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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Review: WTR Pool & Grill Tampa

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

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

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

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

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

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

First course:

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

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

  • Apple Panzanella Salad

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

  • Kale Caesar Salad

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

Second Course:

  • Crispy Brussel Sprouts

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

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

  • Caribbean Shrimp Lettuce Wrap

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

  • Smoked Salmon Dip

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

Third Course:

  • Pepper Crusted NY Strip Steak

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

  • Steamed Florida Snapper

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

  • Seafood Pasta (scallops / shrimp)

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

Dessert:

  • Waffle Cone with Brownie & Ice Cream

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

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

Restaurant Name: WTR Grill

Cuisine: American, Seafood

Neighborhood: Rocky Point

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

Phone Number: (813) 281-0566

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

Review: Coppertail Brewing S & V Kitchen a great place to eat and drink

Full disclosure: I was invited to Coppertail Brewing for a complimentary menu tasting in exchange for my opinion of their menu. Opinions are my own and do not reflect Coppertail Brewing.

Coppertail Brewing located in Ybor City has been serving food from the Stein & Vine Kitchen (known as S & V Kitchen for some time now). I visited recently to give the menu a taste. What I found was plenty of great food that paired well with their beer. How about that?

The meal started off with the potstickers. Potstickers are one of the things that you’ll find on plenty of menus but are often ruined. Sometimes they are soggy or fried too much. These were perfect – and it went perfect with an assortment of beers ranging from sours to lighter beers. The dish is seasonal and rotates on and off the menu, but to me it was good enough to be a regular item.

Then came the Drunken Shrimp made with Coppertail Unholy Trippel. I was a little skeptical of this dish when I first saw it, but oh my god this was the best sauce ever. I wanted to put it on everything. This is simply the best menu item they have and I will definitely be ordering this one in the future. They could sell this sauce…it’s that good. Yum.

From this beer flight there was some German inspiration and some sours mixed in. The BOMP! was by far the winner and I just had to have a glass of that with my food. Coppertail always has an interesting mixture of beers on the menu, but that BOMP is something special.

HECK YES.

Back to the food.

Stein and Vine has always had an arrangement of spicy burgers. This one packs the heat and I’d recommend tuning down the sauce if you’re heat sensitive. However those who love the heat will love this Sriracha Bomb. Burgers and beer makes perfect sense especially with summer coming – I’m hoping to see some more burger ideas on the menu for that!

Then there was the Schnitzel Sandwich. My favorite of the two entrees I tried. Schnitzel and German beer is just perfect. The price was fair and the portion was great. I was dipping my tator tots in that drunken shrimp sauce because ITS DELICIOUS. I am a fan of this sandwich and I hope it eventually would make its way to the standard menu. German food and beer just makes me happy.

Overall, the options at S & V Kitchen are excellent for Coppertail Brewing. There is definitely some culinary genius going on here and I think the more they incorporate the beer in the process the better! I’m a fan and can’t wait to go back soon for more.

Restaurant Name: S & V Kitchen at Coppertail Brewing

Neighborhood: Ybor City

Address: 2601 East 2nd Ave, Tampa, FL 33605

Phone Number: (813) 247-1500

Website: http://coppertailbrewing.com/the-food-1/

Sunday Brunch at O Cocina (South Tampa)

Full disclosure: I was invited to try the brunch menu at O Cocina for a complimentary tasting in exchange for my opinion. These opinions are my own and do not represent O Cocina.

I am normally skeptical of the phrase “Modern or Contemporary Mexican”. It usually means expensive food that pretty much ditches all the things that make Mexican cuisine what it is minus some tortillas or guacamole. I’m happy to report that my experience at O Cocina was the furthest thing from that and truly represented a thorough understanding of Mexican cuisine in a gourmet twist.

I specifically came to try the brunch menu on my visit. What I found is that O Cocina maintains the freshness of Mexican cuisine and doesn’t ditch but embraces the spices or flavors that make it so great as it tries to reinvent it to a more elegant audience than your taqueria or dive food truck.

The meal began with an order of Huevos Rancheros ($11). To me the standard will always be represented by dishes such as this one. It sounds like an easy dish, but there is so many complications to it such as the ranchero sauce used, quality of the sides, tortilla, and of course the egg. O Cocina includes chorizo in their brunch dish and masterfully complements it with their version of beans that maintained true to Mexican staples.

