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Reviews

El Puerto Argentinean Grill

El Puerto Argentinean Grill may be the first Argentinean restaurant I have dined at in my life and I was completely impressed with the food at this hidden gem in Ybor City. The restaurant is found on 5th Avenue near a cigar shop and various housing, nestled away behind the 7th Avenue strip. My family was originally out to have some Japanese cuisine, but after a mention of El Puerto as we drove on Adamo past Ybor, my family immediately made a detour.

The restaurant has a modest look, clearly a hole-in-the-wall with one dining room and a bar. Two main entrances. The smell outside the restaurant was fantastic and when we entered the restaurant, the pleasant aromas only became greater. We sat ourselves and within about ten minutes our waitress arrived at our table. Like many hole-in-the-wall restaurants the service at El Puerto could have been better. Many have noted the servers don’t seem primarily happy to be working and as long as my food comes out hot and flavorful without any rudeness, I can live with that. The wait time on the food is lengthy as well, don’t come in if you aren’t willing to wait more than an hour to receive your food.

The waitress understood English, but it was clear Spanish was her preference. I had an Inca Kola and the waitress was quick to bring our drinks. She dropped off some bread and then the wait began. We had plenty of time to talk about anything and everything, each time the waitress came in with a huge plate of meat we became more excited for what was to come. El Puerto gives you a bang for your buck, the dinner entrees range from $10-$20, but can feed 2-3 people.

I was particularly hungry and ordered their $2 Empanada Argentina (Argentine-style beef turnover in a fluffy pastry shell) in addition to the $12 Lomo Saltado (strips of skirt steak sautéed with red onions, served with French fries and white rice) as my main course. The waitress brought us some bread and butter to start our meal.

The bread was soft and the warm. The pieces were large enough to help hold over the wait.

The Argentinean empanada arrived. Different in appearance from the Puerto Rican empanadas I am used to. The shell was soft instead of crunchy. The meat inside was seasoned well and full of flavor, it did not need cheese or any additions. The empanada also came out hot, clearly fresh. It did not take long for this empanada to disappear from my plate.

About an hour later the Lomo Saltado arrived.

The steak came out sizzling hot. The rice warm and soft. There was so much steak that I had a whole portion to take home after eating. The red onions on top were juicy and crunchy, only adding to the steak. The steak needed no sauce, it was perfect just the way it was made. It has been quite a long time since I had a steak this tender that was cooked all the way. The steak just melted in my mouth, there was no need to cut it down into tiny pieces. The French fries were fantastic, and I would go as far as to say this Lomo Saltado was the best I have ever had.

The silence at the table spoke for the excellence of the food. The wait was worth it. I haven’t eaten that much in a long time and I credit the excellent flavors of El Puerto Argentinean Grill. There were many things I saw on the menu that interested me for future visits. My parents rave that El Puerto has the best chicken they have ever had. The Chicharron de Calamar, Baby Churrasco, and Peruvian pastas were just a few of the entrees I contemplated having during my visit. El Puerto also has a lunch menu with a modified menu and sandwiches/burgers that I would like to try as well. I am sure I will be back.

El Puerto Argentinean Grill on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: El Puerto Argentinean Grill

Cuisine: Spanish, Argentinean, Peruvian, Seafood

Neighborhood: Ybor City

Address: 1623 E 5th Ave. Tampa, FL 33605

Phone Number: (813) 248-8222

Website: http://www.elpuertoybor.com/

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Reviews

SoHo Sushi North

I have been by SoHo Sushi North numerous times, but never stopped in until this past week. It is the same plaza as the fantastic Wood Fired Pizza, and these two restaurants really do make this plaza boom with foodie activity. I first heard of SoHo Sushi when they became a sponsor for the Japanese Club at USF‘s “A Night in Tokyo” cultural event (a Japanese cultural-themed dinner).

We came during their “Happy Hour” which is from 5:00PM-7:00PM everyday and offers $5-7 special rolls and appetizers as well as 2-4-1 house wine, draft beer, and hot sake. USF students can get 10% off with their student ID making SoHo Sushi North affordable for the college students nearby and for diners who don’t mind having dinner early.

