Cuban Nuances in Tampa’s New Generation of Restaurants


Ulele restaurant

Senor Castro may have left this world, but the intrigue and influence of the Cuban culture is still alive and well in Tampa, a historic Cuban cigar-making town since the 1880s. Ybor City is the Cuban foodie epicenter with such historic, landmark restaurants as the original Columbia Restaurant, La Tropicana, Carmine’s, and La Segunda Central Bakery.

But Cubano foodways are not confined to Tampa’s Latin district. Cuba and its Spanish abuela insinuate themselves into most menus, even the newest, finest, and most progressive. Besides the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich that everyone claims bragging rights to, you’ll see and taste the influence in dishes from ramen to ice cream.

I was recently engaged in a mission to sample and write about six of Tampa’s most up-and-coming restaurants. There I found delightful ways that Cuban cuisine had purposely or unknowingly creeped into the chef’s head.

In the case of Ichicoro Ramen, the fusion is intentional. The roast pork asado in its Tonkotsu ramen bowl takes cues from Cuban pork mojo. If that’s not evident enough, consider the CuBaoNo – a not-so-subtle nod to the Cuban sandwich in an Asian bun. “This is Tampa,” says manager Eric. “Our Asian fusion has to incorporate that tradition.”


Tonkotsu ramen

Oxford Exchange, just off downtown Tampa near the university, may emulate a British club, but there’s jolty Spanish cortado (similar to café con leche) beside sthe tea sommelier’s menu.


Coffee at Oxford Exchange

It was less of a surprise to find tostones – albeit breadfruit tostones rather than plantain – at Seminole Heights’ darling Rooster & the Till. Considering that Chef Farrell Alvarez has Colombian roots, Latin influence is expected. It came with the crisp chicken thigh and yuzu habanero kosho the night I dined.

Also no big surprise at Ulele, one of the latest brainchildren from Columbia Restaurant dynasty kingpin Richard Gonzart. Although the culinary concept is defined as native American, the Naviaera Espresso Chocolate Swirl Ice Cream uses a coffee blend straight from Ybor City.

A native Tampan, Chef Jeannie Pierola has reached semifinalist status four times in the James Beard competition and was recently a guest chef at the Beard House. Her latest edison: food+drink lab near downtown draws on influences from here to Cyprus. The paella negra on the dinner menu the day I visited draws on strong Spanish tradition with a few of Chef Jeannie’s trademark twists such as squid ink rice, saffron uni foam, and piquillo pepper jam.

Chef Greg Baker at Fodder & Shine had me stumped. He professes strict Southern cuisine (with his own interpretations), and whereas I expected Florida Cuban influence to show up, it took a while to find it. There it is! On the Cornmeal Cake Sandwich, topped with killer collard greens, tomato, green pepper, scallion, and cayenne vinegar slaw. And served on – tada! La Segunda Cuban bread.


10 Best Family Restaurants in Vero Beach

  1. Cravings: A custom fit for families with kids of all ages, it satisfies cravings for everything from homemade ice cream and yummy bakery goods to soup from scratch, made-to-order sandwiches and salads, and vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. Guests order at the counter and usually take a seat on the patio, or carry their meal across the street to beachside Humiston Park. The kiddy menu offers grilled cheese, PB&J, and other sandwiches with chips, milk or juice, and cookie or apples for  $6.95.
  2. CRAVINGS2_1

    Shelves full of goodies at Cravings

    Casey’s Place: Not far off Ocean Drive on the beach, this affordable burger stand goes far beyond the usual with breakfast dishes, hot and cold deli sandwiches, salads, and kids meals. A number of sturdy tables beneath umbrellas accommodate guests, but they often fill up in the early afternoon.

  3. Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill: Grab a table overlooking the beach for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The food is good and the service friendly. Sandwiches, pasta, fried fish nuggets, seafood, and steaks please everyone in the family. Thursday is Family Fun Night from 5 to 8 p.m. with balloons, face painting, and kids meal specials.


    Family dining with a killer view at Mulligan’s

  4. Mr. Manatee’s: Kids love the manatee wearing shades on the signs, the waterfront location, and the ring toss game outside in the waiting area. The children’s menu has games to play and $5 kids meals such as fish fingers and pasta.
  5. Mrs. Mac’s Fillin’ Station: Parents and grandparents will appreciate the nostalgic diner feel and service station memorabilia. Kids too will get a kick out of the car motif. They can choose from the “Rumble Seats” section of the menu, which lists such favorites as chicken with mac ‘n’ cheese, Fluffer-Nutter sandwich, and corn dog. The extensive menu covers everything from burgers (which come with popcorn) to salads, plus breakfast items.