The ranchero sauce has a fresh tomato taste as you can see. Nothing spicy here (not a problem for me). The fresh avocados were a plus – but for an even greater experience, I recommend adding sour cream to this dish as a side. The tortilla could be a little crispier for my liking, but I still enjoyed it nevertheless. The egg was also cooked just right (commonly ruined at many restaurants trying to adopt this dish).

I added Carne Asada ($7 extra) to my dish simply because I knew I wouldn’t be able to order both and stay hungry to finish.

The thing I found to be great was the seasoning of their Carne Asada, many chefs when creating their Mexican steak on the menu ditch the traditional seasonings that are honestly perfect to begin with and I was happy to find that O Cocina seasons their Carne Asada perfectly.

You can order a bowl of Carne Asada for around $11 which is a great price for brunch considering how much brunch seems to cost at some restaurants these days.

One interesting dish I also tried was the Churro Waffles ($5 for a side). Clearly playing to a trend happening in the restaurant sphere with churros literally being used for anything, this dish masterfully played both the flavor a waffle and a churro into an excellent breakfast item. I was impressed and would order it again. It was clear the creator of the menu wanted to do more than provide a sugary adventure and this dish was successful at this fusion dish.

For libations, I tried the mimosa which is standard and met my expectations (they are available bottomless by the way).

Although, the real winner to me was the cocktail I tried called Jose Gaspar (pictured above). This cocktail has milk, rum, bourbon, Madagascar vanilla bean, Mexican cinnamon, and nutmeg, It is a powerful and tasty concoction that reminded me of Rumchata but was a thousand times superior.

During my visit I decided to sit at the bar and watched the bartender at O Cocina carefully making cocktails from scratch. They all looked good and I can’t wait to try more in the future.

Speaking of the bar at O Cocina, it is one of the most beautiful bars I have seen in town. It brings up thoughts of Alice in Wonderland or Secret Garden. It is truly underrated how few bars in Tampa actually have a good ambiance so this was a welcome addition to me at O Cocina.

The chips and salsa were also great as was the guacamole, but at $10 for a fresh spread of guac – you’ll want to make sure you’re sharing with someone if you choose to order it (the portion was quite generous). I found it went well inside my Huevos Rancheros and with the steak.

I recommend visiting O Cocina if you haven’t had a chance to stop by yet. The operators will also be opening a second location soon at the new Armature Works food hall in Tampa Heights called Cocina Taqueria so look out for that soon.

Restaurant Name: O Cocina

Cuisine: Mexican, American

Neighborhood: South Tampa

Cost: $$

Address: 4110 Henderson Boulevard, Tampa, FL 33629

Phone Number: (813) 289-0649

Website: http://www.ococina.com/modern-mexican

Menu: http://www.ococina.com/modern-mexican#menus-1-section

Film Review – Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Fans of the Maze Runner series were forced to wait quite some time for the conclusion to the series due to an unfortunate accident during filming, but will find The Death Cure to be a rewarding end to the journey.  The Death Cure has plenty of action, drama, and tears that will take audiences on a roller coaster for the final showdown with Wicked.

This is all aided by an excellent soundtrack by John Paesano who we may also know now due to Daredevil and The Defenders on Netflix.

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Like most dystopian series movies, the last arc is when the heroes go into the belly of the beast and all hell breaks loose. It brought back many memories of Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 for me, although the heroes and villains don’t seem to be as collected in the Maze Runner as they were in earlier movies and this movie is pure chaos from a storytelling perspective. It would be better not to try to think too hard or obvious plot holes exist.

Despite the lack of a completely fluid world, the characters in this film do develop and I found myself more attached to them as the series came to an end and their stories concluded, which is a credit to the acting in this film. Mutual suffering creating brotherhood and solidarity is present throughout this film as a powerful theme and I found myself moved by that.

My only complaint is that we didn’t get more dialogue of Ki Hong Lee as Minho in this film. That’s partly due to the plot. On the other hand, Kaya Scodelario really delivered as Teresa and for the first time I connected with her acting compared to the prior two movies.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt actually took up a large part of the film and I think this was an ode back to the book.

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Dylan O’Brien seemed different in this film compared to others in playing Thomas and as a darker film with more on the line than ever, he delivered quite well. The obvious aging due to the delay of the release of the film may have also helped give him a more mature and serious look that aided his performance.

