One night in Tampa: Foodie road trip edition

By Amy Drew Thompson

If ever I doubted the power of the taco to pull one out of an ugly cry, this notion was eradicated in a dirt lot in Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood.

Minutes before approaching chef Rene Valenzuela’s modest food truck, I’d been sobbing in the dark of the glorious Tampa Theater, watching the life and death of Anthony Bourdain unfold. Bourdain himself was famous for scarfing all kinds of things in overgrown dirt lots, which wasn’t lost on me as I navigated the menu.

Smoked pork belly, shrimp and chorizo … a host of crafty offerings beckoned, in stark upmarket contrast to the tin foil and disposable plates. Flies hovered, but I shooed them, tears forgotten, my only stressor an awareness that I had to save room.

For Rene’s Mexican Kitchen was only Stop No. 1 on this, a Tampa foodie foray for the ages.

It wasn’t quite no reservations. To duplicate my experience, you’ll need just one. But for motivated gourmands with just a modicum of staying power, this guerrilla gustatory gala is entirely doable in one evening — and for most Orlandoans, the trek is less than 90 minutes from your door.

Tampa may be the capital of the Cuban sandwich, but it’s also home to a handful of James Beard-semifinalists. It’s called Cigar City, but it was only earlier this year that its first members-only cigar lounge opened in a staggeringly beautiful and historic venue. Best part: There’s plenty of public-use space, as well. Tampa Bay also is home to lauded smokehouses, kitschy burger joints and ice cream stands and a vast array of food trucks.

This one is slinging some of the cheffiest tacos east of Austin.

Rene’s Mexican Kitchen

“It’s right on the edge of the evolution of Mexican food,” says Valenzuela, a Monterrey, Mexico, native who built an empire with Taco Bus, which took off like the magic one from those grade-school storybooks.

“I started on the street in one location, and it multiplied where it was 18,” he says. “I sold it to an investor group and decided to take a different approach this time.”

Drawing inspiration from multiple eras in Mexican culinary history and regional cooking styles, since opening in 2018, Valenzuela has built a formidable following of locals who come from all corners of the metro for offerings like the Baja Peninsula-inspired octopus taco or the meltaway cabrito — a favorite from his hometown.

Craft beer, cider, wine and mead — all made in-house — beckon from Southern Brewing & Winery in the adjacent lot.

“They are a very crafty, artisanal, small-batch brewer and a perfect match for what I wanted to do,” says Valenzuela. Customers cross-pollinate the two, ideal-fit entries in a neighborhood that foodies frequent.

“What I am doing now is not for everybody,” he says, though I’d call anyone suspicious who didn’t recognize the beauty inherent in cactus-flower tacos or Veracruz-inspired barbacoa, “but we have created a brand and product with pride of craftsmanship. … So, we don’t have to sell it to everybody.”

Rooster & the Till

The foundation of this place, says chef/partner Ferrell Alvarez, was always “neighborhood.”

Even so, the joint that he and partner Ty Rodriguez envisioned, “a place where you could leave your house, go for a walk and get some really great food, but in shorts and a T-shirt – no pretentiousness,” opened in 2017 to three-hour waits in its diminutive 37-seat space.

This is thanks to impressive resumes that included years at Tampa’s iconic Mise en Place, among other ventures.

“Still, we were flabbergasted in the best way possible.”

Since then, they’ve doubled in space, taken on a new partner in Chon Nguyen and racked up accolades from Best Chef to Best Restaurant to write-ups in Food + Wine and James Beard Foundation nods (Alvarez was a semifinalist in 2017), but even with Cinco Jotas Iberico Ham and Osetra caviar and Miyazaki A5 on the menu, you’re still going to hear uncensored hip-hop on the speakers.

Its energy? Undeniably great. The place was humming when we took over a corner of the bar. Every dish was a stunner.

That aforementioned ham alongside compressed cantaloupe. Seared scallops that looked like caramelized marshmallows and melted away in a similar fashion. An Iberico pork cutlet in the street-food guise of a katsu sando (with yuzu kewpie on chili oil-griddled milk bread) — James Bond in deep cover.

All the while, staff was engaging and present. It was a party, for us and them, a level of care and engagement that is as much a part of the magic as what’s coming out of the kitchen.

“It’s not fancy; it’s focused,” says Alvarez. “It’s thoughtful. It’s a project of passion. But it’s not Eleven Madison Park. It’s not Alinea. It’s not even Bern’s from a ‘fancy’ level. It’s come as you are.”

Reservations? Definitely recommended, but Alvarez offers up some tips to maximize if you haven’t planned ahead.

“It’s still Tampa,” he jokes. “Everyone wants to eat at 7:30. Hit us a little earlier or a little later, and much of the time it works out.

Grand Cathedral Cigars

That I would recommend a cigar lounge for what constitutes as “a breather” is a testament to the religious experience that is Grand Cathedral Cigars.

Not just because it’s housed in a 115-year-old church, but it doesn’t hurt.

Is there a cooler place to smoke a cigar? Short of a time machine to take you to pre-Castro Havana, I’d venture that no, there is not. And definitely not around here.

“Tampa is the cigar capital of the world in the eyes of cigar consumers,” says proprietor Angela Yue, who leaped at the opportunity to lease the space, which housed insurance offices before she and her partner gave it new life, restoring some features, adding others — like the bar and 6,000 square feet of airy patio. Here, one can puff beneath towering oaks with ease.

Grand Cathedral opened earlier this year and is already an aficionado’s destination venue with one of the largest selections of Arturo Fuente Cigars in the world. In fact, the 108-year-old company’s HQ is right up the street.

I’m not much of a smoker, but my entry-level stogie — and this epic spot — could easily turn me into a regular, maybe even a day visitor. Loads of folks have turned the place into a workspace, showing up with laptops to enjoy a smoke or something from the espresso bar. Others bring clients for meetings. This is all public space, but on the second floor, Tampa’s first members-only cigar lounge awaits the highest rollers.

Guests on this night cut a swath through the demographic: young and old, male and female, friends in groups and couples out for a nightcap. Outside, the cathedral’s scarlet glow is magnetic and mystical beneath the moon. Alongside fine bourbon, the Fuente is a mellow digestif.

Yue is thrilled to be here, noting the community’s eager embrace. “Many of our customers have families with connections to the factories that were here,” she says. “Cigars are a way of life in Tampa. People here really know how to enjoy them.”

Dairy Joy

There’s a lot of new on this wild ride. For a sweet happy ending with a “simpler time” vibe, hit the walk-up window at Dairy Joy, which has been scooping smiles in South Tampa since 1958 — and still looks every bit the part.

Flavors a’plenty (cones, waffle bowls, milkshakes, etc.) — along with more recently added photo-ops like the sit-in cars — make the place as Instagram-worthy as newer venues, but between the glowing neon and rainbow-sprinkled soft serve, Dairy Joy’s been ready for its close-up since Day One.

Even so, you can put the phone down for this final, filling stop on the agenda. You’re going to need that extra hand for napkins, anyway.

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If you go

Rene’s Mexican Kitchen: 4414 N. Nebraska Ave. in Tampa, 813-500-2110; renesmexicankitchen.com

Rooster & the Till: 6500 N. Florida Ave. in Tampa; 813-374-8940; roosterandthetill.com

Grand Cathedral Cigars: 2201 N. Florida Ave. in Tampa; 813-588-5448; grandcathedralcigars.com

Dairy Joy: 3813 S. Manhattan Ave. in Tampa; 813-839-5485; dairyjoytampa.com

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