We are blown away by what we ate in Tampa--St. Pete this past week, all from Tampa chowhound suggestions, with Trang's and Lola-Jean's absolutely not to be missed.
--Trang's (fowler ave, Tampa)
Andy Huse doesn't exagerate, this is world class food hidden in a non-descript strip center north of Tampa near USF. Although we stay in Tierra Verde, 40 minutes south of Trangs's and adjacent to nearby St. Pete Beach, my wife's blossoming cold demanded 'clear soup'. So we drove up to Trang's for pho, pancake, fresh squeezed oj, incredible 4 varieties of spring roll -- cold and hot, and the best surprise of all: a tremendous flan. Tab was $28.
Feeling better, my wife decided that after Trang's she felt well enough that she could handle the traditional Dec 26 pilgrammage to Nordstrom's at International Plaza. I gladly agreed, as that put us within range of...
--Lola Jean's Crawfish Inn on S. MacDill Ave.
I'm no fan of cajun food as its served most everywhere, and I lived in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans when I worked in the oilfields offshore out of Venice and Bayou LaFouche, so I know what cajun and creole food can taste like, and how people cook it at home. At Lola-Jeans, still full from lunch at Trang's, we got an order of gumbo and a sampler--red beans and rice and crawfish etouffe to go for reheated dinner later, along with bread pudding and pecan pie. Total tab about $17. The gumbo, freshly made while I was waiting, was rich with file gumbo, exc. smoked sausage, okra and very tender home-smoked chicken and well-executed dark roue. The etouffe (or smothered crawfish) was very possibly the first I've ever eaten that wasn't an over-cooked crime against cuisine. Kudos to the couple that run Lola-Jean's. The bread pudding was moist and egg rich, with great hard sauce. My wife reported the pecan pie as molasses flavored, which I liked but she said she preferred the cane syrup variety. Oh, and the everywhere pedestrian red beans and rice were incredible, heavy with the same excellent smoked sausage as the gumbo.
The next day, after a late morning pancake and egg breakfast at La Croisette in St. Pete Beach, we stopped in for takeout at Ted Peter's Smoked Fish on S. Pasadena Ave. Besides the 50 year old charm of the place--about 15 picnic tables under an overhang, a long semi-outdoor beer bar, and about 40 seats at tables in an air-conditioned room; not to be missed are the smoked fish spread and german potato salad--neither sweet nor vinegary and with great thick sliced bacon, which together with moist smoked mullet and as good as can be expected smoked mahi-mahi combined with respectable chopped cole slaw to be our dinner that night. No good mackeral has been available in over a year--the head smoker complaining that the catch is down due to new net laws and that all the good stuff goes up north to NYC, while reporting that he smokes over 110,000 pounds of mullet, salmon and mahi-mahi a year.
Continuing our circular route, from Ted Peter's we wound our way to Treasure Island and stopped into the Floridian for a spicy pork sandwich and Spanish Bean Soup that we split for an early lunch. Pretty damn good, especially considering the price was under $5.
Oh, one warning: we went to the Don Cesar for xmas brunch. (Hey, there aren't many options when you roll in xmas eve and don't have time to shop or cook.) Expensive, and bounteous food varied from mediocre to bad to spoiled. Sort of like a cruise ship. A very good waitress reported that the banquet group handled the brunch, so let this comment not reflect on the restaurants at the Don, neither of which I've yet tried--and considering the reliable options from Tampa Chowhounds, are unlikely to try, ever.