The cinematography is beautiful and feels like a cross between The Hunger Games and a stripped down Blade Runner: 2049. A truly dark, sci-fi kind of world.

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Overall, The Death Cure is a well-deserved conclusion to the series for fans. It has just enough to let a casual audience ride it through, but is more fulfilling to audiences already attached to the characters who can understand the struggles they have survived. It is worth a visit to the theater.

Score: 7.5 out of 10

Beef O’ Brady’s launches new menu items and deals

Full disclosure: I was invited to Beef O’ Brady’s to taste their new menu and check out the new deals they have available in exchange for my opinion. Opinions are my own and do not represent Beef O’ Brady’s.

I recently visited the original Beef O’ Brady’s location (founded in 1985) in Brandon to check out their new menu and deals. I have lived in Brandon since 2005 and was not aware that the restaurant chain originated in my own backyard or of their location on Kings and Oakfield. The founder, Jim Mellody, who passed in 2002, continues to have this location run by family heirs.

The original location is exactly what you would expect from a classic sports bar and is a reminder of the dominance this concept carried in the late 90s and early 2000s era with wood decor and dim lighting. The entrance is reminiscent of a time long gone for Americans as fast-casual chains have taken a bite out of the restaurant industry and the 2008 Financial Crisis ate many of the prominent American chains.

This was especially true in Brandon which suffered greatly when the housing market collapsed as a suburban neighborhood. Times have changed though and Brandon is growing faster than ever with new apartment complexes and home communities appearing year-round.

Many of the additions to the menu at Beef O’ Brady’s are following current food trends such as healthier menu items at arguably affordable prices. The prices are much cheaper than similar American concepts such as Applebee’s, Chili’s, and the like.

Boom Boom Shrimp

I first tried their Boom Boom Shrimp which looks pretty much like Bang Bang Shrimp from Bonefish Grill. This appetizer has appeared on menus in numerous restaurants in the last few years as Bonefish has sought to push it into the limelight. The dish doesn’t match the flavor or taste of the obvious dish it resembles but isn’t half bad either.  I wouldn’t mind sharing this with a few people as an appetizer occasionally.

Chicken Fajitas

One of the better deals I saw that is new to the menu is Fajitas on Thursdays for $9.99. Some chains have driven the price of these menu items up to $15-$20 that historically was always a draw for more budget-conscious, middle-class families. Beef O’ Brady’s gives a nod back to that trend with this and the quality is arguably the same or better when compared to those other chains. The regular price of this dish is also great at around $12.

The wings on the menu have also managed to weather a hike in chicken wing prices that have hindered profits at other sports pubs such as Buffalo Wild Wings. Beef O’ Brady’s continues to offer specials for wings on Wednesday and the traditional wings are meaty. I tried the Nashville Hot Dry Rub flavor which is far superior to the spicier rubs at Buffalo Wild Wings that hardly stick to the meat.

Another dish I was tried was the Five Cheese Cheeseburger. It resembles a Frisco Melt and is quite filling.  The topping is a mozzarella stick. As a fan of burgers in general, I found the burger was good, but missing a sauce to help with all the meat and bread happening. During my days at USF I was frequently grabbing a burger from Beef O Brady’s in between classes and they have always been above-average for the price-point and concept. Curly fries are always great  as well, though this time I went traditional (still good).

From the healthy options or “lighter side”, I tried a chicken salad with quinoa. I was a little surprised to see this on the menu but see it as a nod to the changing habits of Americans and probably an attempt to lead to a compromise in couples and families trying to find a place that caters to different food habits and tastes. The grilled chicken tastes good and the prices are around $10 which again is not too bad for a healthier dish.

Overall, these new menu items suggest Beef O’ Brady’s is making a serious effort to diversify the menu and add more options than traditional pub fare and that makes sense considering the price of wings these days and the way the average diners tastes have diversified.

These options and prices could mostly stand up by themselves (especially the fajitas) for the restaurant sphere they are in. I recommend it to people wanting traditional American food on a budget.

Film Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was one of my most anticipated films of 2017. There were numerous unexpected great films this year though and in the end Star Wars: The Last Jedi was good, but not great.

During my first viewing of the film, I was overwhelmed with all the things happening. The Last Jedi had multiple intertwining plots that ironically ended up taking us nowhere by the end. A second-viewing providing more clarity and focus to me.

