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Chuan Lu Garden in Orlando offers dim sum worth paying for

We live in strange times. Chinese eateries are seeing a decline in business due to Coronavirus fears spreading throughout the United States and arguably the planet. Some Chinese restaurants in Orlando are reporting a 20-30% drop in business despite that fact that there isn’t a single case of coronavirus in Florida.

While there is nothing wrong with being prepared and conscious of what’s happening around the globe, there’s a simple fact that this virus is not in Florida at this time. I decided to eat at my one of my favorite Chinese spots in Orlando during my last visit in Mills 50 District called Chuan Lu Garden.

I have checked out a few dim sum spots nearby such as Peter’s Kitchen and Ming’s Bistro, but neither were as good as Chuan Lu Garden despite being more popular and busier establishments. Most people visit because Chuan Lu is open until 2AM and is a reliable late-night option, but for me it’s all about dim sum for breakfast.

It’s hard to find a good dim sum spot in Florida, nothing really compares to all the great spots in San Francisco. Lord knows that Yummy House in Tampa doesn’t even come close to any of the places in Orlando. I have long hoped for more dim sum options in Tampa, but that doesn’t seem to be materializing and it remains to see what kind of effect this drop in business will have on Chinese businesses.

One of my favorite dim sum choices is the egg tart. It seems simple enough, but the crust is really the key and so many places get it wrong. Some places also have terrible egg inside. It’s delicate, but delicious. Chuan Lu does it right. My only regret was not saving it for the end so I could savor the flavor in mouth for a little longer.

Salt and Pepper Squid. This is one of my favorite dishes. It was one of the only reasons I frequented Yummy House before they were closed numerous times for health code violations and slid in quality. This one was crispy and I especially enjoyed the peppers and onions. It reminded me of a breakfast hash without the potato. Not bad for a breakfast at all.

Sesame balls with red bean inside. I love red bean. It has to have just the right mix though because the flavor can be a little overwhelming for those not accustomed to regularly eating. These balls were just right for me. It was a satisfying dish that I would order again and again.

A look inside the sesame ball with red bean.

This is a must any time I grab dim sum. Shrimp and Pork Shumai. The dumplings with a mix of the two inside is savory and satisfied my craving for some meat without being just pork or beef. I personally can’t eat too much meat early on in the day.

These shrimp dumplings were probably the only disappointing part of my meal. I’ve had it before at Chuan Lu and it was much better in the past, but this time it had an aftertaste to it, probably something to do with the batter they were mixing since the other shrimp dishes were fine. It’s still one of my favorite dim sum choices so I would probably order it again in the future.

Steamed egg custard bun. This dish was tasty and a good end to our meal. It hit all the right flavors and was a nice sweeter ending to the meal. I don’t order as many buns normally because I get extremely full when I eat them.

So there you have it. Everything was mostly great and we enjoyed all this food and tea for around $30 total which is quite affordable. Dim sum in Orlando is great at many places and I hope everyone will consider supporting Chinese restaurants during this time.

Chuan Lu Garden. 1101 E. Colonial Dr., Orlando, FL 32803. (407) 868-8709.

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Birria tacos arrive in Tampa at Jimmy’s Tacos Ybor City

Birria. Oh sweet birria. The tacos from Jalisco have arrived in Tampa at Jimmy’s Tacos. These tacos have taken San Francisco by storm with the Quesabirria, a cheesy birria taco creation. These tacos have legs on social media.

Birria taco at Jimmy's Tacos.

What is birria? It is essentially a stew usually made with goat meat but sometimes made with chicken or beef. It essentially means savory and boy is it savory. The stew makes for a great dip or flavor enhancer. Birria tacos are soaked in the sauce and loaded with the meat. Jimmy’s Tacos serves a pretty tasty one. Quesabirria is still in the works though.

Jimmy’s Tacos opened recently across from El Puerto in Ybor City in a part of Ybor City that was left for dead after the 2008 financial crisis, but has been getting steam lately with a new brewery BarrieHaus, a new cafe called Ybor Beverage Co., and a number of other small businesses that previously would not have crossed so far off 7th or 8th Avenue.

Jimmy’s Tacos is one of the closes things I have experienced to Mexican food from California in Florida. There are taquerias now all over Tampa, but most of them are just average to me, nothing like what I’m used to or expect in Mexican food.

