USF Homecoming XX Food Truck Rally

Full disclosure: This is a sponsored post for Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally. I have been compensated for my time and writing. Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally works with more than 100 food trucks and books them for events, corporate and private catering, among other services. Opinions posted are my own and do not represent the views of Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally or businesses listed.

On Friday I visited the University of South Florida Sun Dome for a food truck rally for USF Homecoming XX. Food trucks were spread around the event including Boom Boom BoxChurroland TampaJust Smokin BBQ, Kebablicious, SantoriniSawadee Thai Food, and WING BOX. Homecoming is one of USF’s longest traditions, dating back to 1964, the year after USF’s first graduating class.

Boom Boom Burger

First we stopped at Boom Boom Box food truck. It was hard to decide what to order – but their Boom Boom Burger looked appetizing so we decided to order it. Indeed, it was an extremely delicious burger down to the last bite and a large portion that would be filling for hungry food truck rally attendees. The sauce really makes this burger and definitely makes me want to try the other things on the menu that utilize it. The fries were also great.

Sawadee Thai Food Truck

Next we stopped at Sawadee Thai Food Truck, not to be confused with Sawatdee Thai Cuisine located on 56th Street by USF. I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of a Thai food truck – but we decided that a Pad Thai would be a quick way to judge whether the food was good at Sawadee.

Chicken Pad Thai

I was surprised with both the portion size and dedication to quality on Sawadee Thai Food Truck. It tasted just as good as a Pad Thai you can get in a Thai restaurant and the price was fair at around $7. The attention to detail was there and the owners at the food truck were really friendly and remembered a friend of mine who visited the truck over a year ago.


One of the last things I tried was the noodles off the Sawadee Thai Food Truck. Also delicious and clear dedication to authentic cuisine. I’d definitely go back to this truck and try some other more exotic things in the future – they had quite a few choices and the prices were definitely inviting.

Overall, we had a blast wandering around the food truck rally trying different food at the rally and the weather was favorable thanks to Hurricane Matthew bringing in a cold front and lots of windy weather which is welcome after an extremely hot summer. This concluded our visit to the USF Homecoming XX Food Truck Rally.

Gyro Zone serves up excellent, affordable Lebanese food

There is this is hole-in-the-wall restaurant I have been frequenting by USF and the University Mall called Gyro Zone. It fits every definition of the phrase “hidden gem”.

The prices are fair and trend under $10 with student deals and combos that can appeal to the college students. The hours are also college-friendly with Gyro Zone open until midnight from Monday-Saturday (good luck finding a decent meal after 10PM at other places by campus). The food will leave your heart and stomach in a good place.

When you walk into Gyro Zone – you’re not sure what to expect. The place is simple enough – a long hallway with tables and a counter for ordering your food and pickup. The kitchen is open you so you can see the schwarma in all its fine excellence and their dedication to quality as they prepare the food.


Picking a menu item can be tough – I have trended towards chicken schwarma on most visits – simply because it is the best chicken schwarma I have had in the Tampa Bay area. It’s incredible. I usually grab it in a pita, but on my last visit yesterday I decided to go for the Schwarma Bowl which comes with rice, chicken schwarma, some veggies, and a drink. All for around $7. It. is. amazing.

Gyro Zone has 41 reviews on Yelp and seems to have organically reached a 5-star average, yet every time I visit the place isn’t busy which has me concerned, so here I am…writing my love to this excellent food. I have visited over 6 times in the last 3 weeks and I left happy and satisfied every single time.

The fries that they serve with their pita are better than Five Guys and cooked to perfection. The owner (I assume) and employees who work there are always super chill and friendly. They offer delivery (I hear they may be on UberEats soon? – let’s hope).


I finally tried the hummus on my last visit. I LOVE hummus – but my experiences with it are all over the place depending on what restaurant you eat it at. The hummus at Gyro Zone was excellent and came with some of their pita chips which I’ll add are also crazy good. Everything here is just on-point and exceeds expectations.

My friend was feeling adventurous yesterday and decided to order the cheeseburger at Gyro Zone. Sure – not an ode to Lebanese cuisine. However, I took a bite or two or three out of his burger and it was insanely delicious. I’m not sure if it was the sauce in the burger or the seasoning in the beef that made it taste so good – but this burger was not your average burger and it seems like that applies across the entire menu at Gyro Zone.

