Taking a look Inside the Box at Armature Works

I have long heard of Inside the Box, but never actually been to the cafe before. I reached out to Inside the Box when they opened at Armature Works in Tampa Heights to get the story behind this unique project.

I met up for a few hours with their PR representative and Executive Chef Clifford Barsi walked me through their operation. Inside the Box is a social enterprise that generates funds to help fund Metropolian Ministries. 100% of the profits from the deli go back to the charity.

Chef Clifford Barsi spearheaded social enterprises for Metropolitan Ministries after volunteering there and realizing he wanted to help combine culinary with helping people get back on their feet.

Attacking Poverty Using Culinary Arts Training

Inside the Box primarily employees people who need work that have trained under their Culinary Arts program for their cafe and also helps those in need get employment and training at some of Tampa’s busiest restaurants including Mise En Place, Boca, Bizou Brassie, and Oxford Exchange.

The goal? To help those in need get higher paying jobs by giving them desirable skills that are needed in kitchens. Poverty often exists because people don’t have access to training and Metropolitan Ministries is working to change that.

The cost of living in Tampa has been climbing at a rapid pace although recently slowing behind the national average (sometimes 15% increases in rent prices year over year in the mid 2010s) since major investment projects around the bay began and programs like this will be needed more as people need better paying jobs to afford living in our city.

Metropolitan Ministries takes a look at what skills restaurants need from potential employees and seeks to teach these skills to their trainees. Some skills include how to be a prep cooks, advanced knife skills, how to clean a fryer/change oil, and knowledge of different essential foods. Trainees are placed in busy restaurants to build these skills that will ideally lead them to a career and financial stability.

Classes are small with only 8-10 students and is offered each quarter of the year. The course is 16-weeks. Each student is funded on a full scholarship. Only those in need qualify. Each culinary arts program features:

  • 150 hours of culinary classes
  • 20 hours for a Food Handling Certification Course
  • 100 hours of High Volume Production experience
  • 100 hours of Cafeteria experience
  • 100 hours of Restaurant experience
  • 40 hours for a Life and Employment Skills Course.

One particular skill that Chef Clifford Barsi highlighted was the importance of learning how to take a recipe and multiply or divide it. Consistency is key when restaurants are trying to create customer retention and this kind of skill is often missed in cooking programs.

None of this would possible without volunteers, donors, fundraisers, and these new social enterprises that are helping to fund these programs.

More info about their social enterprises: http://www.metromin.org/about/social-enterprise.html

Inside the Box Cafe Recommendations 

Inside the Box serves gourmet deli meat daily at Armature Works and also serves some delicious sandwiches. The price point matches the other vendors in the building at around $10-$12.

To me the best deal from the Inside the Box Armature Works stand is the deli meat which is sold at prices similar to popular Boar’s Head deli cuts, but will instead help fund a cause that aims to change and improve people’s lives.

As far as sandwiches are concerned – I tried a smoked lamb sandwich during my visit and it was absolutely delicious. During the soft opening for Armature Works I also tried a delicious turkey sandwich. The bread and cuts are certainly gourmet.

Some menu items include Smoked Salmon, Roast Porchetta, NY Strip Pastrami, and NY Strip Corned Beef. Sandwiches are steamed to keep them moist and warm when served with cheese. Plenty of sides are available to enjoy with your food.

Chef Clifford Barsi tells me that Inside the Box tries to source locally in Florida when possible, but as the Tampa Bay Times has highlighted before, that can be a challenge in Florida. You’ll find some Florida cheeses and cuts around the deli when in season.

Inside the Box also has a local market on the side where you can find lots of local produce, vegetables, coffee, and culinary goods as well as fresh bread from popular local vendors from around Tampa Bay and Florida including Piquant, Urban Canning Company, Sunset Salsa, Le’Anns Cheesecakes, and more. I’m hoping this market expands because I would like to see more things like this in our food halls.

Annual Fundraisers

You can help support the mission to end homelessness and poverty by supporting some key annual fundraisers put on by Metropolitan Ministries – although they are also always in need of volunteers to come help them get things done at the non-profit.

Metropolitan Ministries is a 4-star out of 4-star charity according to Charity Navigator.

Tampa Bay Food Fight is annual competition that Metropolitan Ministries organizes between chefs from both sides of the Howard Franklin Bridge. Proceeds from the event go back to supporting the charity.

