Dining Guide: Great local restaurants to eat at in Brandon

Full disclosure: I have performed sponsored work for Kiwami Ramen Sushi. These opinions on this list are strictly my own and do not represent any sponsors or paid work.

Brandon has been transforming over the years from a quiet suburban town to a busy place with tons of apartment complexes and subdivisions rising around the area. There is now a Top Golf, Dave and Buster’s, and the Westfield Brandon Towncenter has exploded with traffic. People are moving south to Riverview and East to Valrico. The new Riverview GDX and Xscape Riverview theaters further prove the population growth of this area.

Many people complain that there are not local options in Brandon, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You’ll find a wide-variety of food from a variety of cuisines around the area, if you know where to look. Most places will run you around $10-20 per person for a meal. The options continue to grow, here is a list of some of my recommendations.

Allegria Italiana: Your old school Italian eatery with white table covers and a romantic vibe, Allegria Italiana has a great variety of gourmet Italian food that is better than many places around the bay. The servers have been friendly on my visits and prices are about what you would expect for this kind of concept. Everything from the appetizers and pasta to dessert is great. $$ 518 Oakfield Dr., Brandon, FL 33511. (813) 651-1166 allegriaitaliana.com

La Cubanita: Great Cuban sandwiches and steak sandwiches. You can’t really go wrong with their cafe con leche and a sandwich. They also have great deals on platters of food and have specials daily. There are many places around Brandon with sandwiches and coffee, but this is one of the best. They serve La Segunda bread which is of course the best. $ 723 W. Lumsden Rd., Brandon, FL 33511. (813) 661-2253. 

Kiwami Ramen and Sushi: Newcomer serving quality, gourmet ramen and sushi. The perfect marriage no matter what your mood is. Prices are fair and far less than the options in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Lunch specials on weekdays and happy hour deals make Kiwami and even better choice. The rolls are different from you’ll find in most places in Tampa. 10262 Causeway Blvd., Tampa, FL 33619. (813) 393-0683. kiwamiramensushi.com

Ploy Thai: Ploy Thai has been serving Thai food for over a decade on State Road 60. The restaurant has changed and evolved over the year from more of a sushi concept and then back into a more Thai-focused restaurant. The menu is large and they have transitioned more into a finer dining concept. $$ 1941 W. Brandon Blvd, Brandon, FL 33511. (813) 684-5007.

Sushi Kampai: If you like some simple rolls or great deals, Sushi Kampai is for you. The rolls are affordable and they also have lunch combos and bento boxes. You’ll find some Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food options on the menu as well. Service can be slow when they get busy so plan ahead. They also offer delivery and take-out if you’re feeling lazy. $ 10312 Bloomingdale Ave. #111, Riverview, FL 33578. (813) 620-3717.

Taste of Berlin: This German eatery is owned by some German expats and has a great schnitzel. Most items on the menu are made from scratch down to the sauces. The German beer selection isn’t quite as expansive as Mr. Dunderbak’s in Tampa, but there are some decent options on the menu for those looking to wash down their food. The owners regularly host events here especially for Oktoberfest. $$ 526 Oakfield Dr, Brandon, FL 33511. (813) 685-9392.

LC’s Cafe and Supper Club: LC’s Cafe is a nice little spot for a lite breakfast or brunch. They have some Cuban food options and also some breakfast options. It isn’t anything fancy, but the decor feels like home and it is a great place to go and catch up with someone. It is a family-owned small business. $$ 1602 Oakfield Dr #103, Brandon, FL 33511. (813) 526-9395.

