Regional Cuisine in Tampa Bay: Gators, Cuban Sandwiches, and More

Two slices of key lime pie with a graham cracker crust plated on a square white plate.

Winner of four National Pie Championships, the Killer Key Lime Pie from Mike’s Pies . Photo © Mike Martin of (mikespies.com).

What is Florida cuisine? The beneficence of the Gulf of Mexico and the absurd number of sunny days provide a number of indigenous delicacies.

Alligator

Head to the venerable Skipper’s Smokehouse (910 Skipper Rd., Tampa, 813/971-0666), Tampa’s beloved indoor-outdoor live blues venue, where a huge, moss-festooned live oak provides shade. They offer gator a few ways: in chili, as part of a gator tail dinner with hush puppies and a couple of sides; as a sandwich; or just as a nugget appetizer. It’s a novelty item worth trying once.

Smoked Fish Spread

At Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish (1350 Pasadena Ave., South Pasadena, 727/381-7931) they’ll smoke your catch, fillet it, throw it over a smoldering red oak fire in the smokehouse, then package it up for you to take. But even non-anglers should angle for a visit. It’s prized for its laidback style and inviting picnic tables. The smoked fish spread with saltines is good, the salmon is excellent, and the mullet is an intensely fishy acquired taste. This is a beer-drinking establishment, it gets fairly busy, and it closes early. Credit cards are not accepted.

Stone Crab

One of Florida’s favorite delicacies is a renewable resource. During the October–May season, fisherfolk haul the crabs up, yank off one claw, and throw them back to grow another.

One of the local heavy hitters for these crustaceans is Frenchy’s Café (41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach, 727/446-3607). The original Frenchy’s Café opened in 1981. Since then, several other businesses have been opened by the same owners (Frenchy’s Saltwater Café, 419 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727/461-6295; Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, 7 Rockaway St., Clearwater Beach, 727/446-4844; and Frenchy’s South Beach Café, 351 S. Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727/441-9991), all fueled by their own fleet of commercial fishing boats. Eat stone crab like the locals, chilled with mustard sauce. It’s not gauche to ask for them hot, adorned with only a squeeze of lemon and a pool of clarified butter.

Key Lime Pie

Key lime pies are way more Floridian than all-American apple. Graham cracker crust cradles a piquant filling of egg yolk, condensed milk, and the juice of tiny key limes. It’s not complex, but it is divine when it’s good. Mike’s Pies (available at Fresh Market, 3722 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, 813/875-7400) in Tampa makes 30 kinds of pies, selling between 4,000 and 6,000 each week. Mike Martin’s biggest seller is key lime by a good bit, but he has won more than a dozen national championships at the annual Great American Pie Festival for a range of pies, some from family recipes dating back more than 100 years.

For a more complete list of locations where you can buy Mike’s Pies, or to purchase them via mail order, please visit them online.×

Orange Juice

Citrus is Florida’s leading cash crop, producing 90 percent of the country’s orange juice (almost all Florida oranges are juiced, not sold whole). To get a sense of the full range of the state’s wonderful citrus, head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the Citrus Place (7200 U.S. 19, Terra Ceia, 941/722-6745). There are navel oranges in the fall, honeybells coming soon after the new year, followed by temple oranges, honey tangerines, and Valencia oranges. White and pink grapefruits are available nearly year round.

Cuban Sandwich

In Tampa, the Cuban is the king of sandwiches. Go to La Segunda Central Bakery (2512 N. 15th St., Ybor City, 813/248-1531) for an audience with the king. The bakery turns out 6,000 Cuban loaves daily: 36 inches long, with a zipper-like seam down the top, with the remnants of a palmetto leaf charred along the seam. The pillowy interior of the loaf is piled high with roast pork and Genoa salami (that’s a Tampa twist), Swiss cheese (some say Emanthaler), sour pickles, and spicy mustard. The whole thing is warmed and flattened in a special hot press. It has to be ruthlessly pressed to render the outside crisp and the inside majorly gooey.


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tampa & St. Petersburg.


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