Let’s start off with the good: Kylo Ren. When I saw The Force Awakens in 2015, I was unimpressed with Kylo Ren. He was that typical Disney Channel star. Completely whiny. Annoying. Lacks depth. We knew he was “conflicted”, but without clarifications from Abrams – it wasn’t clear why this kid was throwing tantrums every 5 minutes and why any of it should matter to the audience. The Darth Vader wannabe. The Last Jedi developed Kylo Ren better.

This film humanizes Kylo Ren. When he hesitates to kill his mother. When you realize he is really lonely and feels abandoned by his family. When he suggests that he wants to run away from who he is to be someone else. Those are things people can relate to much more than just crying all the time about your daddy issues that nobody wants to hear. He is still terrible, but at least now you can understand why.

Rey wants to believe in Kylo Ren switching sides and by the time you get to their epic fight scene with Snoke and his bodyguards, some part of you wants to believe Kylo Ren too. It takes acting skill to be able to mislead an audience in that kind of way. I wanted to believe.

Then he throws away all your hope puts it in a trash can. That’s actually a good metaphor for The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi takes all your expectations for a Star Wars sequel and throws them all away. The entire legacy and history literally goes up in flames. Rian Johnson brought back Yoda in a play to get fans to let the past go and move on from the Star Wars they once knew.

Star Wars without Jedi isn’t Star Wars though. People go to the movies to watch lightsaber battles. They love the Skywalker family. They have poured billions of dollars of support into it. Would you really pay to go see a movie without them? Disney is testing the field for this in The Last Jedi and it was divisive as evidenced by the abysmal Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score that is miraculously now worse than the prequels.

There is nothing worse than having a creator disrespect something you love and if watching Han Solo die in The Force Awakens was difficult, The Last Jedi turns the dial to 100.

Luke Skywalker further exemplifies this wish to exit the history and legacy of Star Wars. Luke like his father Anakin were the basis for all things Star Wars. We have known Luke as a force for good, who never stops believing in the power of good. The dude didn’t even get a girlfriend because he was too busy saving the universe.

The Last Jedi almost feels like a fan-fiction tale where Luke is now an angry, hermit man. Luke abandoned his family, friends, and the universe. This isn’t the Luke we know. His final battle with Kylo Ren ends up being both epic and then disappointing when he survives all the attacks and we find out he isn’t actually there. The moment of hope we get for him and the film quickly ends when he dies right afterward and just vanishes into the sunset.

For the second time – audiences are forced to watch an icon who survived an epic war in the original trilogy go down without any real struggle. It’s frankly insulting. It probably would have been better to never introduce those characters back if they were going to die in this kind of way. I’m sure the lead characters could have been developed without staining the legacy that brought them here.

This brings us to Luke’s successor: Rey. The Force Awakens set the audience up to believe Rey has an epic life planned ahead. She went from wandering alone on Jakku to befriending Han Solo, Princess Leia, and even training with Luke Skywalker in one movie. Then The Last Jedi throws the entire thing out the window.

Kylo tells Rey that she is a Nobody. Irrelevant. Running against pretty much everything that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi has led us to believe. Is that inspiring? Not really. We’ve been following a nobody with a lightsaber who has no legacy and no real mission. She has received no real training. Her allies are pretty much decimated. Now what? The movie never tells us.

Now to the numerous plot holes in The Last Jedi. There are many.

Finn and Rose go on a pointless mission that leads nowhere and actually ends up making things worse for the Rebels. The relationship between the two feels forced and their journey hardly has anything to do with the rest of the movie.

Poe Dameron only really brings value in the first few minutes of the movie. His intertwining storyline with Finn is uninspiring and his arguments with the Rebels are also boring. This movie may have had the least epic battles in space of any Stars Wars movie and that is disappointing. The final battle Poe was in was shockingly unexciting. If you compare this to Rogue One it is a world of difference.

Luke Skywalker hardly trains Rey. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi both emphasize this island that Luke lives on often and pan across the island regularly, but the events on the island are almost irrelevant. Rey hardly gets 3 lessons from Luke but nearly an hour there. She could have had her telepathic conversations with Kylo while actually doing something interesting somewhere else. At least she takes the Jedi books with her.