Shrimp Boat: If you love seafood, you will love Shrimp Boat. This busy local restaurant on Bloomingdale serves quality seafood dishes and even their regular American dishes scream quality. It gets very busy, but there is usually some space in the bar area. They have happy hour deals and specials regularly and you also cannot go wrong with their soups. $$ 1020 Bloomingdale Ave., Valrico, FL 33596. (813) 571-5858. shrimpboatgrille.com

Green Island Frozen Yogurt & Tea Bar: Green Island has been around for over a decade if I’m not mistaken. They were one of the first boba shops and frozen yogurt shops to open in Tampa Bay. It’s a nice option if you’re on State Road 60 and heading to the nearby M.D. Oriental Market. Their bubble tea isn’t my favorite, but their Thai tea is pretty good and so is the coconut smoothie or watermelon smoothie (when available). $ 10047 E. Adamo Dr, Tampa, FL 33619. (813) 374-9006. 

Smokin Pig BBQ: Smokin Pig serves some great barbeque options and has plenty of space inside for those who want to dine-in. They have family deals as well as specials and combos. My favorite thing here is their Mac and Cheese, it is incredibly cheesy and delicious. Their brisket tastes great and I like their corn bread. $$ 3834 US-301, Riverview, FL 33578. (813) 512-2500 smokinpig.com

Chicago’s Best Burgers: If you want some truly amazing burgers do not miss Chicago’s Best. They maintain a low profile online, but they serve one of the best burgers I have enjoyed in Tampa Bay. You’ll spend a little more than some other shops, but the taste is well worth it. I highly recommend it. $$ 1925 W Brandon Blvd, Brandon, FL 33511. (813) 654-3232.

 

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Al’s Finger Licking Good Soul Food now serving up tasty southern eats

Most people have heard of Al’s Finger Licking Good BBQ in Ybor City, but a few months ago they opened Al’s Finger Licking Good Soul Food while I was out of town and the buzz has been muted since then. The online footprint of the new spot is not too big and Google seems to confuse the listings, but if you make the trip along 7th Avenue to 23rd Street there is a surprise waiting for you with great food.

Swee Tea from Al's Finger Lickin' Good Soul Food

From fried chicken and baked chicken to pork chops, turkey wings, fried green tomatoes, and boiled peanuts with neckbones, Al’s Soul Food is offering eats you won’t find easily find around Tampa Bay. I was personally happy to enjoy a great sweet tea with my food after spending far too much time out of the south.

Collard Greens from Al's Finger Lickin' Good Soul Food

Mac and Cheese from Al's Finger Lickin' Good Soul Food

Fried Chicken at Al's Finger Lickin' Good SOul Food

I ordered a quarter of fried chicken during my visit (all white for a $0.99 upcharge) which came with two sides and cornbread. I went with mac and cheese (+$0.99) and collard greens as my sides of choice.

You can also find black-eyed peas, fried okra, green beans and potatoes, potato salad, french fries, white and yellow rice on the menu. Fridays also have an offering of cole slaw and grits. Daily specials are offered on the menu from Wednesday to Sunday and they have lunch specials as well.

Soul food isn’t my specialty since it is so uncommon here, but what I do know is good food and that is exactly what I enjoyed at Al’s Soul Food. The chicken was perfectly cooked and the attention to detail was exact. The collard greens were flavorful and the mac and cheese was unlike a mac and cheese I have enjoyed anywhere else and completely satisfying. Not super cheesy, but just enough.

Corn Bread at Al's Finger Lickin' Good Soul Food

Menu at Al's Finger Lickin' Good Soul Food

The best part was that this all tasted like home-cooking, it wasn’t overly greasy or acid-inducing. The corn bread was absolutely delicious and a perfect started to the meal. I enjoyed every last lick of my fried chicken down to the last piece of fried goodness. I was in a happy place, I looked around at the somewhat empty dining room during my visit and thought to myself how has nobody reviewed this place? There are still two major publications left in town.

Then I remembered I am a writer and I can do that myself. So here’s my thoughts: Get in your car and drive to Al’s Finger Licking Good Soul Food as soon as possible. You won’t regret it. Places like this deserve all our love and cash. Tell a friend. For as much as this town claims to love chicken, here is a spot doing it right.