Carne Asada burrito at Jimmy's Tacos

When you taste the carne asada at Jimmy’s Tacos, it has that zest, that spice that you rarely ever taste in so-called carne asada at other restaurants in Tampa, but I know this flavor too well from spending time on Mission Street in San Francisco. All the tacos I have tasted thus far have been delicious and the burrito is actually excellent as well. Well-balanced, not too much rice and plenty of meat.

You’ll spend about $3 per taco but guacamole is included, their burrito will run you about $10 so I would budget about $10-12 for a visit. Their horchata is actually pretty flavorful.

It almost seems too good to be true to have something like Jimmy’s Tacos in Tampa. All I can hope is that they’ll succeed and maintain the commitment to true flavors and food. The owners are originally from Los Angeles and have experience in restaurants there.

I highly recommend Jimmy’s Tacos.

Jimmy’s Tacos. 1604 N 17th St, Tampa, FL 33605. (813) 242-0242.

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NEWS: Hot Pot BBQ is now open on Fowler Avenue and serving unlimited hot pot and Korean BBQ

Update: The owners of Nine Spices Hot Pot in St. Petersburg have reached out to clarify that they are not affiliated with the Hot Pot BBQ spot on Fowler. The business licenses were strangely similar.

The rumor mill has been swirling for quite some time, but now Hot Pot BBQ is now open to the public.

Diners can enjoy unlimited hot pot and Korean BBQ for around $30. The option to exclude bbq will save you a few bucks, but I don’t suggest doing that.

I stopped by for a visit earlier this week and tried the Korean BBQ and hot pot and was pleasantly surprised at how delicious the food was. The quality of the meat and seafood were far superior to competitors throughout the Tampa Bay area and although the prices are a little higher than Izziban BBQ in Orlando, I do think the higher price-point is worth it.

The quality of the spicy pork belly cut and bulgogi was noticeably great. The Korean BBQ grills cooked the meat cuts quickly and efficiently. The restaurant offers butter to grease the surface. Hot Pot offers your standard lettuce wraps available and side veggies to add to your meats. I highly recommend the Korean BBQ at Hot Pot BBQ.

The seafood selection was also satisfactory and on-par with popular hot pot places in Orlando and St. Petersburg with crawfish, squid, clams, mussels, fish balls, and more. The broths for the hot pot are a little on the blander-side, but you can easily spice it up with their sauces and side offerings including heaping of garlic and cilantro.

Veggies, fruits, and desserts rotate around the restaurant on a conveyor belt that is similar to many modern Asian eateries around the country. Diners can simply pick up anything they like to eat and add it to their food. Some things we enjoyed were the cake desserts, oranges, instant ramen, dumplings, and more.

Beware that there is a fee for those who do not finish their food that is marked at $13.99 and a 2 hour limit for enjoying the buffet.

I recommend Hot Pot BBQ and suggest you give it a look if you’re interested in trying something new in Tampa. Soon Yum Yum Hot Pot AYCE will also be joining this area. The winner, of course, is diners in Tampa.

Restaurant Name: Boil Spot Hot Pot BBQ

Neighborhood: Uptown, USF

Cuisine: Hot Pot, Korean BBQ

Address: 1120 E Fowler Ave, Tampa, FL 33612

Phone: (813) 374-9947

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Chicago Paulie’s serves the best hot dog in Tampa

Several people have told me to try Chicago Paulie’s for the last few years. I made a mental note, but did not stop by until today. The restaurant stand is located in a gas station parking lot with a humble table and umbrella nearby in the corner of North Hyde Park (NoHo). This isn’t fancy eats, but an excellent culinary destination that most people will drive right past as they jump on Interstate 275 on Howard Avenue. Don’t be that person.

Chicago Hot Dog from Chicago Paulie's in Tampa

I ordered a Chicago hot dog and some fries. The hot dog was cooked to perfection. The toppings superb. No ketchup (of course), but a healthy amount of mustard. It was hot out. Summer is already starting to take over Florida and I really cannot think of a better thing to enjoy in the summer than a hot dog and maybe some beer. Fries were a nice add-on.

Chicago Paulie’s may be one of Tampa’s best kept secrets although people who love food know about it and they have won Best of the Bay from CL in the past. I thought about Taco Bus and California Tacos before Guy Fieri. Tampa has some good eats if you’re willing to go off the beaten path and many of them are undiscovered and hardly talked about. Chicago Paulie’s is one of those places that would immediately jump to the Food Network just for great eats.