We decided to order two appetizers: their $5 Sunomono (cucumber salad topped with crab, steamed shrimp, octopus, and fined with rice wine vinaigrette) and $6 Geso (Japanese style calamari, flash fried and dressed in ponzu sauce).

The sunomono was excellent and had a very refreshing taste to it. It was a nice start to our meal and whenever we wanted to refresh our taste buds throughout our meal the rice vinaigrette really hit the spot. The shredded crab and shrimp were delicious and although I don’t like cucumbers on my sushi (I feel it detracts from the taste of the fish), I love cucumber on the side with some sauce. There was enough for two people to share so I say $5 is not a bad price for some sunomono.

The geso was quite a change in taste buds from the sunomono we had before it. The calamari was a little rough, but still quite tasty and the ponzu sauce was the best part of this appetizer. We could have dipped almost anything into the sauce and been happy. Although the geso wasn’t my favorite food of the night it was pretty good and I think I would try it again and see if maybe the chef just timed the cooking a little off on the appetizer. $6 is a great price for calamari. It is a nice switch from the usual calamari found in most restaurants and the batter was noticeably less greasy as well.

We decided to order four rolls and went with the K-Town Roll ($6), Lobster Tempura Roll ($6), SoHo Roll ($5), and Tuna Fresh Roll ($7). They came rather quickly and it wasn’t long before we had a pile of food in front of us. The Lobster Tempura Roll (top right) was tasty on the inside, but the outside tasted a little odd…like the tempura didn’t reach the amount of crunch one desires when having a tempura roll. Still definitely worth the price, but a little off what we wanted.

The fish was good in the other rolls, but the mayo was a little off-putting. My friend mentioned that the mayo tasted American and I couldn’t help but agree. The mayo was detracting from the roll and indeed the two rolls that had mayo on them would have been better without it. On the other hand, the rice paper was a refreshing change from your average sushi roll and kept the sushi from becoming too heavy. I also thought the tuna and salmon were both appetizing and my friend commented that the tempura chips were great.

Overall, I would say the sushi at SoHo Sushi North was good, but not the best I have had. They face fierce competition in the area with Tomo Sushi and Joy of Tokyo within a few minutes of driving distance and Tokyo Sushi Japanese Restaurant down on Fowler Avenue. SoHo is really a seller because of the good deals they offer with their Happy Hour and USF 10% student discount that few sushi restaurants will match nearby. With the rough economic times everyone faces today you can’t deny a good deal.

As we were about to close our check we decided we would have some dessert and order their fried ice cream for $6 (pictured below). The ice cream tasted satisfactory (not too sweet and the fried piece on top was a pleasant finish) and was a nice close to our meal.

Soho Sushi on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: SoHo Sushi North

Cuisine: Japanese

Neighborhood: USF

Address: 2826 E. Bearss Avenue Tampa, Florida 33613

Phone Number: 813.977.8744

Website: http://www.sohosushinorth.com

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Reviews

Father’s Day at The Columbia in Ybor City

My family decided to spend this Father’s Day at The Columbia in Ybor City. We decided we wanted to surprise my step-father and we succeeded. My step-sister and I arrived around one o’ clock, The Columbia was busy but seemed to be handling the father’s day rush just fine. We were seated about twenty minutes early and the waitress kindly serviced us while we waited for my step-father to arrive. Before he arrived we already had fresh Cuban bread in front of each seat and a fried calamari on the way. The look on his face when his children were in wait was priceless to say the least.

The fried calamari came out quickly and was delicious. The tangy sauce it came with complemented it well and it wasn’t long before the calamari disappeared off the table (hence no photograph). My parents ordered a 1905 salad for the table and it was quite delicious, though I am used to enjoying this salad at regular visits to The Columbia Cafe. I decided to order a George’s Burger for my main course (not available at The Columbia Cafe), remembering a fine taste to it at The Columbia in the St. Petersburg Pier (are you starting to see that my family loves The Columbia now? 😉 ).

