A Florida food writer’s tips and recommendations from some of the city’s top restaurants

A Florida food and travel writer since the 1980s, I have joyously eaten Tampa Bay’s best dishes for ages. But, just when I think I know the local foodie scene, bang! An explosion happens with a new wave of diverse cuisine emerging from the kitchens of Florida’s most talented and creative. Grab a fork and join me in tasting this new revolution of food. I’ve already gotten started and left my notes to help you start your endeavor—do you agree?

ICHICORO RAMEN

Flavor notes

Hero Water Cocktail – Well, I couldn’t leap tall buildings after this signature sip, though its Japanese shochu spirit distilled from sweet potato was clearly emboldening. Mostly, I felt refreshed by its cucumber, lime and coconut heroism.

Tonkotsu – This ramen bowl, like many of Ichicoro’s specialties, fuses Asian cuisine with Tampa Bay’s Cuban heritage. Mojo-style asado pork snuggles with the house noodles in a rich broth close to gravy. Ginger and toasted sesame tones spark the fiesta of textures from spiced hard-boiled egg to bamboo shoots. Not my dorm room’s ramen!

Spicy Abura Soba – They call it “Japanese carbonara.” The broth-less ramen bowl layers roast pork, ginger tempura, applewood bacon and poached egg.

What you should know

Ichicoro takes tenets of simplistic Asian design to barebones with exposed cement block walls, stone and wood slab tables, and stumpy wooden stools.

Chopstick-challenged like me? Relax. No shaming here for using knife, fork or the cool rustic wooden ladles.

Sit at the kitchen counter to interact with friendly chefs and watch red jalapeños roasting for the house sauce.

The minute the doors open at noon, this intimate, 40-seat place gets busy. You can call ahead for a text alert when your table is about ready.

Explore Tampa Bay’s Asian cuisine.

FODDER & SHINE

Flavor notes

Pink Moon – When “shine” shares a restaurant’s name, ’shine it is. This moonshine libation elevates the kicky liquor with fruity notes of grapefruit, carpano bianco and St. Germain elderflower liqueur. Starfruit gets muddled within, and is used as a garnish. My first clue that this place knows how to class-up Southern classics.

Cornmeal Fried Chicken – It may sound cliché, but nonetheless, here F&S sticks close to tradition. Prepared to order in quarter or half portions, it’s like sinking your teeth into crackle and juice. The bacon-braised greens are sticky sweet, requiring only a dash of the house’s datil pepper sauce.

Brown Butter Buttermilk Ice Cream – I am not a big ice cream fan, but the ingredients grabbed me. Buttermilk contributes a note of tang to the ice cream, and orange in the caramel makes this brilliantly Florida. The benne wafers? The thinnest, crispiest, most buttery imaginable.

What you should know

In the emerging Seminole Heights district of independent restaurants, this has a rejuvenated, working-class vibe complete with pool tables and arcade games.

Spacious and casual, it strives for a Southern public house feel—and succeeds! I prefer sitting at the long bar amid jars of sliced Florida fruits.

Everything is housemade, from the Fritos in the Frito pie to the Minorcan sausage—a homage to early St. Augustine settlers—in the clam chowder and pilau.

Taste Florida’s version of Southern comfort food.

OXFORD EXCHANGE

Flavor notes

Benedict – An inspired reinvention of biscuits and gravy founded on large, fluffy, griddled biscuits with black pepper caraway crème as the crowning touch. But the housemade chicken sausage patties are the boss of this dish—fresh, peppery, oniony.

Chicken Burger – In a historic former brick stable, graze on the signature dish. Roasted tomato, fresh jalapeño, avocado, feta and cumin aioli turn the ground chicken tenderloin (flavored with cilantro and scallion) into a mouth party.

Fried Avocado Wedges – Crisp panko crusting gives way to buttery filling. A sauce of sambal-ignited sour cream, smoked sea salt and lime completes the taste-bud tango.

What you should know

Across from the University of Tampa, Oxford Exchange feels like a college library meets Buckingham Palace with a complex of bookshop, gift stores and eateries. The restaurant, coffee shop and tea counter, with its tea sommelier, work in concert.

The fountain glass-domed courtyard conservatory is my first choice for dining. Brushed steel tables juxtapose with overstuffed banquettes in the main dining room. There’s not a bad seat in the house.

My check arrived tucked into a book. A take-away bookmark quotes Booker T. Washington: “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.” Mission accomplished.