    Courtyard dining at Osceola Bistro

  6. Osceola Bistro: If you are touring downtown’s attractions and shops, plan for a nice meal at this foodie favorite. Parents and kids can all be happy in either the lush outdoor courtyard or indoors’ modern setting. The kitchen goes to great lengths to provide new American dishes with creative, homemade touches. Take for instance the house pickles, fingerling potato salad, and horseradish crème fraiche with the short rib sandwich. The kids menu considerately offers a choice of salad or vegetables instead of fries.
  7. The Lemon Tree: A bright, cheery décor makes this a happy place. Particularly popular for breakfast (served until 2:30 p.m.), it also serves lunch in the thick of island activity near Humiston Park. The pancakes are especially tasty. Soups, salads, sandwiches, chicken pot pie, quiche, and seafood appear on the lunch menu, which devotes one section of four meals for kids.
  8. Shutters: Located at the Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, Shutters overlooks the beach with all the playfulness and drama you’d expect. In addition to an all-American, family-designed menu, it welcomes kids to Saturday beachfront breakfast with Goofy et al and Monday evening pirate character (Goofy and Donald) all-you-can-eat dinner (summers only). Special family activities are part of the experience.
  9. Pizzoodle’s: When the demand for family pizza night surfaces, head to this cozy pizzeria with an extensive selection of pizza, pasta, and “subwiches.” It is one of several dining options along Royal Palm Pointe.
  10. Waldo’s Restaurant & Bar: Feeling a little like the Wild West with its rough-hewn cypress structure, this restaurant at the Driftwood Resort further appeals to families with outdoor seating overlooking the pool and beach. This is where families will want to sit, because indoors feels a bit dim and stuffy. The extensive lunch and dinner menu includes seven “Sea Bucklers” items for kids, including a quesadilla and pasta.

A Rosy Morning at Rosy Tomorrows

My cauliflower had a first name: Veronica. More importantly, it had a delicious nutty, slightly garlicky flavor after I roasted it with a drizzle of olive oil and grind of sea salt and pepper. Veronica cauliflower, also known by some as Romanesco cauliflower or broccoli, was one of the first-time food encounters I experienced Wednesday during Market Day at Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in North Fort Myers.

The gate to Rosy Tomorrows' Old South grounds

The gate to Rosy Tomorrows’ Old South grounds

I tasted the tiny yellow flower of a Mexican mint plant (a.k.a. Mexican mint marigold), which tasted much more like anise than mint. And a marble-sized Everglades tomato: It burst like a flavor capsule in my mouth. I also brought home a pretty box of tiny, assorted sweet peppers that added a delightful crunch to my salad. And a loaf of rustic olive-rosemary bread.

I met “Rosy” herself at Market Day, which happens every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., when the farm is open to the public. Rose O’Dell King started making the local news several years ago as the founder and first president of Slow Food Southwest Florida and a proponent for wholesome, non-toxic, and humane animal and garden products.

As a French Culinary Institute trained chef, certified sommelier, and former sheep farmer, Rose knows her way around a farm. She found 100-plus lovely acres in North Fort Myers that suited her needs and set out to produce food organically, holistically, sustainably, humanely, and as close to nature as possible.

She raises rare, slow-growing, heritage breeds of livestock known for their adaptability to Florida and their pedigree of good taste: 100 percent grass-fed Longhorn cows, pastured Red Wattle pigs and Dominque, Australorp, and Silver Laced Wyandotte chickens. Naturally, they are hormone and steroid free. I did not buy any meat this week – that you must order ahead as much of Rosy Tomorrows’ inventory is grabbed by fine local restaurants.

Assorted mini-bells from Rosy Tomorrows

Assorted mini-bells from Rosy Tomorrows

Tentatively in early May, the farm will celebrate the opening of a new barn, where Market Day will take place in the future. During its building, Rose suspended serving food on Market Day, but that will reconvene, beginning with a continental breakfast of fresh goodies at the grand opening, and such offerings as Rosy Tomorrows’ signature basil lemonade, market salad, and sweet and savory hand pies on Wednesdays. Check online for details.

A new chef has joined the staff ; meet her and manager Matt DeuxHerst, head gardener Kelsey Costa, their adorable tow-head daughter Ila, and able assistant Bekah. The staff are extremely knowledgeable about their wares and how to prepare them. Thanks, Kelsey and Bekah, for the Veronica cauliflower tips!

The Cove at Port Canaveral: Local Flavor

Just when I thought I knew every location in Florida to find fresh seafood and the flavor of the local culture, someone tells me I should try the Cove at Port Canaveral.

Blackened grouper sandwich a la Rusty's

Blackened grouper sandwich a la Rusty’s

I was stunned: I could not believe that I had missed this spot for not just one waterside seafood house, but an entire school of them! As the name reveals, this cluster of restaurants lines the waterfront at Cape Canaveral’s cruise ship port on Florida’s Space Coast. Fishing charters and other tour boats depart from the docks; seafood markets and restaurants sell what commercial fishermen bring in that-day fresh.

So Many Restaurants, Only One Lunch

It’s a little tricky to find; the web site doesn’t give any clear directions, but by using my iPhone’s GPS for one of the restaurants on Glen Cheek Drive, I found my way to Terminal B and seafood row. About a dozen places to have lunch confounded my decision making.