Al's Finger Lickin' Good Soul Food

Restaurant Name: Al’s Finger Licking Good Soul Food

Neighborhood: Ybor City

Cuisine: Soul Food

Address: 2302 E 7th Ave. Tampa, FL 33605

Phone Number: (813) 405-8920

Hours: Wednesday-Thursday, 11:30AM-6PM, Friday/Saturday 11:30AM-8PM, Sunday 12PM-6PM, CLOSED Monday and Tuesday

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/

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/

Doc B’s March Madness features 50% off deals that are worth a visit

Full disclosure: I was invited by Doc B’s to come and try out their menu for a tasting in exchange for my opinion about their food and this post about their March Madness promotion. Opinions are my own and do not reflect Doc B’s or affiliates. 

March Madness is plenty of things, but one thing it is for sure is a great time to go out and enjoy deals around town. Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen is one of the restaurants doing specials for the season and their March Madness promotion is literally crazy.

Guests can enjoy 50% off appetizers, beer, wine, and liquor (valued at $15 or less) every day after 3PM during March Madness.

The first thing we tried is the house-made guacamole which was really great. The sweet potato chips are perfectly made and the guacamole is tasty. This is a great sharing dish and a nice starter.

Next up was the Burrata & Beet Salad. This was an incredible salad. I love burrata and it was done really well. The beets were also pretty good as well. Candied pecans were in the mix which was a nice touch to the sweeter side.

We had the oven-roasted wings next and these were delicious and packed with spices and seasonings as well as cheese. I can’t recommend these enough. The wings have plenty of meat and the portion size is excellent. Nothing says sports games to me more than wings.

The Cajun Tacos were another favorite. Packed with flavor and delicious shrimp. This is a meal by itself. The slaw perfect it. I’m not really a seafood taco lover or even a flour tortilla fan, but really enjoyed these tacos thanks to the cajun spices. The sweet potato fries that come with them are also delicious.

I enjoyed glass of Sexual Chocolate Wine from SLODownWines (Santa Barbara, California) with my food. I could sip this wine all day long. Just great with everything I had and the waitress told me she sips this on her days off. Agree.

One of the cocktails I tried that I enjoyed at Doc B’s is the Crazy Beautiful. This drink features CH Vodka, Elderflower, spiced pear, and sparkling wine. Sweet, but not too sweet. The hibiscus on top changes the drink to the color purple and it is practically a tea cocktail.

For a main-course, I couldn’t pass up the lobster roll called a Knuckle Sandwich at Doc B’s. This is probably the closest to the caliber of Cousin’s Maine Lobster in Orlando. I haven’t had the pleasure of being able to travel up north for a lobster roll, but I can imagine that Doc B’s is hitting the right flavors well. I highly recommend this.

My favorite cocktail was The Internal Affair cocktail that has Tequila Avion, jalapeno, basil, and pineapple. I normally would not advocate or enjoy this mixture, but Doc B’s does this drink so well. I would highly recommend this to any tequila fan or even someone who just wants a refreshing cocktail in this hot Florida weather. Give it a shot.

Appealing to the tourist inside of me I had the Key Lime Pie at Doc B’s. This was an excellent key lime pie with a perfect crust, great pie filling – not too sour but still hitting that sour note that a good key lime pie should display. The whipped cream wasn’t even needed to be honest. If you love key lime pie, I’d recommend giving this one a shot. Tampa Bay is certainly not one of the best places to find one.

The chocolate cake…oh my god the chocolate cake. I don’t even have a sweet tooth, but I will eat this up every chance I get. This cake is perfectly moist. Each layer carefully laid down, perfectly tantalizing your taste buds. I felt like the little chubby kid in the movie Matilda (1996) as I sinfully took every last bite of this cake. This is no joke. They will give you a complimentary glass of milk to cut the richness, but to be honest I found this cake to be the perfect balance, which is amazingly strange to find in dessert menus. I will never forget this cake. It is art.