The spaceship chase plot is as boring as it is ridiculous. It feels quite like a bad episode of television. The numerous explanations for why the storyline even exists are confusing as heck. The First Order can track ships in lightspeed? The Rebels have no fuel, but just enough to last almost the entire film? Leia has an escape plan – or does she? Poe is taking over the ship, but then isn’t? In the end none of it matters because pretty much the entire Rebel group is eliminated by the time they reach Crait. The entire space chase could have been 20 minutes instead of 2 hours and the scenes of Crait could have instead lead to an epic showdown with Snoke if this movie was edited correctly.

The botched Snoke death is really interesting. Kylo Ren and Rey kill off Snoke and his guards without much adieu. This can work in storylines where the ascending villain is actually a big bad (see The Defenders with Elektra). However, Kylo Ren is still just as weak and bratty as before and we just spent time humanizing him – not making him sinister. It isn’t clear what would make him into a villain you fear. The reason villains normally develop over time is to create sense of urgency for the audience that a big challenge is ahead.

Plot and pacing issues are spread throughout. These are things that you will notice more and more as you dissect this film.

Episode IX could spend time fixing many of the issues that Episode VIII created. That would be less time to enjoy a juicy ending to this trilogy though that might not recover from this filler episode.

Don’t get me wrong – this film is still watchable. The Last Jedi has great acting, cinematography, and a wonderful soundtrack. Unfortunately, this could have all been utilized better if the writing was better.

It doesn’t make it great. I watched the prequels afterwards to see if the fan anger matched up, I still believe the prequels are inferior to The Last Jedi. Mainly because the acting and casting is so hilariously bad in the prequels. The Last Jedi is not cheesy or badly acted, it just suffers from what seems to be a complete shift in the force that wasn’t clearly or correctly presented to the audience.

So – Does The Last Jedi take Star Wars to the next level of cinema? Not quite.

Score: 7 out 10

Celebrating at Tommy Bahama

My Aunt celebrated her 39th birthday dinner at Tommy Bahama in St. Armand’s Circle this past weekend. It’s been a few years since my last visit to Tommy Bahama and from what I could remember the buzz about it was the mixed beverages that my family adored. This time around no one was drinking, they saved that for later excursions in St. Armand’s Circle. The menu had a few options that caught my eye, but I was feeling a burger so I decided to order their Smokehouse Angus Burger ($13.50) with crab bisque ($6.50) as an appetizer. My Step-Dad ordered the same thing. I ordered mine medium and him well-done. I had a hunch this was going to be a problem, but hoped the waiter would make sure to get the right one out.

The complimentary bread that came out first looked incredibly delicious at a glance. When you actually tear into it, it doesn’t have much flavor. The butter they serve with it is a cinnamon-flavored butter that is very sweet and turned off some of my fellow diners. I have no problem with sugar and found it satisfactory.

The crab bisque was amazing. It didn’t last more than a few minutes before it disappeared off my bowl. I almost liked it better than lobster bisque (my favorite soup on Earth next to clam chowder from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco).  The portion pictured is their small portion. Certainly a generous helping for a small. My sister ordered the chicken lollipops for an appetizer which were great and tasted like BBQ ribs.

When the main entrees came the waiter accidentally confused my burger and my Step-Dad’s burgers. If this would have been something more expensive (such as a steak) then I would have sent it back, but since it was just a burger we decided to proceed forth with our meal. The toppings on this burger were excellent, but were offset by the fact that my burger was well-done and burnt charcoal. In contrast, my Step-Dad learned burger meat served medium is the way to go.

Some of the entrees my family enjoyed:

Dessert was an assortment of cakes my Aunt chose. A rich chocolate cake and a coconut concoction. Both were delicious and the chocolate was rich with a base of what tasted like brownies. The server was quick to get refills to the table and the wait for the meals wasn’t a problem.

Overall, Tommy Bahama is a nice restaurant to have some seafood and American choices if you have the money to spend. The restaurant is filled with windows and certainly fits what I would imagine to be a Florida vibe. My personal favorite restaurant in St. Armand’s Circle is The Columbia (which we visited later for some sangria and drinks).