It’s hard to open a great, local business and restaurant in Tampa Bay and all the right elements are at Gyro Zone. All that is left is for people to go and experience it for themselves. Don’t just take my word for it. Go try it yourself. The prices are fair and the food is excellent.


Restaurant Name: Gyro Zone

Address: 2709 University Square Dr. Tampa, FL 33612

Phone Number: (813) 284-0777




Portillo’s Tampa NOW OPEN

Portillo’s opened their first location in Tampa this past Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 at 2102 East Fowler Avenue. I couldn’t resist stopping by to check out what was happening and grabbed a hot dog with some fries. I ran into Mark Sharpe from the Tampa Innovation Alliance during my visit. Look for some information about that shortly on


The location has the same exact design as the one over in Brandon, leaning towards a ’30s Prohibition-style and definitely is going to bring some new people to the neighborhood surrounding USF. The employees were just as friendly as the other location and the same attention to quality was obvious. Online ordering and a drive-thru are a plus, especially in the busy area around USF.


The food was great – as expected. The Portillo’s hot dog includes mustard, relish, celery salt, freshly chopped onions, sliced red ripe tomatoes, kosher pickle and sport peppers piled onto a perfectly steamed poppy seed bun. Portillo’s offers plenty of options at an affordable price and I know I will be a frequent customer at this location. Recently I’ve been hearing about ribs at this location and that I need to try it – and that is the next thing on my list!


Overall, I’m super excited for Portillo’s to be in the neighborhood and looking forward to them being a big part of the growing community around here. Welcome to Tampa Portillo’s!

Restaurant Name: Portillo’s

Address: 2102 E Fowler Ave. Tampa, FL 33612

Phone Number: (813) 540-9001



YO! Sushi Ramen Mania Party

Full disclosure: This is a sponsored blog post by YO! Sushi. I have been compensated for my time and writing and helped plan this event. These opinions are fully my own and do not represent the views of YO! Sushi. 

This past Thursday I hosted an event with YO! Sushi at the International Plaza and Bay Street in WestShore called Ramen Mania. During the event we partnered together on we featured new additions to the YO! Sushi menu including ramen noodles, udon noodles, limited-edition poke bowls, as well as new sushi rolls and menu items. Attendees were able to meet the staff and chefs who make sushi happen daily at YO! Sushi and see them in action – something you can do as well if you sit in front of the kitchen at the restaurant.

YO! Sushi Blue Mondays $3.50 deal

In addition, we featured a new promotion at YO! Sushi in the USA called Blue Mondays. On Blue Mondays at participating YO! Sushi locations, you can find 40 dishes on special for $3.50. 31 of these dishes on special are completely new. You can check out the current Blue Mondays special here. When I first met the YO! Sushi staff last year they mentioned rolling this out to the USA and I’m glad it is now in our market. It’s an easy way to take friends to try YO! Sushi out and try new things at a cheaper price.

We also featured the new Happy Hour at YO! Sushi. Happy Hour happens Tuesday-Friday at YO! Sushi between 3:30PM and 6:30PM. Participants can enjoy $1 off all plates, $2 sake shots, $3 domestic beers, and $4 house wines during this special and is only valid here in Tampa and in Sarasota.

I was joined by members of the Tampa Bay Bloggers Group including Orangespoken, Live.Sweat.Sleep.Repeat, and Pennies In My Pocket. We were also joined by the Foodies Club at USF, Tampa Bay Eats Out, and Hidden Tampa.

YO! Sushi Poke Bowls

One of the things featured during the tasting was the new poke bowls YO! Sushi is serving. Poke bowls have caught on pretty rapidly in the restaurant industry and I have yet to really enjoy one in Tampa from most places – it always seems overpriced (normally $10-$20) or just uninteresting – sometimes the sauce they are drenched in are also overbearing. The poke bowls at YO! Sushi have a good balance – and you have the option of adding sauce or spicy mayo if need be (personally I recommend the tuna poke bowl with some spicy mayo).