There you have it, there are plenty of great reasons to stop by Doc B’s and the 50% off deal is a great way to give the restaurant a shot if you haven’t been before. Everything is made fresh in-house and that means the prices there are higher than some other restaurants, but if we’re being honest most of the restaurants inside International Plaza will mirror the prices at Doc B’s, but none of the restaurants there have impressed me quite as much as Doc B’s did.

Our waitress was a complete sweetheart and very knowledgeable about the wine, food, and drinks. It is obvious that she enjoys eating at Doc B’s herself and trust me anyone who works in food business that still goes to their job to eat must really love it. Despite the fact that this was a tasting, you would be surprised how hard it is to find a knowledgeable server sometimes and I’ll certainly attribute that to passionate servers and management.

I admit that I haven’t tried Doc B’s in the past because of the price-points, but now I am certainly feeling some regret about that. They do have regular happy hours and daily specials at Doc B’s that you can take advantage of if you’re on a budget (as I often am), and this March Madness promo is not to be missed.

I highly recommend Doc B’s to hungry diners in Tampa and those looking for an awesome March Madness deal.

Restaurant name: Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen

Address: 2223 North Westshore Boulevard B-206, Tampa, FL 33607

Prices: $$-$$$

Phone Number: (813) 498-6200

Menu: https://docbsrestaurant.com/menu/tampa/

Website: http://docbsrestaurant.com

Lack of seasoning at Cilantro SF Taqueria

Have you ever felt a powerful craving for a burrito taking you over? That was me a few weeks ago. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know how, but I knew I needed to eat a burrito.

Just the thought of a burrito in front of me was bringing a goofy smile to my face. I could practically taste it on the tip of my tongue. Food cravings are like that.

Finding a good Super Burrito in San Francisco can be a difficult venture when you are not able to visit the hotspots most people frequent, such as El Farolito or La Taqueria in the Mission District, and when you find yourself without cash or a bank close by.

I randomly ended up at Cilantro SF Taqueria near Fisherman’s Wharf after the Women’s March and decided to give it a try. The prices are fairly standard for San Francisco and will run you about $9.99 for a Super Burrito made with carne asada steak prepared all the way. Tortilla chips are complementary and there is a salsa bar for all diners to enjoy. Debit and credit cards are accepted.

Initially, I was excited to see the salsa bar and ran over to grab some picante, salsa, and tomatillo sauce and a generous supply of salt for my chips. I ran over to my seat and began to dunk my tortilla chips into the sauces. Although the sauces had a wonderful hue to them, the actual flavor of the sauces was pretty bland and left me wishing for more spices and flavorings. It was a bit of a tease.

The super burrito then arrived at my table inside its signature aluminum foil wrapper. I peeled the aluminum back and took my first bite. The carne asada steak was diced into small pieces that became messy and spread all my over my table, some pieces falling below me on the floor, which I’ll admit was slightly embarrassing. I took a giant bite and munched on my food, the flavors were mostly there that one expects inside their Super Burrito, but something was missing.

The carne asada steak was cooked, but not charred how I like it. The quality of the steak was forgettable and the seasoning was not up to par. The pinto beans and rice as well as the sour cream, guacamole, and other ingredients, however, were all good. I devoured the burrito out of hunger, but felt like I could’ve probably had a better experience elsewhere in San Francisco.

It was ironic that a place called Cilantro did not have spices that were memorable.

The location of Cilantro certainly makes it competitive, especially since El Farolito nearby closes in the early afternoon on weekdays and weekends and most restaurants nearby are tourist traps. They also accept credit cards which makes it a more attractive option for travelers who may not be carrying cash like local do when frequenting restaurants.

The staff at Cilantro is also incredibly friendly and hospitable which can be a little difficult to find in Mexican dive restaurants that are often too busy to actually provide service to customers. The environment at Cilantro was relaxed and casual, the mobs of foodies are nowhere to be found at this dining spot. There was ample seating inside.

Overall, Cilantro has a few thing going for it but simply cannot compete with the household names that have made San Francisco famous for Super Burritos and continue to please the taste buds of hungry diners well into the wee hours of the morning and the shortfall ironically comes down to seasonings.

