Chef Spotlight: Gia Tran of Zukku Sushi & Astro Ice Cream Co.

Full disclosure: Chef Gia Tran and I are personally acquainted and have collaborated/worked together. He is a mutual friend through an old friend and we were first introduced at the first Sushi Battle in Ybor City. We have gone on to see each other around town at different restaurants and businesses. I reached out to him for this story when Armature Works opened. All opinions expressed are my own and do not represent him.

The writing scene in Tampa often captures restaurants opening and closing as well as menu items and new trends. However, we don’t cover the chefs in the city that often and although some events try and make up for this – chefs are busy people and so are writers in this growing city.

The main reason for the lack of coverage is because chefs are always in the kitchen cooking (go-figure) and many of them aren’t really people-people (laughs).

Chef Gia Tran is a unique chef that I thought would make a great article when discussing the new Armature Works  – so I reached out to get his story.

I initially met Chef Gia Tran at the first Sushi Battle in Ybor City. Surrounded by Godzilla costumes and Taiko drummer group, Tampa Taiko, as well as thousands of hungry people, we were quite busy and did not get to talk much besides talking about the sushi burrito I ate (he was a vendor competing in the competition). I was a Judge at the competition and was impressed.

Chef Gia was doing sushi burritos long before anyone in Tampa probably knew what a sushi burrito was (alas many people still do not know). As a food writer myself, I had not seen sushi burritos anywhere besides on popular food websites such as Eater in 2015.

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Come try @zukku.sushi.burritos out before we open!!

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Over the years I saw him and his staff at the Margarita Festival, Rum Festival, and other drink festivals organized by Big City Events, whose leadership (Ferdian Jap and Monica Varner) are now a partner in his two new ventures inside Armature Works: Zukku Sushi and Astro Ice Cream Co.

Years passed and then I was a Judge again at the Sushi Battle – this time in St. Petersburg. I wandered the booths consuming plenty of sushi. The best booth? Ocean Prime. I was a little shocked because I was previously unaware that sushi was even on the menu at Ocean Prime. Apparently, Chef Gia Tran pioneered this successful menu at Ocean Prime and it is still served there after his departure and a top seller.

The rolls were simply superb and I could not resist going again and again for a bite until Ocean Prime eventually was sold out. The rice, fish, and composition was all excellent. I wasn’t accustomed to Tampa sushi restaurants getting these things right (sorry I’m from San Francisco). Ocean Prime won the Audience Choice Award that year.

I was initially unaware that Chef Gia Tran was behind this menu. I just knew it was delicious.

Years passed again and then I heard about a new place opening in Brandon called S Bar from  Chef Gia. This restaurant was a new project by a few original management pieces of The Rack. Although a short-lived venture due to the owners relocating, this project lead way to what is arguably the biggest project Chef Gia Tran has to date: the opening of Zukku Sushi and Astro Ice Cream Co. at Armature Works.

Chef Gia Tran has saved since his first sushi job 10 years ago at Sushi Alive in Carrollwood (now in Westchase) for this business venture at Armature Works.

Many of Tampa’s local head sushi chefs had their start at Sushi Alive, which was one of the busiest places in town thanks to an excellent dollar sushi deal and happy hour specials.

Ask anyone about Armature Works in the food business and they will tell you it represents a change for Tampa and hopes for the future of our city.

It’s forward-thinking, historic, and diverse. People might argue about different facets of the venue, but can anyone deny that this undertaking is a huge risk? Restaurateurs have embraced it in a move for something different. I respect that as someone who covers the food scene on the other side.

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Addicted to this place already!!!

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Zukku Sushi has a variety of poke choices and sushi rolls on the menu.

What makes it different? A sharp attention to fish quality. Chef Gia Tran is clearly using his background at other restaurants to decide the menu items and to source higher quality fish. The price does reflect it, but fish is one of those things where you get what you pay for.

Prices are comparable to nearby Poke Rose at The Hall on Franklin, but here you can pick your toppings and customize your bowl which is definitely one of my gripes about Poke Rose. Also – Poke Rose seems to lean towards Poke Salad while Zukku is clearly connect more to the sushi side of things with sushi rice being carefully prepared.

Zukku Sushi is open at Armature Works in Tampa Heights 7 days a week. Astro Ice Cream Co. will also provide nitrogen ice cream to the public. Chef Gia Tran is on the move in the City of Tampa.

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Surf & Turf Truck serving great seafood at Armature Works

Surf & Turf Truck and I go back a few years. We met during a food truck rally blitz in Seminole Heights and Ybor City. Always friendly at the register and humble about their food and vision.

I met the owner of Empamamas, Stephanie Swanz, at Surf & Turf Truck when she was working their front window while her food truck was being finished up. She perfectly matched their chill and friendly attitude – something not to be missed in a business where most of your business is done at an ordering station.

Surf & Turf always came ready to serve and would knock out order after order at each event they were at. The truck remained creative with themed events, while also serving seafood staples on the regular.

Now they have landed at the new Armature Works building as a vendor in the Heights Public Market. This lucky break came through their network of business contacts. I am sure the owners of Armature are pleased with what they found at Surf & Turf. As a vendor they are a great contrast from the other options at the market.

Lobster Roll

Genuinely good seafood in Tampa is harder to find than one would think. Way too many places stick to just grouper and tilapia and charge too much. There are only a few places that you can enjoy seafood in a casual setting. Surf & Turf took risks on lobster rolls before it was hip in Tampa. During my chat with the owner, Adam, I took a look at some other menu items including the Blue Crab Roll and Salmon Burger.