Discover more innovative American cuisine.

ROOSTER & THE TILL

Flavor notes

Scallop Crudo – Thin, salty slices of raw sea scallop in cashew milk. Then the flavors go a little nuts with ginger cashew gremolata and slivers of flash-fried chives for a novel yin-yang conjunction of land and sea.

Morcilla – Reflecting Chef Farrell Alvarez’s Colombian roots, the silky blood-and-rice sausage filling counterpoints with the casing’s snap. Jalapeño, cilantro and charred tomato in the relish perfectly balance the richness.

Gnocchi with Short Ribs – On an ever-evolving menu, this one remains constant—once you’ve tasted it, you are addicted to the pillowy gnocchi, dollops of creamy smoked ricotta and pickled rings of spicy peppers.

What you should know

Chef Alvarez and partner Ty Rodriguez envisioned a neighborhood place in Seminole Heights. But word is out, and their clientele comes from all over Tampa Bay. Make early-night reservations for the best seats.

Top seating is around the three-sided counter containing the open kitchen. It’s like an excellent, oh-so-casual episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

The wine list is small, specifically selective and organized by bottle prices. Many are poured by the glass.

Join the farm-to-table revolution.

EDISON: FOOD+DRINK LAB

Flavor notes

Fig Lebowski – From Edison’s Mixology Lab, it shakes up bourbon that’s house-infused with dried fig, sumac-infused maple syrup, citrusy Licor 43 and Seville orange bitters. Served up in an old-school martini glass, it tastes like a liquid fruit bowl drizzled with autumn.

Potato-Crusted Oysters – A prime example of Chef Jeannie’s wizardry and a constant on a daily changing menu. Blue Pointe oysters breaded with finely shredded potatoes for a flash fry. Plated on the half shell puddled with sweetened, reduced dill pickle brine, a splotch of house dijonnaise for creaminess, and micro Dijon greens for texture and punch.

Vadouvan-seared Red Snapper – Uses a house Indian-inspired spice blend and comes with coconut turmeric jasmine rice, vanilla-pickled carambola (starfruit) and tropical fruit curry for a gallivanting brush with exotica.

What you should know

Chef Jeannie Pierola, a four-time James Beard semifinalist, succeeds with her vision of a welcoming neighborhood place with inventive food (thus the name).

The quasi-industrial feel of a chic laboratory creates “zero pretense”—dark woods, scuffed tables and a white marble bar.

The menu conspires with the lab theme, listing its lunch and dinner offerings under headings like Spark (apps), Solid + Soluble (salads and soups), Compiled (sandwiches) and Liquids (drinks).

Venture into Tampa Bay’s gastropubs.

ULELE

Flavor notes

Charbroiled Oysters – Mmmm! The smokiness sparked memories of fresh oysters on the grill for Christmas Eve. These go a step more festive with chunky garlic and a crust of melted Parmesan and Romano.

Florida Pompano – It’s difficult to find pompano on Florida menus, so I didn’t hesitate to order the mild fish, thinly fileted and pan-seared. Finely chopped sundried tomatoes and shallots gave the creamy tomato sauce textural complexity. I loved the color and crunch that carrot ribbons (French fry-style) added to the dish’s landscape.

Water Works Meatloaf – Comfort food gets a kick off the couch. Dry-aged strip steak and fresh vegetables go into the meatloaf, topped with cabernet garlic demi glaze. For surprising flavor, housemade white cheddar popcorn tops the garlic-leek mashed potatoes.

What you should know

Eating Florida down to its roots: The concept took me back to Tocobaga tribes and Spanish conquistadores. They even call their oversized grill a “barbacoa,” as did early pirates.

Ulele occupies a 1903 pumping station at the north end of the Tampa Riverwalk. Columbia Restaurant dynasty’s Richard Gonzmart turned it into a sprawl of a microbrewery, beer garden and restaurant that spills onto green lawns with sculptures and river views.

The restaurant serves only its house craft beers and American wines, the latter at utterly reasonable prices, along with fun cocktails.

An observation counter adjoins the semi-circular, open kitchen beneath a white-plank vaulted ceiling and exposed ductwork. Original art, including Dalí and Picasso, decorate the space, but a Tampa Bay Bucs flag hangs from the mezzanine dining area.

Indulge in Tampa Bay’s native-inspired cuisine.

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