Restaurant Name: Cilantro SF Taqueria

Cuisine: Mexican

Neighborhood: North Beach

Address: 2257 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA 94133

Phone Number: (415) 655-9948

Cost: $$

Are the prices at San Francisco’s Jijime too good to be true?

I was in the Richmond District today and was looking for a bite to eat. A friend recommended Jijime to me. Jijime is a Korean restaurant that can also be described as Asian fusion since they also serve ramen and various Japanese dishes and appetizers.

I was thinking about ordering the Katsudon, a long-time favorite dish for me that I scoped out before my visit, but the waitress informed me quickly after seating that it was not available. The seafood pancake was also not available and clearly whited out on the menu. No matter – I decided I would move instead towards the bulgogi bowl ($12.95) and the okonomiyaki fries ($6).

Okonomiyaki Fries at Jijime restaurant in San Francisco's Outer Richmond area.

Okonomiyaki fries have become popular nationwide as a starter in Japanese pubs and trendy spots, but usually are underwhelming. That was not the case at Jijime. The fries were actually the best part.

Crispy and perfectly cooked, the texture and cut was similar to a McDonald’s french fry (recently named #1 by LA Times Food) with kewpie and katsu sauce mixed together. Yum. I was in love with these fries and devoured every last bite. The bonito flakes on top was a nice touch. I would order this again for sure, maybe with some other appetizers.

Bulgogi Bowl at Jijime in San Francisco.

Now the bulgogi. The bulgogi at Jijime was the disappointing part of my meal. It took quite some time to come out and when it finally did the actual serving of bulgogi meat seemed small and fluffed up by a huge amount of plain salad and white rice with noodles attached to the beef. The plating of it made it look even worse with large pieces of green lettuce covering most of the bowl (I actually pulled some out for my photo so it would show up in the shot).

The marinade for the bulgogi was sugary sweet and stomach acid reflux inducing. Restaurants that are catering to American sweet tooths will normally do this, but I don’t feel like it has become as common these days and especially not at an independent Korean restaurant. The actual cut of meat was fairly cheap and tasted like every bulgogi I’ve ever had at an All-You-Can-Eat Korean BBQ restaurant (which I intentionally don’t order to avoid it), except this portion was not unlimited.

Of course – the price for the bulgogi at Jijime is affordable at just $12.95 so I can understand that you can’t expect a great cut of meat for that price point, but to be honest I would rather be charged more and have a better cut of meat ($16-21 is standard in Florida) and actually like the meat than to pay less and be disappointed.

There were a number of things I wanted to try on the menu at Jijime and the ambiance of the restaurant is very welcoming and perfect for catching up with friends or a date.

Service was satisfactory, although I did find it a little odd that my waitress did not know what samgyeopsal is when I was asking about their pork belly dish and the taste of it. Her inability to explain the dish made me shy away from it.

Jijime also seems to be a nice spot to have a drink so that may be something to explore in the future. For now, I’ll just say that the okonomiyaki fries are excellent and that the bulgogi is completely disappointing and I will not order it again. I’ve had better bulgogi at restaurant chains and corporate concepts which is sad, but true. As the old saying goes: “you get what you pay for”.

Restaurant Name: Jijime

Cuisine: Korean, Japanese, Asian Fusion

Neighborhood: Outer Richmond

Address: 5524 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94121

Phone Number: (415) 221-5353

Cost: $$

Website: http://www.jijime.com

Seasons 52 Valentine’s Day menu tasting

Full disclosure: We were invited to Seasons 52 for a complimentary tasting of their Valentine’s Day menu options and a variety of dishes on their regular menu in exchange for our opinion. Opinions are our own and are not the opinions of Seasons 52 or its affiliates.

We popped over to Seasons 52 in Tampa for a tasting of their Valentine’s Day menu items and a few items off the regular menu. Here are thoughts on the things tried:

Starters

  1. Pinot Noir & Mini Riondo Prosecco paired with Flatbread Mushroom “Four mushroom” Goat cheese, truffle oil, scallions, four different mushrooms.