Blue Crab Roll at Surf & Turf

The Blue Crab Roll is at a much friendlier price point than the Lobster Roll at $12 and still packs tons of flavor. I have to say that for a small amount of time restaurants in Tampa were throwing Old Bay seasoning on everything and doing it incorrectly (much to my disappointment), however the Old Bay Mayo in this blue crab roll is superb. The bread is perfectly done as well. Is there anything better than a delicious sandwich? I think not. A scrumptious side of brussel sprouts completes the order.

Salmon Burger sample

*sample size

Surf & Turf’s Salmon Burger also did not disappoint and left me licking my fingers in joy. Quite buyer friendly at $8 – this burger is both filling and delicious inside and on the healthier side. I would order this Salmon Burger any day of the week and it was indeed sold out that day after customers gravitated to it.

Surf & Turf is on The Daily Meal’s Top 101 Food Trucks for 2016 at #42 and it deserves more recognition in Tampa. It is great to see gourmet food trucks on the move in our city. You can now visit Surf & Turf daily at Armature Works for the time being and I highly recommend heading over and giving them a try.

Empamamas now open at Armature Works

Local food truck Empamamas has joined the vendor list at Armature Works for the Heights Public Market today. Several empanadas have appeared on the soft opening menu and it will expand with some time.

This is a huge deal for local food trucks and shows their gourmet power, especially after Surf & Turf is already doing great inside Armature Works. Today I had the signature dish, Tampa Girl Empamama, which is pretty much like a Cuban sandwich inside an empanada.

Here’s hoping to see more from them soon!

Armature Works food hall now in soft opening

The long awaited Armature Works Heights Public Market is now in soft opening in Tampa Heights. The building opens at 7AM and most concepts are open by 11AM.

The food hall features over 10 different food concepts and bars throughout and is waterfront right off the Tampa Riverwalk near Waterworks Park.

I visited the soft opening preview last night and I’m back today trying out the menu at different concepts throughout the building. Everything has been delicious so far and you’ll find almost everything you might want to eat.

Visit them online at http://armatureworks.com/

Here are some photos:

Chicken slider samples from the all-day breakfast and lunch spot called Graze 1910.

Salmon Poke Bowl sample from Zukku Sushi.

Horchata Latte from Union Coffee (more popularly known as Commune and Co.).

Korean Philly Sandwich from BNB BBQ.

Pork Belly Bowl from Ichicoro Imoto.

Steak samples from Cru Cellars.

Delicious seafood from Surf & Turf Truck!

The Hall on Franklin now in soft opening in Tampa Heights

Have you heard the buzz? Tampa Heights is booming. Ever since Ulele opened doors, businesses have been flocking to the area and tonight The Hall on Franklin had a family and friends night, which I attended.

This new food hall is now in soft opening and you should definitely be patient as they figure out their kinks and get this show going, but there is much to be excited about.

What’s a “food hall” you ask? It is essentially a business that sells a variety of food from different stands indoors. The first concept of it’s kind in Tampa Bay was the Locale Market in St. Petersburg which is owned by Chef Michael Mina.

The Hall on Franklin is different in concept and combines different food entrepreneurs and chefs together into one building. It was hard to imagine how it was all going to come together until I experienced it for myself tonight and I have to say I was completely impressed and surprised at the quality establishment that has surfaced.

I visited nearly every stand tonight for a bite and drink and found that all the food was of excellent quality. Despite being a family and friends night and having the stress of POS systems, the staff was completely friendly and hospitable.

The Hall on Franklin is what would happen if you dreamed of all your favorite things in one place without having to drive around. You can visit the kiosks yourself to order food or have a waiter bring you food.

Parking is available on the street or via valet which will hopefully be a regular thing.

The best part? The quality is only matched by the prices that are fair and allow you to actually try all the great spots inside the building with tons of options from sides, different sized entrees, drinks, and desserts. I happened to meet developer Jamal Wilson during the preview who told me that is exactly what they were going for.

Some thoughts:

Poke Rose: Finally some real poke in Tampa. Every last bite was delicious and packed with flavor. Make sure to ask about spicy levels. Chef Jason Cline left me happy and I can’t wait to come back for more.

North Star Eatery: I have followed Xuan since Anise Gastrobar opened (one of my favorite bars in Tampa) and I am never disappointed with her business acumen. The pork yakitori was an excellent side dish and I look forward to coming back to try her ramen in the future and of course some Stinky Bunz.

Bake’n Babes: I first tried Bake’n Babes at Ginger Beard Coffee a few weeks ago in an affogato. Their ice cream rivaled Revolution Ice Cream, no lie. Lord – I tried the Bacon Beer Battered Cupcake tonight though and it was one of those moments where you pop food into your mouth and feel instant delight. This is a sweets empire in the making.

The Heights Melt Shoppe: I split a Philly Sub with a friend and could not stop putting it in my mouth. Every last bite was excellent. Wow.

The Collection: The bar is beautiful inside The Hall on Franklin. The bartenders were very friendly and easy to talk to. There is a happy hour (YES) and plenty of cocktail creations on the menu that I want to try. For tonight, I tried their signature beer “The Hall Pass” ($6) which is made in a partnership with Hidden Springs (keeping it local) and has hibiscus, yuzu, and cucumber. Anyone could drink this delicious craft beer.

Ko-fē: Tonight I had a butterscotch cappuccino made with Buddy Brew beans. They plan to roast their own beans in the near future. The barista noted their espresso machine is not to be messed with.

The only booth I missed was The Heights Fish Camp (we were way too full!) – but the lobster corn dog nuggets and fish and chips will be something to look forward to in the future.

Something great has been released into the City of Tampa with The Hall on Franklin and I have good feelings.

Visit The Hall on Franklin online at http://thehallonfranklin.com/