The three poke bowls available are chicken, tuna, and tofu. Of the three my favorite is the tofu. The sesame sauce used with it is excellent and the bowl is balanced. You can see a serving sample below. All three poke bowls are $4.50 which is fair and allows you to enjoy something else with it like a sushi roll or appetizer. One thing I appreciate is that despite the fact that poke bowls are a food trend, the price isn’t crazy on this menu item.

YO! Sushi Tofu Poke Bowl

Another addition to the menu that we tried during the tasting party was YO! Sushi’s new ramen noodles. There are a variety of ramen and udon noodles now on the menu for those who loves soups – just in time for colder months really (hopefully if Florida can finally cool off). They are less than $5 and a nice alternative to miso soup with plenty of actual noodles and broth. I can definitely see myself combining a bowl of soup with a protein or some sushi rolls. The garlic ramen is pictured below.

No doubt the new soups on the menu at YO! Sushi are a response to the ramen craze that is sweeping the nation (hence the name of the event: Ramen Mania). Ramen restaurants are opening left and right around Tampa Bay, offering gourmet ramen for about $14-$20 that is hit or miss. Sometimes though you just want a quick bowl and don’t want to shell out that kind of cash. That’s why I think these ramen and udon noodles options are a great addition to the menu from a purely business and consumer point-of-view.

YO! Sushi Ramen

YO! Sushi Seafood Udon Noodles

The spicy seafood udon noodles had a tasty broth and plenty of ingredients in it.

Shrimp Tempura Ramen at @YOSushi. #ramenmania #eatlikeTia

A photo posted by Tia Smith (@penniesinmypocket) on

Speaking of protein – my favorite thing to order at YO! Sushi that isn’t new to the menu, but I must mention simply because I order it EVERY single time I go there is their Chicken Katsu Curry. I am a HUGE fan of chicken katsu and especially well-made Japanese curry. Maybe it’s because YO! Sushi is based out of London, their chicken katsu curry is one of the best ones of I have ever eaten in the Tampa Bay area and only $5.

One of the hard parts of being a katsu fan and eating sushi is that you normally have to choose between katsu and sushi because katsu is normally $14-$18 for dinner and with a sushi roll you’re easily breaking $30. The chicken katsu curry at YO! Sushi is excellent and inexpensive in comparison and tastes more authentic than a number of competing restaurants in the area.

If I’m at the mall for a quick stop, I’ll grab a chicken katsu curry to-go and eat it in the car. It’s just that good.

We also tried a number of new sushi rolls, appetizers, and sushi options. In general, YO! Sushi is constantly expanding and changing their menu with food trends. It definitely keeps thing interesting. From the sushi menu there is quite a few twists from the original menu worth trying.



YO! Sushi Chefs

Throughout the event we engaged with the chef and staff and saw them in action making sushi and all the things you’ll find on the conveyor belt at YO! Sushi. There is an open kitchen at YO! Sushi where you can see this happen daily – but since most people sit in the booth, some people might be unaware that everything is made fresh daily at YO! Sushi. All the chefs are really passionate about food and can roll some sushi out at quite a rapid pace.

YO! Sushi now also offers delivery through Grubhub and catering in case you can’t make it over.

Then there is dessert – mochi and doriyaki are light and an easy end to a meal. These are some great shots from Austin from Hidden Tampa:

YO! Sushi Tasting

Thus the tasting party came to an end, but it won’t be long until I am back at YO! Sushi for my next bowl of chicken katsu curry and tofu poke bowl.

YO! Sushi. International Plaza and Bay Street, 2223 N. Westshore Blvd, Tampa, FL 33607. (813) 569-7970. 


Morimoto Asia Tasting @ Disney Springs

Last week I had the pleasure of heading to Disney Springs for a tasting at Morimoto Asia and STK. Both restaurants are fairly new to the area and part of the new developments happening all over the shopping, restaurant, and entertainment complex.

This year both restaurants will be participating in Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month from August 29th, 2016 to October 2nd, 2016. Magical Dining Month features over 90 restaurants in the Orlando area with 3-course prix-fixe dinners for $33. This is a great way to try a restaurant and see if you want to go there for an anniversary or get-together without breaking the bank. Many of the restaurants are also in the higher-end category and would be costly as a regular diner. The prix-fixe choices matter – of course.