Their Bridge Builders luncheon is coming up on Wednesday, April 25th, 2018 at Hilton Hotel Downtown and WWE SuperStar Titus O’Neil is the keynote speaker this year. There are plenty of ways to get involved.

You can donate to Metropolitan Ministries directly here: http://secure.metromin.org/site/SPageNavigator/donate.html


Tampa Bay Beer Week 2018 Guide


Tampa Bay Beer Week 2018 is going to be one for the books. There are tons of events lined up to enjoy for the celebration of Tampa’s growing craft beer scene.

Per the website “The inaugural Tampa Bay Beer Week was established in 2012, and has since hosted thousands of events ranging from large-scale festivals to beer tastings, beer dinners and more”.

“The success of TBBW has been a major factor in the continuing growth of the Tampa Bay area craft beer community. Tampa Bay Beer Week begins on the first Saturday of March and ends 8 days later. It has become the premier Beer Week destination in the Southeast”.


This is my guide to the events going on and my recommendations:

Visit them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/TampaBayBeerWeek/

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.

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

A post shared by Zukku Sushi. Burritos. Poke. (@zukkusushi) on

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.

Throwing it down at @armatureworks_tampa 🐷 pc: @kiki_trinh

A post shared by Tony Nguyen (@tonydnguyen) on

Addicted to this place already!!!

A post shared by Martha Brink Aristizabal (@aristizabalm) on

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.

Brewer’s Ball 2018 – 3/4

Craft beer fans should get excited for the 2018 Brewer’s Ball happening on Sunday, March 4th, 2018 from 12PM-5PM at Water Works Park (1710 North Highland Avenue, Tampa, FL 33602) during Tampa Bay Beer Week.

The event is presented by Best Florida Beer.

Guests can roam the park and drink and talk with the brewery owners and brewers during the event.


The Brewer’s Ball festival is a celebration of the best beers in Florida. The top three beers in each category of beer, mead, and cider will be served up for your enjoyment. The Brewer’s Ball has been held for over 11 years celebrating the breweries, the brewers, and the beer they make right here in Florida.

This festival features over 100 of Florida’s Best Beers on tap. East Coast Catering will be on-site serving food from 12PM to 4PM.

Buy tickets: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/brewers-ball-2018-tickets-42330646102

The event is rain or shine. Lawnchairs are allowed. Service animals are permitted, but other canine friends should be left at home.


The purpose of Best Florida Beer is to aid in the development and promotion of both home and commercial Florida brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts.

BFB accomplishes this by organizing fair and credible competitions that distinguish excellence in beer with qualified judges. In addition they increase awareness of commercial breweries through consumer education, marketing, events and competitions.

BFB strives to serve as a model of cooperation in its effort to unify the Florida brewing community by establishing partnerships and cultivating resources with like organizations statewide.


Florida Brewers Guild Craft Beer Festival – 03/03

This Saturday, March 3rd, 2018 is the Florida Brewers Guild Craft Beer Festival at Cotanchobee Park in Downtown Tampa (601 Old Water Street, Tampa, FL 33602) from 2PM-5PM. The event will kick off Tampa Bay Beer Week 2018.

Guests will be able to sample more than 200 beers from 60+ Florida craft breweries while raising money for the Florida Brewers Guild, the nonprofit trade association committed to preserving the rights of craft brewers throughout the state.

Tickets are now on-sale and range from $45 for General Admission to $65 for VIP. VIP ticket holders will get one-hour early access (1PM).

Buy tickets: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/fbg-2018-craft-beer-festival-presented-by-boston-capital-leasing-tickets-41214061367

Guests must be 21 years or older to attend. All attendees will receive unlimited samples and a commemorative tasting glass.

Participating breweries:

The event is sponsored by Boston Leasing Capital, Visit Tallahassee, Gas South, Willamette Valley Hops.

Tampa Theatre WineFest 2018: Wine’s World This Week

Tampa’s historic Tampa Theatre located in Downtown Tampa will have their 16th Annual WineFest: Wine’s World 2018 event this week. The event is Tampa Theatre’s largest annual fundraiser.

The event will kick off on Thursday, March 1st with a screening of Wayne’ World at 7:30PM. On Friday, March 2nd guests will enjoy a special Wine Pairing presented by Mise En Place Chef Marty Blitz.  The stage of the Tampa Theatre will be expanded to host these special guests.