The description of a George’s Burger on the menu is “grilled seasoned choice ground beef topped with cheddar cheese, Ruskin tomatoes, lettuce, onions, ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard on Cuban bread”, and I had almost all of those except for mustard (I only like mustard on hot dogs and corn dogs). The Cuban bread was a little harder to chew than a regular bun, but the flavor of their fresh Cuban bread was worth it. I also made quite a mess with the ingredients inside. Overall, the burger was great and seasoned well, although I was starting to feel full when I got the first half.  I saved the other half and it was just as delicious when I re-heated it for lunch the next day. The french fries were also tasty and although it looked like a small portion at first glance, I found myself struggling to finish them.

The service was impeccable as The Columbia in Ybor City consistently delivers customer satisfaction on each visit. I always feel a little guilty dining out during a holiday because I sympathize with the employee who is missing their family to earn a little extra cash (especially during these hard times), but our server and her co-workers were friendly and didn’t show any signs of longing to be elsewhere. Until next time Columbia, I’m sure we will meet again.

Columbia Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: The Columbia

Cuisine: Spanish

Neighborhood: Ybor City

Address: 2117 East 7th Avenue Tampa, FL 33605

Phone Number: (813) 248-4961

Website: http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/

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Reviews

Lee House Chinese Restaurant

Lee House Chinese Restaurant has re-opened on Brandon Boulevard after closing off Bloomingdale Avenue in March. I first read about Lee House online and was intrigued at the positive reception. The first thing we noticed upon pulling up to the restaurant was that it smelled great outside the restaurant (a good sign). Once we entered we were seated immediately and given menus and water. The waitress was an older woman who knew the menu well. After much deliberation (the menu is a few pages), we decided to order the Lee House Special (similar to Yummy House’s 3 for 20 deal). We selected Salt & Pepper Calamari, Beef with Broccoli, and Young Chow Fried Rice which came to $21.95 total. Quite a deal when you dine with some friends.

Plenty of warm food came out quickly. The Salt & Pepper Calamari was delicious. My favorite calamari dish now belongs to Roy’s, but this calamari was still quite delectable and was a good stand-in for the calamari at Yummy House (my favorite until recently). The calamari was a little chewy instead of crunchy, but had lots of flavor. I was a little concerned that it had jalapenos on it (I can’t take spicy food), but the jalapenos brought the calamari a great taste. We finished this plate down to the last bite.

The Beef with Broccoli was also fantastic. The sauce was made just right and the beef was tender. I am not much of a vegetable consumer, but my friend loved the veggies on the plate. The Young Chow Fried Rice was a nice complement and wasn’t dry. I am not much of a rice eater, therefore anytime I actually enjoy eating rice, I know I am having a good meal.

The food was enough to fill three guys and I was impressed with Lee House. There are very few good Chinese restaurants in Brandon and dining at Lee House was enjoyable. I really want to try their Dim Sum in the future. From the Dim Sum menu the Deep Fried Taro, Custard Cream Buns, and Juicy Pork Bun caught my eye. Glad this place was able to find a new home in Brandon. I will be back!

Lee House Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: Lee House Chinese Restaurant

Cuisine: Chinese

Neighborhood: Brandon

Address: 909 W. Brandon Blvd., Brandon, FL 33511

Phone Number: (813) 661-6888

Website: http://leehousedimsum.com/

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Reviews

The Rack (Brandon)

The Rack has been in Brandon for quite some time now and although I live near it, I haven’t made it a point to stop here…visiting the location in South Tampa more often. Before visiting I grew a little concerned when I read online that The Rack in Brandon was more like the Blue Martini (known by many for being pretentious) and that there was strict dress-code. We were relieved to find out  there wasn’t as strict a dress-code and decided to I visit The Rack earlier tonight and the experience was pretty disappointing.

The main thing The Rack has going for it is that it is perhaps the only late-night sushi spot in Brandon (almost every restaurant in Brandon closes at around 10PM). The Brandon location is larger than the South Tampa location, but loses all the ambiance of the original in favor for a more upscale kind-of-lounge feel (which doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing). Unfortunately, it also loses the friendly-atmosphere and employees you find at the SoHo location as well.

We entered around 10PM and the place was only slightly packed. We grabbed a table in the restaurant side and the waitress immediately left a sour taste in our mouths (she didn’t seem to want to be there). My friend signed up for their mobile mailing service and received a text message for a free drink and the waitress almost ignored his inquiries about how much the message was worth. She evaded this until the check was closed and then proclaimed it was too late to do anything about it. The Manager wasn’t much more help and his demeanor was like that of a bouncer, not welcoming and almost confrontational.

