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Film Review: The Rise of Skywalker was great, actually

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

As the internet battles over whether The Last Jedi was the best way for the series to go (nearly 2 years later), The Rise of Skywalker has finally hit theaters and ended the 9 movie Star Wars series. There were ups and there were downs, but the battle between Jedi and Sith has come to a close.

J.J. Abrams brought a thoughtful conclusion to the series that wrapped up most loose-ends and provided closure on a number of pressing questions, while still leaving some storylines wide-open for any future adaptations or side stories. The ride to the end was an emotional one that Rey (Daisy Ridley) played well. I felt the emotions take over me numerous times as she struggled with her final mission.

The original Star Wars trilogy was a story of family and friendship. The bond between Luke, Leia, and Han Solo is found in the new cast and despite being sent on different paths in The Last Jedi, its comforting to see the gang join back up for the last battle against the dark side.

The Last Jedi actually did a good job of helping Finn and Rey grow into their new personas and J.J. Abrams did a great job of working in what happened in TLJ into The Rise of Skywalker instead of completely undoing what happened in the last installment, like Rian Johnson did to The Force Awakens. The continuity issues created in the last movie create a time crunch that does make the movie a non-stop action and emotion journey, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Critics pan this as a move to undo what Johnson did in the prior installment, which they found to be a breath of fresh air from light saber battles and space battles, but that’s what Star Wars is. People complaining about Jedis and light sabers should probably find another movie to watch in their free time like Knives Out.

Star Wars has a loyal fan base that Lucasfilm massively upset in the prior installment that set Jedi trees on fire and brought Yoda in to tell fans to shut up and let their childhoods go. Disney decided to reverse course after Solo bombed at the box office and go back to the fans and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Star Wars is a Skywalker family story. From Anakin Skywalker to Ben Solo, they are the fabric and lore that make Star Wars core. The Rise of Skywalker rightfully celebrates that with an all-star ensemble from the past and further pushes the new cast into their future.

There are parallels to the past, but also notable changes that show growth and change in the force. I was most impressed again with Kylo Ren or Ben Solo. He went from a spoiled brat in the first movie to someone I could finally empathize with. His tragic circumstances and lonely life are far from the direct family he comes from, but well-connected to his grandfather Anakin Skywalker who shamefully destroyed all the love and family he had in his life trying to save his love. Ben makes a different choice and the galaxy is better for it.

Throughout all of The Rise of Skywalker, life and death are constantly in the balance. The Star Destroyer kill machines destroy entire planets, while the cast all fight for their own survival in one way or another. Not everyone is victorious, but despite all the challenges, what the audience gets is a true story that has a beginning, middle, and end. That was no easy task for someone handed a story where everything means nothing and all the meaning from the first part of the trilogy was erased, but J.J. Abrams successfully delivered that.

In a way the movie does feel like all the fan predictions come to life in one way or another (minus the Jar Jar Binks is Snoke theory), but all the processes that lead there make sense from a story telling point of view and are explained in ways that are both reasonable and rational.

In contrast, the prior installment was often irrational and threw complete chaos into the trilogy. Some people may view that as art, but it is actually just bad storytelling. The blame for this mostly rests on Lucasfilm who did not creatively control the projects and allowed them to spin out of control. That’s the only local explanation for having Snoke introduced a villain and somehow ending with Palpatine as the big bad guy (non-fans probably don’t even know who he is).

The explanation of Palpatine as the bad force that existed all along makes sense to anyone who has ever finished a long series in an anime, where the big bad is actually just reincarnations of prior villains – the dark energy is just moving between bodies and constantly coming to kill off the heroes until it is finally vanquished. Palpatine is both creepy and convincing as an all powerful bad guy. When he first appeared I was shook.

It would have been easy to just turn Kylo Ren into a loyal and submissive Vader clone, but his constant resistance against any form of control is refreshing. Kylo Ren is complex, but Ben Solo’s love for his mother is something that anyone can relate it. One of the moments in the Last Jedi that most struck me was the hesitation Kylo showed before his mother’s ship was destroyed. It was very human, no matter how strained we always feel a bond to the woman who gave birth to us. Kylo always felt beyond redemption or saving, but it was his mothers love that eventually led him to the light within in the Rise of Skywalker. Its in the nature of mothers to love their sons no matter what, and Leia spent her whole life believing in her son. That was very real.

Rey on the other hand is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker and is quite naive, but her friends and experiences help to strengthen her and make her a much more cunning person. She is the ultimate hero, willing to sacrifice anything to save her friends, but also wanting love, a family, and home.