Here are my thoughts from the tasting:

Morimoto has 3 appetizer choices: miso soup + house salad, assorted dim sum, and kakuni pork buns. The soup/salad option are great for people who want a light start to their meal and offers plenty to start. Personally I was a huge fan of the kakuni pork buns. Kakuni is a Japanese braised pork dish meaning “square-simmered” – the pork belly in this bun literally melted on your tongue…it was exquisite. Personally I love pork belly, but there are still options available for those who may not be as interested.

Entree options include orange chicken, lo mein (meat or veggie), LA BBQ kalbi, and a sweet & sour branzino filet. All 4 entrees are appealing depending on your taste.

The orange chicken was clearly prepared using the more authentic orange peel tart recipe and not the American sugary orange sauce. It was very enjoyable and cooked just crispy enough. The side bok choy was incredible too – the sauce on top of it excellent. Personally I am not a huge fan of lo mein – this one was better than what I am used to – but wouldn’t be my first choice on the menu.

The LA BBQ kalbi was easily my favorite. I am picky with my Korean food after living abroad and in general whenever I eat kimchi that I can enjoy (more restaurants get it wrong than right in Florida) and as a fan of Korean BBQ – this BBQ was true to the original flavor of LA kalbi while also spicing it up for a more classy experience. The cuts of meat were great and the dish was balanced. I would probably order the LA BBQ kalbi on every visit to Morimoto if possible (or the delicious peking duck not on this special menu).

I want to say that it is very interesting how Morimoto’s restaurant features a wide variety of Asian cuisines, but represents them all well. Sometimes chefs take too much liberty when preparing Asian dishes to the point where the actual root of the food is lost – but Morimoto Asia puts their own sauces and twists on dishes while keeping the authenticity there and I really like that.

Finally there is the sweet & sour branzino filet which features a seabass. This dish was flavorful and made well – but to me not my choice when I have Korean BBQ and great a great chicken option as well. Still – the sauce and preparation of this dish were far from what you’ll normally find.

Then on to dessert! Options include the MM soda float made with Japanese Ramune soda (my favorite!), boba, mixed berries, and gelato, churro fondue, and red bean sesame balls. There dishes also really depend on your preference. The churro fondue is the safest choice of the 3 – but is by no means lacking in flavor with nutella and vanilla cream.

I have never seen Japanese soda used for a dessert before and I really thought it was original to see on it on a menu at Morimoto. In fact, most restaurants don’t even carry Japanese soda – but personally I love it and prefer it against American soda brands. The MM soda float was fun to enjoy as well – pouring the soda over the gelato and watching it bubble up. Side note: If you’re feeling an alcohol drink at Morimoto – I really recommend trying the white lily martini which is made with Calpico – an uncarbonated Japanese soft drink…it is perhaps the best martini I have ever had.

Finally, the red bean sesame balls live up to expectations – but may be an acquired taste and something people who are not used to Asian flavors may be shy against trying – which is understandable – but definitely worth trying.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on STK!

Morimoto Asia. Disney Springs Marketplace, 1600 Buena Vista Dr, Orlando, FL 32830. (407) 939-6686.

Local Legendary Burger @ Hard Rock Cafe Tampa

Full disclosure: I was invited by the Hard Rock for a complimentary tasting of their new burger. The opinions expressed are my own based on my experience.

This past Monday I visited the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino restaurant, Hard Rock Cafe, to taste their Local Legendary Burger: Old Bay Burger. The idea of the burger is to prepare something in-house that has “local flavor and flair”. During my visit I also tried an appetizer, drink special, and dessert.

Southwest Chicken Flatbread

I started off with the Southwest Chicken Flatbread as an appetizer. Flatbreads always sound great when I order them and they are usually disappointing. Not the case with the Southwest Chicken Flatbread at the Hard Rock Cafe. This was one of the best flatbreads I have eaten in the Tampa Bay region. It captured a nice mix of flavors and had fresh avocados served on top. The crust had just the right crunchy – not too crispy or too tough. I highly recommend this.

Summertime Blues drink

The Summertime Blues drink is a special added to the menu currently. It is made with Blueberry Real syrup, house-made lemonade, and Red Bull Yellow energy drink. The mixture is sweet and packed with plenty of energy. This beverage is non-alcoholic.