Tommy Bahama's Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Restaurant name: Tommy Bahama

Cuisine: Seafood, American

Neighborhood: St. Armand’s Circle

Address: 300 John Ringling Blvd. Sarasota, FL 34236

Phone Number: (941) 388-2888

Website: http://www.tommybahama.com/TBG/Stores_Restaurants/Sarasota.jsp

Soobak

I went to Soobak with some friends last month was impressed with how good the food there was. Arriving early (for friends who always arrive late), I decided to order a California Roll to start my meal and was surprised with the generous portions and fresh taste of the roll.

All the sushi rolls were delicious, including the eel handroll I tried. I am normally not a huge fan of complex rolls, but the Soobak Signature Roll, which features katsu lobster, salmon, krab delight, avocado, masago, tempura deep-fried with eel sauce, was delicious! Prices were extremely reasonable with their most expensive roll being under $10.

The galbi bento box (pictured below) has plenty of rice and the ginger salad was excellent – trust me it will be hard to find LA galbi (the one you see in the USA) for less than $10 anywhere (even for lunch). The pieces of galbi were savory, sweet, bone-licking goodness.  The miso soup that I added on was also worth the extra $1.

One of the most interest parts of the meal was the Korean Taco with Bulgogi. It was absolutely amazing. $6.95 for two, but fully-loaded with plenty of ingredients inside – there is nothing like it in Tampa Bay.

We sampled the frozen yogurt and it was surprisingly delicious (I’m not a huge fan of frozen yogurt because it normally hurts my sensitive teeth) – the taro was flavorful and went down easy. The place is small, but they have a big enough table for lunch with a few friends. Location-wise it’s close to Downtown and South Tampa – easily accessible from a bridge in the middle of the two. Parking is in the street – you might not be able to park in front, but there are plenty of public parking spots in the area.

Overall, this place has plenty of different Asian dishes at affordable prices and with great tastes so I will be back for many more trips to this Asian spot on Davis Island. Make sure you sign up for a rewards card!

Fun fact: Soobak means watermelon in Korean.

Soobak on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: Soobak

Cuisine: Korean, Japanese

Neighborhood: Davis Island

Address: 218 E. Davis Blvd. Tampa, FL 33606

Phone Number: (813) 258-3377

Website: http://www.facebook.com/soobaksushi

Ploy Thai (Brandon)

Ploy Thai was one of the first Thai restaurants I fell in love with when I first moved to the Brandon area back in 2005. The inside is decorated as lavishly as any other Thai restaurant, but there is something about the quality of the food and service that I enjoy after every visit. The quiet atmosphere is relaxing and when I came back from a week-long trip of eating and traveling for spring break last year in San Francisco , the mecca of great food, the first place I wanted to go when I returned was Ploy Thai. My last visit was after finals. I was craving some Thai food after hours of studying and I thought of the relaxing environment of Ploy Thai almost instantly when I started thinking of restaurants in the Brandon area.

Fun fact: Ploy Thai is named after the owner’s daughter, Ploy, which means “little gem” in Thai.

I never intend to order soup, but I find it hard to resist once I look at an item on the menu and think about the last time I enjoyed one. The Tom Kha Gai or Chicken in Cream of Coconut Soup ($3.50) started my dinner and I really love the lemongrass and cilantro in the soup and the coconut milk is sweet and leaves a nice aftertaste in your mouth.

The Chicken Pad Thai ($10.95 for dinner) is superb. I personally enjoy my Thai food non-spicy and Ploy Thai consistently delivers an excellent Pad Thai in this regard, I can’t comment on Thai hot flavors. The noodles are packed with flavor and the smell of it fills me with zest. The quality of Ploy Thai’s chicken is great tender and juicy, and their simple Pad Thai really hits the spot.

The consistency of the Thai Tea is usually made well and although you may want to ask for little ice so you can get more actual tea, the tea is usually reasonable for the price. Thai food is either water or tea, I find it hard to drink anything else with it.

Overall, Ploy Thai consistently has great food and service and I have enjoyed every visit here in the past few years. They have lunch specials that are $7-$8 if you’re looking to save a few bucks. Ploy Thai is certainly worth a look if you’re in the Brandon area and is located only a few minutes from the Brandon Mall. I have been to the Cross Creek location in New Tampa and enjoyed it as well.

Ploy Thai on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: Ploy Thai

Cuisine: Thai

Neighborhood: Brandon

Address: 1941 W Brandon Blvd. Brandon, FL 33511

Phone Number: (813) 684-5007

Website: http://www.ploythairestaurant.com/