My last visit to Portillo’s by USF was truly disappointing with a sad hot dog, mediocre toppings, a bad bun, and stale fries that would probably upset Mr. Portillo himself, but Chicago Paulie’s…now that is a good hot dog. Simple. I inhaled my food.

 

Chicago Paulie's storefront

The prices aren’t overly cheap or expensive, but just right. Chicago Paulie’s holds a 5-star rating on Yelp with 129 reviews in an era where people will 1-star you just for not having the right kind of ketchup or signage. Most of the customers seem to be natives from Chicago who know their food, and Mr. Paulie himself is a transplant from Chicago.

Chicago Paulie’s is open from Monday to Friday from 11AM-6PM and Saturday from 11AM-2PM. Closed Sundays. I have heard they do sometimes close so you may want to call ahead if possible.  I highly recommend Chicago Paulie’s. It is the best hot dog I have enjoyed in Tampa.

Restaurant Name: Chicago Paulie’s

Cuisine: American

Neighborhood: North Hyde Park

Address: 1301 N. Howard Ave., Tampa, FL 33607

Cost: $

Phone Number: (813) 494-4275

Website: http://www.chicagopaulies.com/

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NEWS: Mini Doughnut Factory flagship South Tampa location now permanently CLOSED

The Tampa Bay Business Journal broke news last night that Mini Doughnut Factory’s flagship store in South Tampa is now permanently closed. It appears that the legal and financial woes were too much for the franchise to handle.

Just a few years ago Mini Doughnut Factory was one of the fastest rising businesses in Tampa with a fever pitch of business and support throughout the city. Mini Doughnut Factory won best donuts in town for multiple years in a row and was a local favorite of most locals. Major plans for expansion and to become a chain failed to materialize after an ill-fated opening in St. Petersburg.

The chain had a huge social media following and not a day would pass without seeing some mini donuts on Snapchat and Instagram in the last few years. John Mayer even stopped by a for a bite one day. Lines of little girls and mothers would be visible from early in the morning at the South Tampa store.

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WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico St. Pete is a trip down memory lane

Full disclosure: I was invited to WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico to try their food and received 50% off my bill in exchange for feedback about my experience. Opinions below are my own and do not represent WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico or any affiliates.

I visited WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico recently for dinner. It is owned by Jean Totti of St. Pete Foodies, a former architect who is of Puerto Rican descent. The recipes from the restaurant are his family recipes that have been handed-down generations, I was interested in seeing how this would compare to my experiences growing up in a Puerto Rican household.

Appetizer sampler at WEPA St. Pete

We started off the meal with appetizers: tostones, yucca fries, and alcapurrias (on-special). You can get 2 appetizers for $12 or 3 appetizers for $15. This makes this a fair sharing platter, but not really something that makes sense if you are dining alone or in a small party.

A few tostones are given for approximately $5 or $6 (if you do the math) which is a high price-point for a typical side dish that is generously plated in most Spanish restaurants. The actual flavor of tostones was great, it was probably the closest I have enjoyed to my Mom’s home-cooking which is difficult to match.

Good tostones require a very thin crispiness that comes from being twice-fried, unripe green plantains, and just the right amount of salting. WEPA made them well and I give them credit for that, I do think more should come for the price-point. I wouldn’t mind paying $4 or $5 and getting a full tray of tostones instead.

As for the alcapurrias, excellent flavor – these were so good! Alcapurrias are normally made with green plantains and taro root. I think this should probably be a regular side dish on the menu. The portion for this was also quite small, I have been to plenty of restaurants where you can get a huge portion of alcapurrias for just a few dollars.

Yucca fries at WEPA Cocina de Puerto Rico St. Pete

The favorite of the appetizers was the yucca fries. Yucca fries are so good, hearty, crispy, and delicious. More restaurants should put this on their menus. I was drawn back to the days of Mobile Munchiez food truck, a Spanish and Italian food truck, which used yucca in most of their dishes.

Yucca is such a great and underutilized starch. I would actually consider ordering these on my own just as a general side dish. The mayo-ketchup and dipping sauce were both excellent, you’d be surprised how many restaurants fail at that.