From the start we were served Pinot Noir as well as given a Mini Riondo Prosecco. Our server, Adam, recommended to pair the wines with one of their flatbreads on the menu. We felt that we needed to try the four mushroom flatbread, due to the umami flavors coming out of the cooked mushrooms and goat cheese being a perfect match for our wine.

Main Course

The presentation was wonderfully done, with my first bite I took a sip of wine and was met with satisfaction, just the right saltiness, buttery-flavor joined with the natural umami od the mushrooms as well as fresh greens to bring balance to the dish. It was truly a pair made from heaven. I wanted to gobble it down, but there was more food on the way.

  1. Grilled Artichokes with preserved lemon hummus – Celery hearts, radishes, green olives

          I was extremely curious to try the preserved lemon hummus as well as seeing how well it would pair with a grilled artichoke. To my surprise I was taken back by how delicious it was, the lemon hummus joined with the artichoke packed a flavorful punch that also went well with the starting wine. I truly enjoyed the presentation of the dish and the colors that popped such as the radish and the variety of beautiful color greens.

  1. Wood grilled Handline Tuna
    • Mint tabouli, tomato salad, preserved lemon hummus.

The wood grilled handline tuna was recommended immediately by our waiter. Morgan had no hesitation that this would be an amazing dish to have if you were looking for a seafood dish for your evening. Served on a bed of mint tabouli with an appealing, wood-grilled, handline tuna-seared to perfection with a beautiful display of tomatoes on top. The lemon hummus complimented the mint tabouli with wood-grilled seared tuna. It is a perfect rendition of sea meeting land joined by the natural flavours coming from the tomato. This is must order from Seasons 52!

  1. Slow braised Beef Short rib
    1. Stone ground cheddar grits, heritage carrots, horseradish crema

The slow braise Beef Short rib was the first recommended dish if seafood wasn’t an option. The presentation was beautifully done, the three different colored carrots appealed to my eyes, but I knew that the delicious gleaming slow-braised beef short rib was the star of the bowl. Seasons 52 literally blew me away with not just taste, but also the beauty of the dish. As I took my first bite, iIwas overwhelmed with the flavors, from the horseradish crema, combined with the cheddar grits, applied to the short rib, my mouth just continued to water as I chewed the delicious combination.

  1. Mac N Cheese
    • Cave-aged Gruyere cheese sauce, panko crust

You can never go wrong with a Mac N Cheese that is piping hot! The cave-aged gruyere cheese sauce had a beautiful rich creamy and slightly nutty taste. Gruyere cheese is usually found in fondue , so I knew what was coming towards my tastebuds. Absolutely an amazing combo that I truly enjoyed!

  1. Caramelized Brussels Sprouts

            Brussel sprouts cooked right is always delicious. Brussel sprouts cooked with a caramelization? Now that’s a star side dish, honestly it made me so happy, the profile of the flavors complimented each other so well. During my meal,  I found myself joining the flavors with the main meals that really continued to make my salivate.

  1. Maine Lobster Tails

The Maine Lobster was phenomenal, the grilled marks and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper with a coat of butter is always a magical flavor combination. It was extremely fresh and applying the roasted lemon to the tail joined the flavors like a proposal on the day of St. Valentine.

Did I mention that if you get engaged at Seasons 52 you get to enjoy a free champagne toast every time you dine for a year?             

It’s the perfect idea to propose love!


Dessert:

For dessert you can indulge with the various of flavor, such as: a strawberry shortcake with fresh cut strawberries topped with whip cream or a chocolate pudding smores shot with a graham cracker for the extra crunch.

My favorite dessert was the carrot cake, oh my goodness the flavors were amazing! It was creamy and packed with flavor. It is probably the best carrot cake I have ever enjoyed.