I typically look for the shackiest looking seafood shack when I’m in the salty mood. Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill looked a little too gimmicky. Milliken’s Reef, a little too stylish; but now I see a tiki bar and sand beach out back on its web site, so perhaps I was too quick to judge on that one.

An Italian place, a Mexican spot didn’t suit my mood. I settled on Rusty’s Seafood & Oyster Bar. It had the right casual character and a number of cars parked outside already at 11:30 a.m. Smack on the water, it offers outdoor seating and a bar that looks like it gets vivacious at night with live entertainment.

Real at Rusty’s

I took a table with a view of cruise ships and fishing boats. The regulars come in for the $8.99 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which looked and smelled like a good deal – chicken wings, a mahi dish, pork, and various side dishes – but I ordered off the menu.

Like any Southern-style seafood house worth its weight in fish, Rusty’s sells raw and steamed oysters, mussels, and clams. There are the requisite fried seafood baskets, plus seafood pasta dishes, grilled crab cakes, seafood platters fried or steamed, crab legs, and sandwiches.

The fish sandwich du jour featured grouper, so that quickly made up my mind. I ordered mine blackened, which was only slightly spicy. From the dill pickle spear and cole slaw to the moist, perfectly done filet atop its bun – everything shouted “excellence.”

The tartar sauce tasted homemade, with some sour cream in there. The slaw had a pinkish tint suggesting  the addition of a tomato product that gave it a flavor boost. The fries were lightly coated before meeting the deep fryer, providing them an extra crunch. It all came in a plastic red basket – an icon of seafood shacks everywhere.

Rusty’s touts its Colee’s key lime pie from a Key West company and white chocolate cheesecake, both profoundly tempting. I couldn’t make it work, but that’s okay. I will be visiting the Cove at Port Canaveral again soon –never mind it’s almost six hours from my house.

Mereday’s boosts Naples’ food rep

Shrimp amusee.

Shrimp amusee.


Pork belly etude.

First there was Conde Nast Traveler magazine: It recently named Naples as #17 its 2014 Top American  Cities for Foodies list. It mentioned Mereday’s Fine Dining by name in the write-up.

Then just last week Florida Trend magazine’s food writer, Chris Sherman, devoted the restaurant pages entirely to Naples’ boom as a restaurant destination. Again, the Mereday’s name popped up.

“Mereday’s Fine Dining is a multi-course tour of contemporary luxury,” he writes.

Coincidence? Not in my Naples foodie lexicon.

I’m just off another dining experience at the capable hands of Charles Mereday, and I’m still swooning.

The talented young chef boasts experience from Philly to the U.S. Virgin Islands and France. Growing up in North Carolina brings yet another influence on his global cuisine at Mereday’s, which opened harborside at Naples Bay Resort in July 2013.

In March 2014, Mereday opened Alto Live Jazz Kitchen – which Sherman also mentions in glowing terms (“sax-y food”) – nearby in Bayfront Naples. Conjuring it up from his Zanzibar Blue club kitchen days in Philadelphia, he has created a hot spot for cuisine and great live jazz and other musicians.

Back at Mereday’s, I am constantly delighted with every bite I take while I watch Chef Mereday work his magic in his exhibit kitchen. A quiet, calm, anti-chef-acting man, he makes appearances at the table to humbly hear high praise.

I couldn’t help gushing about a simple amusée he sent to our table on Friday. Gulf shrimp languishing in long-simmered shrimp stock tasted of the briny clean and simple.

Famous for his foie gras creations, Chef served that night on his ever-changing menu a foie gras torchon grape mostarda combination that made me groan in delight. I’m not exaggerating. The flavors and textures conspired for something that truly transcended the word “food.”

Braised pork belly with crisped edging,  a beautiful swirl of butternut squash puree, a small nest of truffle-laced greens, a single spear of white asparagus, and one porcini mushroom in its own sauce: It was poetic in its sentimentality and creativity.

We sampled shelled mussels in Indian Korma curry and coconut milk, stuffed quail with dried cranberry and pancetta, triple tail with blistered tomato vinaigrette and sauce vierge, and filet of beef in an exquisite veal jus with potato puree. Each bite transporting.

Carrot cake, mocha pots de cream with flourless chocolate cake and white chocolate ice cream, and sticky toffee pudding with brown butter ice cream finished the meal and finished us for anything but Charles Mereday’s brand of detailed, tightly  interlaced flavor profiles.

Mereday’s opens daily for dinner. Stop first in the bar for a well-crafted classic cocktail. Then move seamlessly to the contemporary dining space that surrounds it in sleek style. (Or you can choose al fresco dining with a marina view.)

The restaurant prices its meals by number of courses, starting with $55 for two courses plus dessert ($85 with wine pairings included) up to four courses plus dessert at $95 and $145.

Another secret: To sample Chef Mereday’s genius without investing in a multi-coursed meal, ask the bartender to see the evening’s bar menu selections. But beware, one bite leads to utter, desperate dependence on this level of culinary religion.