One thing that made me happy was the availability of Malta India at WEPA. I love Malta and it has surprisingly become harder to find in some restaurants after Hurricane Maria drove the price up on it. Malta completely disappeared from some grocery store shelves after the tragedy. It is certainly an acquired taste, but one that belongs with Puerto Rican food.

Dinner dishes at WEPA Cocina de Puerto Rico St. Pete

For the main courses we ordered Chicharrones de Pollo ($14) and Pernil Asado ($14). Both these dishes are popular dishes in Puerto Rico and most people who are Puerto Rican have grown up with them.

Chicharrones de Pollo at WEPA St. Pete

The Chicharrones de Pollo ($14) is certainly a shining star on this menu. The flavors brought familiarity to my Grandma’s cooking growing up. She loved frying food despite my mother’s misgivings about the healthiness of it all and there is nothing like a perfectly fried piece of chicken (especially living in the south). Despite the perfect crispiness and taste, I found myself wishing there was more meat on the actual pieces used. It can be a little difficult depending on shipments to get this right, but the flavor was certainly there.

The sides to the dish were the disappointing part. WEPA was out of arroz on gandules, a staple of Puerto Rican food and the white rice they subbed it with did not compare at all in flavor or match the food well. The pinto beans were way too salty, which was a big contrast to the rest of the food on the menu that seemed undersalted. I would recommend adding some table salt and pepper to the tables so guests can adjust accordingly. Beans are such an important staple to Latin cuisine that I hope the beans will improve in the future.

Pernil Asado at WEPA St. Pete

Next was the Pernil Asado ($14), a dish I know all too well. The pernil was on the drier side, although there were some good seasonings on top and a sauce underneath. The key with pernil is to allow the meat to soak in the juices you can want to flavor it in and use a good amount of sofrito in it to push up the flavor. The pernil was certainly better than some other restaurants and cafeterias I have eaten it at around the bay, but still not quite worth ordering again. The rice and beans were the same as the Chicharrones de Pollo so it seems that the chef is intentionally making their beans salty.

Flan de Vanilla at WEPA Cocine de Puerto Rico St. Pete

Finally, for dessert I chose the Vanilla Flan ($6). This flan was actually quite incredible and perfectly made, better than I have had at most restaurants in Tampa. It was just the right amount of sweetness and texture was perfect.

Everyone likes to brag about their flan and desserts, but most places are just “okay”, not the case at WEPA! I wouldn’t mind taking my Mom there to try the dessert, I feel like she might be impressed. The dessert was a nice ending to the meal, and although I tend to shy away from desserts nowadays, I would order this again.

Service was satisfactory, the server regularly stopped by for refills and checked on guests in the dining room. The dining room is small so in the interest of driving up sales, I would consider adding some more high-end steaks or more appetizers that are both easy to execute for the kitchen and can be sold at a fair price-point.

The restaurant closed quite early at 9PM on Wednesday Night and a party arrived 3 minutes before closing and was still seated, which is great from a customer service point-of-view, but certainly not something any server or cooks likes in this business and that matters when talking retention.

I think there is tremendous potential for a restaurant like WEPA! to serve up excellent Puerto Rican food and the flavors were all relatable to my childhood and family experiences. There is so much people still don’t know about Puerto Rican food and culture. Some things I would think about featuring in the future are pasteles, pastelón, coquito (literally WEPA!), bacalaitos, I could go on…the important thing in restaurants though is for people to feel like they get a value for their food so that customers become regulars and positive word of mouth spreads and I hope they consider this in all their pricing and portioning.

My impression was that WEPA is still figuring things out which is okay for a new restaurant. They seem to be taking customer feedback and applying it and I think they can have a very bright future as a leader of this food in Tampa Bay.

I recommend giving WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico a try. Like so many of us, it isn’t perfect, but it’s out there working hard to provide quality cuisine to the masses and I respect and support that.

WEPA is located next door to 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg, which is great for hungry craft beer fans. I hope they will join forces and plan some dinners together – I would like to see more beer pairing dinners with Puerto Rican food as the star. There is so much potential. We’ll have to see what happens right?

Restaurant name: WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico

Cuisine: Puerto Rican

Cost: $$

Address: 2149 3rd Ave S Unit #6, St Petersburg, FL 33712

Phone Number: (727) 420-7832

Website: http://www.wepastpete.com/