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Best Little Strip Mall in Tampa (long)

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Restaurants & Bars

Best Little Strip Mall in Tampa (long)

andy huse | May 31, 2002 05:12 PM

Best Little Strip Mall in Tampa

Especially here in Florida, strip malls have gotten a pretty bad name. They have become a symbol of urban sprawl, the wasteland of suburban culture, and overpowering consumerism. To be fair, however, one could see strip malls as a boon to the community. Where big-time malls shun local eateries through high rent, strip malls attract them. For every Pizza Hut crammed into a strip mall, there’s a mom and pop nestled beside it—and often it’s the Pizza Hut that fails. By housing several businesses under one roof, the strip mall may actually save space. Our newest white-bread malls bait yuppies with overpriced restaurants and boutiques and want no part of the lowly commoner. They don’t want the bus stops anywhere near them, because they could not bear to have the unwashed masses press their nose against the windows of their white-collar domain. Strip malls are decidedly democratic, with ethnic groceries rubbing elbows with travel agencies and tuxedo rentals.

That democratic tendency is what brings me to a strip mall on Busch Boulevard. No matter what food you’re hankering for, this place’s three distinctive restaurants can probably provide it. Located on the north side of Busch Blvd., in between 46th and 50th Streets, Ambassador’s Square is a sure bet if you’re hungry. The interesting thing about the three restaurants it holds is the fact that they’re all fairly new, casual, and serve up foods straight from their respective homelands. Ambassador Square plays host to the American dream for three restaurant owners, and they do not disappoint.

Baraka is the newest addition to the line-up, and has served up Lebanese food since 2001. The vegetarian platter is a great bargain at $7, and includes falafel, baba ganoush, hummus, taboule and a simple Lebanese salad. If you’ve never heard of any of the aforementioned dishes, it may be time to put down the baked potato and join the rest of the world. All offerings are well-prepared and tasty, and the platter could serve as an entrée for one or appetizer for two. Their lentil soup is something like split-pea soup, but better. Their grilled meat selections are excellent, including beef, chicken lamb, and seafood. Entrees come with salad, hummus, and tasty rice with vermicelli. For lighter appetites, a variety of wraps like falafel fit the bill. A delicious variety of baklava are available for dessert, but be careful—pastry packed with honey and nuts is heavier than it looks. Prices are great, with wraps starting at $3 and entrees for $5.

For heartier appetites, Frank-El will most definitely do the trick. This excellent buffet is ideal for hungry people on the run. Forget fast food—by the time you run the drive-thru gauntlet you could be feasting on black-eyed peas, baked chicken, BBQ ribs, candied yams, cornbread and cabbage. When a sandwich just won’t cut it, go to Frank-El’s and load up your plate. The owners come from Suriname, South America and it has been open for five years, but the food is as American as hoe cakes and collard greens. Eight dollars is not much to ask for all you can eat soul food. A big part of the appeal is the variety of meats and veggies. The food is consistently good, but there is one problem: you may fall asleep at your desk after eating here.

If you are sleepy from Frank-El’s, walk a couple doors down to Dona Rossina’s Station and get some strong café con leche. Ms. Rossina is a new arrival from Cuba, and has brought us some treasures. The menu is very simple. Among her specialties is Cubano Pizza. Made with a not too thick sourdough-like crust, the pizzas are quite good and come in personal size for under $5. Let it be known, Ms. Rossina does it the right way, with a very hot oven. Knowing that pizzas can take up to 45 minutes because of this, you may want to call your order ahead.

Or you could stay and nibble on all the other goodies she has to offer. Ms. Rossina bakes her own Cuban bread and a variety of pastries, some stuffed with fruit and some with meat. Her Cuban sandwiches are excellent on her fresh bread, graced with chunks of mojo pork, not some cold-cut stand-in. She also offers a variety of Cuban meals as daily specials, and I hear her roasted chicken is not to be missed. A variety of pasta dishes are also offered. Be sure to save room for dessert, because Ms. Rossina makes a variety of shakes (malted milk, papaya, etc.), flan (including cappuccino, guava, and pineapple flavors), and other desserts. I strongly recommend the flan—the cappuccino flavor blew me away.

Next time you want to do lunch or dinner, why not skip the Olive Garden and all the other mass-produced restaurants and do your belly (and your wallet) a favor? Be a good American ambassador, and eat with your new immigrant neighbors in Ambassador’s Square.

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