soaps she buys on Dodecanese Avenue in the Sponge Dock District for relatives at Christmas. This trip we finally ventured up to Tarpon Springs and found it to have a really interesting local Greek heritage, unique to the area. I stopped in at a little Greek Market and saw two elderly Greek men chatting in Greek while they waited for the rain to let up. We were then completely sold with the Chocolate Covered Baklava from Hella’s Restaurant & Bakery. Our cousin said later that it is the best bakery in town and so did yelp as a matter of fact. Next time, we will stay and try the food at Hella’s. Wait a minute, Hella’s? Is Hella’s, Hella Good? Sorry, I mean Hecka Good?
- Lenny’s Restaurant – Clearwater, FL – Lenny’s is kind of like a New York Deli or Diner in the south (they do have Pastrami and Knishes). It is the official restaurant of the Philly’s when they are in town for spring training (even when they aren’t it seems with the elaborate window murals on the outside of Lenny’s). We usually go to Lenny’s when we’re down FL in order to visit old friends who actually have a menu item named after them. The “Walter and Georgia” is something you can only order if you are a senior. Lenny’s gives you baskets of Danish when you order breakfast. John gets the Scrapple! I like the lunch sides that include bowls of things like pickles, slaw, etc.. They also used to have these brilliant wooden, handmade magnets of “Lenny”. We wanted to buy one this time, but the man who made them had passed away.
2 Points for Question #2:
- Dunedin House of Beer - Dunedin, FL – We found Dunedin HOB online on DRAFT Magazine’s “America’s 100 Best Beer Bars 2011.” So we have to give credit to the internet for this find and a bit of credit to cousin Rob for the buy one get one free coupon. Now, every time we go on trips to visit family or friends, we check the 100 Best Beer Bars list to see what’s around, this can even make family trips bearable. Dunedin HOB has a great selection of over forty beers on draft and alligator jerky on the chalkboard for a snack. The atmosphere looks like a mix-n-match, frat house setting on the inside (maybe they just acquired the building next door and they are adding on). It does have a back patio and some tables out front too. The bar tenders were really nice and gave us a great idea for dinner in Dunedin at Sam’s Seafood (see below). The Florida Beer Company had local beers on draft that were something unique. They also had about 3-4 different wheat beers with flavors like blueberry, apricot, and tangerine. Oldsmar is the other beer bar location that we didn’t get to this trip!
- The Floridian – Authentic Cuban Sandwiches, Treasure Island, FL – The Floridian is a good place near the beach at Treasure Island (on your way to St. Pete) to get a Cuban Sandwich. We discovered the Floridian online because it was voted the best of the best in a few sources. The Cuban Sandwich was a staple for Cuban Immigrants in Tampa, Florida where the sandwich was first served in the USA in Ybor City in Tampa, FL. The Cuban sandwich was served to the workers in the Cigar factories around 1900 in Tampa, before it became popular in Miami (and later in NYC). The Cuban has ham, spiced pork, salami, swiss cheese, dill pickles, a yellow mustard and mayo-mix, on Cuban bread. The sandwiches are then pressed (or grilled in a Panini-type of sandwich grill) to melt the cheese and make the bread flat and crispy. Then get an order of the Floridian Bean Soup that consists of navy beans, ham, pork, Chorizo, garlic, and collard greens. Another interesting local bite you can try at the Floridian is the Devil Crab, a breaded deep fried dough roll with seasoned blue crab inside “A Tampa Thing.” After going to the Floridian at over-built Treasure Island you can keep driving south towards St. Pete and you’ll get to a great, undeveloped beach called Fort De Soto Park (pictured at top), a Park with over three miles of white sand beaches and camping spots.
2 Points for Question #3:
- Sam’s Fresh Seafood, Dunedin, FL – This point has to go to discovery. We asked the bartender as Dunedin House of Beers (woman with the tattoos) where to eat and she said that across the street they have the best Bacon-Crusted Catfish you will ever eat and that you won’t be able to get Catfish anywhere else after you have had Sam’s. When I just searched for a seafood restaurant on Broadway in Dunedin it took about three searches to find the name of the restaurant, Sam’s Seafood. I have to say Floridians are not on the Yelp circuit. This can make it a bit hard to find the best or most popular local spots. Hell, Sam’s Bacon Encrusted Catfish may have not shown up anyways, but thanks to discovery, we found it. Boy was it good. We got cheese grits and baked beans on the side. John had the Blackened Grouper Sandwich. But I have to say the best Grouper Sandwich is at Frenchy’s on Clearwater Beach.
- Grand Central District St. Petersburg, FL on Central Avenue – Central Avenue is a street in St. Pete that is now being developed with independent galleries and more, avante-garde shops, antique stores and restaurants. I asked a funky dressed girl at a party our cousins took us to in St. Pete about what happened to the Mid-Century modern furniture shops and record stores in St. Pete that I had found last time I was down on a trip to the Dali Museum (now, a new building that is supposed to be wonderful). She told me about Central Avenue. I was so pleasantly surprised to find some great galleries and unique clothing and jewelry stores. One of the greatest places was the newly opened, Sweat Shop. The owner, Raven Reda, is a punk fashion designer and was so outgoing, fresh and just plain charming. To me, there is something really enchanting about St. Pete (and not the clubby, frat-boy scene). I like the older homes and neighborhoods that look like island homes in a sense. It actually reminds me of a Detroit on the water which may not sound appealing to most but we went to art school in Detroit and absolutely loved it. I think it is the feeling of potential for young people to shape the future of a once bustling place. There is a funky, young artsy-crowd coupled with the mid-century or kitschy leftovers from older folks who move down to FL where their belongings are seeming to eventually find a place in the hands of young folks like myself (who like the humor and nostalgia in some of those objects from the past).
Local Foodie Guide + the Internet + Discovery:
OK, so having a local foodie guide wins. BUT … if you combine all of three of the above, you will find perfection in your travels. Just don’t be afraid to go with the flow, be out-going and go off the beaten path by talking to locals with your smart phone in one hand, and your personal, local tour guide in the other.
*P.S. Thanks to cousin Mike, who has a lot of seafood restaurant experience, we were updated on the quality of a restaurant’s fryer by the color and taste of our deep fried foods. When the food is very dark, it means they haven’t changed or cleaned their fryer in a few days – depending on the quantity of food they make – and your food can also taste like other foods that are deep fried in the same fryer when the oil isn’t freshly changed. Thanks to his investigative eye our food was mostly all good!