Luke and Leia both take Rey under their wing throughout this trilogy and the ending of this movie so perfectly shows that family is the people that love you, not necessarily your blood. Rey’s loneliness in The Force Awakens and her timeless friendships and love at the end of The Rise of Skywalker show strong character development, growth, and a story well told. She has changed completely by the end and anyone who watched all three will feel that journey.

The Rise of Skywalker is also filled with plenty of laughs thanks to C-3PO, Poe Dameron, R2-D2, Chewbacca, and others in the cast. Although the storyline is very serious, it never becomes too serious to handle and the constant action helps to keep the movie from becoming too dramatic as well.

Although the movie is 142 minutes, they mostly breeze by and that is hard to say about many movies nowadays that waste time with pointless scenes and backstories that nobody wants to watch. The Rise of Skywalker is well-edited and seamlessly moves from one scene to the next. The Last Jedi noticeably wasted time with a ridiculous and laughably bad no fuel space chase as well as missions gone wrong with Poe, Rose, and Finn.

I personally would have loved some more scenes between Rey and Finn, its understandable that their paths are fundamentally different though. The Rise of Skywalker never fails to remind us that Rey is very important to Finn though and so is the force and resistance. This movie is about a war that has wrecked the lives of many including the main cast and the battle comes first.

Personally, I’ll go back to watch The Rise of Skywalker again and again. It’s a fitting ending for the series. Fans and critics can battle online, but there’s no denying that the laughably badly acted prequels have nothing on this trilogy that found its footing in the end.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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Council Oak Steaks & Seafood offers diners a ‘social hour’ worth trying

Full disclosure: I was invited to Council Oak Steaks & Seafood for a media dinner where food was served complimentary. These opinions are my own and do not reflect Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

Tampa is a happy hour town. You can wander to most bars and find a decent happy hour menu with cheeses, small bites, and discounted cocktails on any given day of the week. Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa is doing things are little differently at Council Oak Steaks & Seafood.

Instead of offering heavily discounted appetizers with tiny bites, Council Oak has opted instead to provide diners with shareable entries that offer complexity in flavors that you might not find anywhere else in Tampa. The price points will run anywhere from $10 to $40 depending on the item.

The most noticeable item on the menu, which occurs daily from 3PM-6PM for a limited time, is the Japanese Wagyu Carpaccio ($15). I am a fan of beef carpaccio in general, but the bold flavors of the wagyu on top of a crostini is not to be missed. The heavy flavors of the meats on the menu almost ensures you are going to want beer or a cocktail to wash down your food and luckily they have provided some great choices.

During my visit I had the Vina Cobos Felino Malbec ($12) which was a great red to pair with the meat dishes, especially the Council Oak Prime Burger ($22), rich with flavor and an egg with yolk that will run all over your tongue. The portion is generous, but the price certainly makes this something you want to share. The added truffle fries are just another layer in a meal that will most certainly be a pleasant trip for diners.

The Council Oak Bacon ($14), aged in-house, is for true believers only. Four thick slabs of bacon will arrive on your table with a tiny side salad. The balsamic reduction will perfectly complement the fatty pork in your mouth. It reminds me of a millionaire’s bacon, but more refined.

For those looking for something on the lighter side, there is the Council Oak House Salad ($11). This salad features salami, prosciutto, bacon, tomatoes, egg, mozzarella, and house dressing. It is an excellent salad and perfect with some wine. The tomatoes and dried egg yolk on top is my favorite part. The salami is also excellent and noticeably not too salty.

There are several other options on the social hour menu such as Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, Tuna Tartare, Caesar Salad, a N.Y. Strip Steak Sandwich, and a Beef Tenderloin, but personally I wanted to experience things I can’t find anywhere else. I would still be interested in trying them in the future though after seeing how masterfully everything was served at Council Oak for social hour.

Social Hour at Council Oak Steaks & Seafood offers excellent options that can be shared by diners before a night on the town. The elegant environment of the bar complements the menu that seems to have been carefully planned. I recommend stopping by soon to try it.

Restaurant Name: Council Oak Steaks & Seafood

Venue: Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Tampa

Address: 5223 Orient Rd, Tampa, FL 33610

Phone Number: (813) 627-7600

Website: http://www.seminolehardrocktampa.com/dining/fine-dining/council-oak-steaks-and-seafood

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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

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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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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/

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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

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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: $$

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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

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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/