Seasons 52 also offers pecan pie, a tiramisu, and a coconut cookie cake, which were all wonderfully delicious as well.

Overall, we had a great time at Seasons 52. Check them out!

Restaurant Name: Seasons 52

Neighborhood: WestShore

Address: 204 North Westshore Boulevard, Tampa, FL 33609

Cost: $$

Phone Number: (813) 286-1152

Website: http://www.seasons52.com/

Review: WTR Pool & Grill Tampa

Hello!! My name is Natalie Kass and I’m a fellow travel blogger based in Tampa (see: Journey to the East). Last week, Carlos invited me to experience WTR Grill’s new dinner menu debut. I made it just in time to snag some beautiful photos with the setting sun, and dinner began shortly thereafter.

As a Florida native, I’m very familiar with beach hotels/restaurants. In fact, I’ve visited this location twice before and never knew about WTR Grill because the space was totally unrecognizable. Beachside venues are made to be transformable so they can accommodate diverse events — from weddings, to concerts, to formal events — which is why I never noticed the restaurant side of it!

The general aesthetic of beachside venues are always “beach themed,” meaning, light blues, soft lighting, and beach artifacts as decor. Usually, you can only get what I call “beach food” which might include burgers, fries, and chicken tenders — strictly casual dining items. However, WTR Grill’s new dinner menu offers more sophisticated dining options like NY Strip and Steamed Snapper!

In my opinion, the aesthetic of WTR Grill does not accurately reflect the upscale dining experience they’re trying to sell. For example, there was a large, empty space in the middle of the restaurant and ship rope hanging from the ceilings.

If they want their space to be cohesive with their menu, I would suggest keeping it traditional and elegant: fill the empty space with tables lined with nice tablecloths (rather than keeping the tables bare), and remove the ship rope and perhaps replace with a lattice design.

The actual dinner was served in 3 courses with 3 dishes each. Here is my review of all the menu items:

First course:

  • Chef’s Soup of the Day — Cajun style soup with sausage and okra

This soup is perfect for cold weather. Chef Joe Garcia explained that it was one of his sous chef’s homemade recipes that had been in her family for generations — you can definitely taste the love! The Cajun broth itself is loaded with spices and anchors the rest of the ingredients. If Florida gets hit with another cold front — I’m going back for seconds.

  • Apple Panzanella Salad

I was most skeptical about this dish because I don’t usually like fruit mingling with my veggies, but this salad actually turned out to be one of my favorites of the night! The sweet apples and tangy dressing were perfectly balanced — I ended up having 2-3 portions!

  • Kale Caesar Salad

While I wasn’t a huge fan of the kale itself (it had a lot of dressing on it), I really liked the baked cheese and multigrain bread that came along with it. The baked cheese was similar to a soft, cheese cracker and the multigrain bread was freshly baked, but I would order these 2 items as an appetizer without the kale.

Second Course:

  • Crispy Brussel Sprouts

Whenever I roast brussel sprouts at home, they have this distinct “roasted” taste, so I was expecting that when I tried this dish. However, these brussel sprouts maintained their fresh, green color. Not only that, but the bacon accompanying it was high quality and delicious!

Out of all 3 appetizers, if I were trying to get my greens in for the night, I would choose the Apple Panzanella Salad.

  • Caribbean Shrimp Lettuce Wrap

I was really looking forward to this dish as I anticipated a “mango-chili-salsa” experience….but it just wasn’t. The lettuce made the wrap taste bitter, so I decided to ditch the lettuce and just eat the shrimp and glaze. Still, there could have been more flavor — whether in a sweeter mango or a spicier glaze.

  • Smoked Salmon Dip

I, personally, am not a huge fan of Salmon or Lox sandwiches, which is what this dip reminded me of. I took one bite and decided it was not for me. For those who do like it, though, the dip was creamy and had lots of Salmon slices in it.