Local Legendary Burger

Local Legendary Burger

After the appetizer was gone, the main course arrived: the Local Legendary Burger called the Old Bay Burger. Named after Old Bay Seasoning – a product of Maryland where crabs are plentiful. The burger utilizes a crab cake mixture laid on top of the burger (important to note for anyone with allergies).

I really enjoyed this burger – it’s totally different from what you’d normally find on a menu and it’s really filling as you can see in the photograph. You can taste the seasoning in each bite and how the different parts of the burger interact. Part of me wanted to actually just have the crab cake part and cut out the beef just to see how that might change the mix of flavors – it was enjoyable regardless though. The chef also made a sauce to accompany the burger.

I’d love to hear people’s opinions on what they think of the Local Legendary at the Hard Rock Cafe and see how it compares to my experience.

Key Lime Pie

Finally, the meal ended with the dessert. The newest addition to the Hard Rock Cafe is their Key Lime Pie so I decided to go with that. The filling was reminiscent of a flan due to it being soft and almost like pudding. The taste was not too sour or sweet – somewhere in between. The crust was excellent and definitely the highlight of the dessert.

Thus the meal came to an end. There are plenty of new things worth trying at the Hard Rock Cafe whether you are looking for a snack or a meal.

Hard Rock Cafe. 5223 Orient Rd., Tampa, FL 33610. (813) 627-7757

La Malinche Mexican Restaurant

During my visit to St. Armand’s Circle this past weekend, my parents and I were surprised to spot a new Mexican restaurant in the area.  Interested, we decided to give it a shot a few hours after visiting Tommy Bahama. The outside of the restaurant only says Mexican restaurant, we learned the name of the restaurant when we sat at the bar which had a Budweiser sign glowing with the restaurant name: La Malinche.  The bartender greeted us and informed us it was his first day. We soon found out why he was previously unemployed.

My parents and I decided to order some tacos and some drinks. I decided to have the Tacos al Pastor which consists of 4 tacos filled with marinated pork, onions, and pineapples with cilantro and onions on the side ($12.95). The tacos come with rice. The bartender had a comment for every step of our order and was completely passive-aggressive towards the party throughout the meal. The food came out lightning quick, we did not wait for longer than five minutes for our food and it was warm.

I was surprised with how great the tacos were. The tortillas tasted freshly made and the pork was seasoned perfectly. The pineapples were a great pair for the pork with the cilantro and onions. The rice tasted like canned rice as did the beans we ordered on the side, however the overall taste of the meal was great. After we received our food things took a turn for the worst.

The entire restaurant ran out of Coca-Cola (which everyone in my party was drinking – either in a mixed alcoholic beverage or as regular soda). Instead of the bartender offering anything else to drink, he simply went on his way and when questioned about the drinks only replied that they were searching other restaurants for soda donations. We had some salsa chips at our table which combined with salty Mexican food made lacking a beverage just uncomfortable.

I finally grabbed the attention of the bartender and asked him if they had anymore horchata. He had no clue what that was and brought me a liquor menu. In the middle of this conversation, a waitress approached us with some tacos looking for whose they were. The bartender leaped for joy because he was hungry and this was his. He then grabbed his food and marched to the back, completely ignoring the fact that I was in the middle of asking for a drink. When he came back to the bar he pretended like it never happened.

Luckily, another employee eventually grabbed me something to drink since apparently this bartender had no intentions of doing his job  and now I know why the majority of the Foursquare tips and Urbanspoon reviews for this restaurant denounce the service here. What I found to be particularly funny was that the restaurant itself has reviewed itself on Urbanspoon four times with stellar reviews each time. They aren’t shy, their username is even “La Malinche”. How blatant.

After this service debacle, I doubt I will ever return to La Malinche and if I ever did it would most certainly be a takeout order. The high prices certainly don’t reflect the quality of the service. The restaurant has almost been in the circle for a year so I think it’s time for them to fix this issue. It’s really a shame because the food there is great, if only they could hire better employees and have better management.

La Malinche on Urbanspoon

Restaurant name: La Malinche

Cuisine: Mexican

Neighborhood: St. Armand’s Circle

Address: 40 S Blvd.Of Presidents Sarasota, FL 34236

Phone Number: (941) 388-4444