Now I can understand there is some confusion when it comes to mobile deals (especially in large franchise chains, such as Chili’s and their Foursquare deal). However, there are only 2 locations of The Rack, therefore I don’t really see how they can make such an issue over a deal they opt to provide customers. Why offer deals if you are going to hassle customers to honor them? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of mobile deals? Indeed, we seemed to be getting treated different because we are younger. The waitress seemed to be hovering over us and honestly if it wasn’t for her and the crappy service and dead crowd, we might have actually had fun and enjoyed our night here.

We ordered a good amount of food and drinks. The $5 Three Olive Bomb special was satisfactory and went down well. I special ordered a Salmon Roll and it ran me about $7.45. The salmon was fresh and the avocado was great as well. The sushi was perhaps the best part of our experience (although it is pricey, at least they make it good). We split a Small Deuce ($10.95), an assortment of appetizers: crab rangoon, coconut shrimp, chicken tender, and fusion rolls. The menu says it can feed 2-3 and I would say it can feed either one hungry person, or two people just snacking. You would really need to upgrade to the next size for 3 or more (add $8). The food came out quick and the best days to come to The Rack are definitely Tuesdays/Thursdays for the $20 all you can eat and drink special (cash only) from 9-11PM or on Wednesdays for their $5 Volcano Rolls. Otherwise, you are better off going to Samurai Sushi for some cheap eats in Riverview.

It costs $8 an hour to play pool and there was a good amount of tables there. You won’t have much of a problem grabbing a table (you sometimes can’t dream of grabbing one in South Tampa because it is really packed).

Overall, I prefer The Rack in Hyde Park to the location Brandon. The Hyde Park location is livelier, the people working and crowd are very friendly and it is the kind of place you can strike up a conversation with anyone. The Hyde Park location occasionally has bumps like any other restaurant, but is usually a good experience. The Brandon location made everyone look disconnected and the lack of people there on a Friday night was pretty surprising. The food lives up to the name and is convenient to Brandon residents, but I would recommend driving out to Hyde Park and visiting The Rack there for the full experience.

Restaurant Name: The Rack

Cuisine: American, Sushi

Address: 1025 W Brandon Blvd. Brandon, FL 33511

Neighborhood: Brandon

Phone Number: (813) 571-7225

Website: http://www.hittherack.com/

The Rack on Urbanspoon

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Web 2.0

How To: Research Restaurants Before You Dine

Many people search Google for restaurant reviews and are not sure about where they should be looking for reviews or the reputation of where they are looking. Big cities have a number of resources for residents, but coming from a smaller place like Tampa we only have a few guaranteed spots to research restaurants before you eat. Here is my guide to researching restaurants that pretty much anyone should be able to use.

1. Yelp

Yelp (http://www.yelp.com) is a great restaurant review site for a number of reasons. Each restaurant has an individual page filled with reviews, photos, and owner input as well. Cities also have home pages where you can view the top places in each city and the talk of the town. One of the things that makes Yelp stand above the top though is the sense of community it has. Even some smaller cities have active Elite Yelpers that regularly review restaurants and businesses. If you message someone asking for help or post in the Talk thread you will likely get a reply helping you out. You can check each persons page and see if they like what you like and also how reputable they are. Do they have only 1 review and say that a restaurant sucks? If they do you may want to question their recommendations. You can take Yelp with you on the go through their phone applications as well. Yelp Tampa can be found at: http://www.yelp.com/tampa-fl

2. Urbanspoon

Urbanspoon (http://www.urbanspoon.com) has city pages just like Yelp does. Urbanspoon is not quite as flashy though and most people simple use a button to decide whether they like or dislike a restaurant. This allows for more user feedback, but at the same time lowers what you can get out of it. Like Yelp you can view each users page and check their reputation. Urbanspoon also does a good job of separating businesses into neighborhoods so it is easier to find the top place in Brandon or Ybor City. There is still an ability to review businesses, which some people take advantage of, and Urbanspoon has just started to allow reviews of specific menu items so you can find out just how the Chicken Marsala is at a restaurant. Urbanspoon also has phone apps that you can carry with you on the go. To visit Urbanspoon’s Tampa page visit: http://www.urbanspoon.com/c/30/Tampa-Bay-restaurants.html