Third Course:

  • Pepper Crusted NY Strip Steak

When I used to work at a steakhouse, the chef taught me “If a steak is cooked right, you don’t have to put sauce on it!” Since then, I’ve never used A-1 sauce or any other kinds of sauces. Additionally, I usually order filets or sirloins, so I was excited to try a different cut. To my surprise, the strip came paired with a mushroom gravy which I decided to try “just for fun” — I am so glad I did because the gravy completes the steak! By itself, the steak was just okay (again, I prefer a filet or sirloin), but with the gravy? Amazing!!!! I would order the NY Strip again as long as it comes with the gravy.

  • Steamed Florida Snapper

Oddly enough, as a Floridian, I’m not a huge seafood fan. But when Chef Garcia explained that the Snapper was steamed with just a little bit of white wine and minimal spices, I decided I would try the fish. I was surprised by how much I liked this dish because I didn’t taste anything overly fishy at all! In fact, it tasted really clean. Additionally, the jasmine rice underneath was a nice touch because it soaked up all the flavor. As a non-seafood lover, I have been proven wrong and would definitely come back to order this.

  • Seafood Pasta (scallops / shrimp)

Usually when I eat a red-sauce pasta, I can taste the acidity from the tomato which is why I usually go for a creamy alfredo sauce. This seafood pasta, however, even though it was made with a red sauce, actually tasted sweet! I don’t know how they did it, all I know is that I went back for seconds! This dish is not overly fishy and it was my favorite dish of the night — I’ll be back soon to order it again.

Dessert:

  • Waffle Cone with Brownie & Ice Cream

The homemade waffle cone was crisp and not stale at all. I think the brownie inside was mixed with cookie dough because it wasn’t just a chocolate – it was chocolate, cookie, ice cream, and whipped cream all in one. I ate mine and my partner’s!

Overall, I enjoyed dining with a nice view of the Tampa Bay. I would most likely come back to WTR Grill after a day at the beach so I could enjoy something more sophisticated and creative than regular old “beach food!”

Restaurant Name: WTR Grill

Cuisine: American, Seafood

Neighborhood: Rocky Point

Address: 7700 W. Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa, FL 33607

Phone Number: (813) 281-0566

Menu: http://wtrpool.com/pool-grill-menu/

SF Beer Week 2019: Anchor Brewing Battle of the Bands

Today I had the pleasure of attending the Anchor Brewing Battle of the Bands at SoMa StrEat Food Park for the Battle of the Bands, a part of San Francisco Beer Week 2019.

Today was my first at the SoMa StrEat Food Park and I was impressed with all the food trucks and the park itself which was well-positioned for some terrible weather that mostly included cold winds and rain. There were heaters and plenty of covering from the wet weather…I have not seen this done in Florida.

Street Meet Tacos Truck at SoMa StrEat Food Park in San Francisco.
Carne Asada Super Taco from Street Meet Taco Truck in San Francisco at SoMa StrEat Food Park.

I tried the Street Meet Taco Truck which is originally from San Bruno. They were selling some a super taco with rice and beans for just $5 and I couldn’t say no to that. The carne asada was tasty and it was a great meal. I always appreciate when food trucks offer lite items that can allow you to visit other trucks and see what they have.

The Sarap Shop, Filino-American Food Truck food at SoMa StrEat Food Park in San Francisco.

My friend tried The Sarap Shop, which is a Filipino-American food truck with a number of unique offerings including vegan sisig. Their Why You Laing dish features Taro leaves with coconut milk sauce and looked really good. You can an egg to anything in true Filipino fashion.

Anchor Brewing was serving a number of their beers at the event. I had the California Lager (4.9% ABV) which certainly matched its description as crisp and clean in flavor. It was a great beer to enjoy on a cold day. Anchor Brewing is San Francisco and America’s oldest craft brewery that goes back to 1896 an was sold in 2017 to Sapporo Holdings for $85 million.

The best part of the whole event though was going over where the crowd was rocking out to a number of bands though with your beer and having an excellent time. People in San Francisco love to dance everywhere and this was no exception.

It was a good day.