3. Urbanspoon Blog Leaderboard

One feature that is unique to Urbanspoon is their blog leaderboard (http://www.urbanspoon.com/blogs). This feature lists the top blogs according to the city you are currently reading about and also the number of views/posts on the blog. You can also take it to a worldwide-view and see the top blogs around the world. This may help to find more personal reviews if that is what you are searching for. There are few other good listings of local food blogs so I suggest this for those of you searching for local blogs in your area. Urbanspoon’s Tampa Blog Leaderboard can be found at: http://www.urbanspoon.com/blogs/30/Tampa-Bay.html

4. Chowhound Message Boards

Chowhound (http://www.chowhound.com) uses a much simpler site than that of Urbanspoon and Yelp, but it is still quite efficient. They have their main pages for big towns and then you can head into their message boards for information from some of your local foodies tips and recommendations. Frequent topics will be about the top restaurants in a food category or places to take someone for Christmas, for example. There is a search bar at the top where you can search for a restaurant you are trying to find out about or you start a thread asking about a place as well. Chowhound’s Florida Board can be found at: http://chowhound.chow.com/boards/10

5. Foodspotting

Foodspotting (http://www.foodspotting.com) is a relatively new site that keeps getting better everyday. You can search specific menu items in an area using their website or app and then look at how a dish actually looks at a restaurant and read comments people post about that menu item. If you have the app on your iPhone you can also upload photos to it while you are out and tag it to a restaurant, or wait until you are home and upload your photos manually using their upload form. You can search by city as well and few the latest things spotted in town. Tampa’s foodspotting page: http://www.foodspotting.com/#/loc/Tampa, FL/

Depending on which city you live in there may be other resources you can use, such as Zagat and Thrillist. Foursquare‘s growth has allowed more tips to allow on business pages as well. However, if you live in a smaller town or area then you still have all the resources I listed above so get researching and have a great bite to eat!

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Reviews

Gino’s Revisited

As I said before, my friends said we would return and a few weeks back we finally did return to Gino’s Restaurant & Bar. This time I came ready with my camera. The restaurant wasn’t as busy earlier in the day and we had the same server as last time, with great service still present. I ordered a Cheeseburger with Onion Rings ($9) and my friend ordered their Gnocchi with Grilled Chicken ($16), which also came with some bread and salad.

My cheeseburger was perfectly on par with all my other visits  to Gino’s (with Cheddar cheese oozing over it) and the Onion Rings were also just as good as always. Still maintaining that crunchy and juicy taste. The onions, lettuce, and tomato on the burger were also fresh and although I’m not a big fan of pickles I usually eat mine when I am dining at Gino’s.

The Gnocchi with Grilled Chicken had a nice and thick, creamy sauce and for my first time trying it I enjoyed it very much. The Grilled Chicken was also excellent, fitting  perfectly with this entree.

The bread that came with the Gnocchi was pretty good, a little too much garlic but still quite appetizing.

The salad that came with the Gnocchi Grilled Chicken…you really do get a full meal for the price.

My friend and I had nothing to do for the next few hours and were trying to kill time and the waiter eventually talked us into having their Bananas Foster over Edy’s Vanilla Ice Cream ($9)…we couldn’t resist after how good it was last time.

The whipped cream was excellent and the ice cream and bananas were fresh and perfectly ended this great visit to Gino’s. Once again we were greatly impressed with what Gino’s had to offer us. I am sure whenever a burger or Italian craving hits us again we will find ourselves again at Gino’s Restaurant and Bar.

Gino's Bar on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: Gino’s Restaurant and Bar

Address: 10006 North Armenia Avenue Tampa, FL 33612

Phone #: (813) 933-1089

Websitehttp://www.ginosrestaurantbar.com/

Foursquare: http://foursquare.com/venue/1849405

Yelp: http://www.yelp.com/biz/ginos-bar-and-restaurant-tampa