The main event will occur on Saturday, March 3rd with the two-tiered Wine Tasting. Guests can enjoy dozens of independent restaurants and wineries and bid on special auction items (note: the auction is already open for bidding).

Pre-bidding: http://www.bidpal.net/TAMPATHEATRE



The Premium Tasting is from 7:00PM-8:00PM and features exclusive wines for a limited audience. The Grand Tasting is from 8:00PM-10:00PM. The Premium Tasting is already SOLD OUT, but the Grand Tasting still has tickets available while supplies last.

Buy tickets to The Grand Tasting: https://tampatheatre.ticketforce.com/orderticketsarea.asp?p=1884&a=2&src=eventperformances

Participating vendors:

  • 1895 Bar – Kitchen – Market
  • American Social Tampa
  • Anise Global Gastrobar
  • Bavaro’s Pizza Napoletana & Pastaria
  • Bizou Brasserie
  • Breakthru
  • Cape Classics
  • Carne Chophouse
  • Ceviche
  • Cremaschi Wine Imports
  • Cru Cellars
  • Culinary Creations
  • CW’s Gin Joint
  • Daughters Wines
  • District Tavern
  • Dominio de Punctum
  • Duchessa Lia
  • Ella’s
  • Folio Wines
  • Hess Winery
  • J.J. Taylor Distributing Florida, Inc.
  • La Crema Winery
  • Little Donut House
  • Mettler Family Vineyards
  • Michael David Winery
  • Noble Wines
  • O Cocina
  • Oberan Wines
  • On Swann
  • Opici
  • Oxford Exchange
  • PRP Wines
  • RNDC
  • Si-am Thaimerican
  • Sokol Blosser Winery
  • Southern Brewing
  • Terroir Wine Group
  • Totara Wines
  • Villa Sandi

The event is sponsored by Mise en Place, APG, Bank of America, The Bank of Tampa, Casper’s Service Company, Creative Contractors Inc., DeBartolo Family Foundation, Florida Health Care News, Growman Brand, Gray Robinson Attorneys at Law, Harris & Hunt P.A., HCP Research Strategy Marketing, Mutual of Omaha Bank, Phelps Dunbar LLP, Quarles & Brady LLP, Nichols Geegan King of Raymond James, Shumaker, Southwest Airlines, Silva & Associates, Tampa Steel Erecting Co., TECO, and more.

The Ultimate Brewer 3 This Friday

Tampa Bay Beer Week officially kicks off this weekend with The Ultimate Brewer 3, a competition that will get our taste buds ready for what is to come at Brew Bus Brewing in Seminole Heights.

The event will happen Friday, March 2nd, 2018 from 7PM-10PM. There are currently over 50 local breweries in Tampa Bay making craft beer daily, 25 will be competing at the event.

Tickets cost $25 in advance and $35 at the door. There is no VIP  sales for this event.

Buy tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3320638

“Pairs of unusual ingredients were randomly drawn and 25 participating breweries chose the beer style that best demonstrates those ingredients. Garlic, Wasabi, or Hazelnut might test a brewer’s creativity, but combine one of those with pineapple, coriander, or chives and now you have quite the challenge. These ingredients are kept secret and the beers are tasted blind on March 2nd 7PM-10PM”.

“The winner will be chosen between a balance of two votes:

  • Consumer Choice as chosen by you’
  • Pro Panel chosen by the participating brewers.

“The brewery with the most votes wins The Ultimate Brewer 2018, will have their name etched on the trophy, and will be presented with the opportunity to brew the official beer of TBBW 2019. The trophy currently resides at Brew Bus Brewing, two-time champion and brewer of this year’s official beer of TBBW 2018″. 

Brew Bus Brewing is located at 4101 N Florida Ave, Tampa, FL 33603.


Participating breweries:

CL Meet the Brewers this Saturday, February 17th!

The annual Creative Loafing Meet the Brewers craft beer event is this Saturday, February 17th at Brandon Harley-Davidson (9841 East Adamo Drive, Tampa, FL 33619) from 1PM to 4PM.

GA Tickets cost $30 in advance and $40 at the door. General Admission includes unlimited beer while you mix and mingle with local brewers. A portion of proceeds will benefit Ybor City Museum Society.

VIP costs $75 in advance and $85 at the door and includes an hour of early admission to the event and food provided by Mini Doughnut Factory, The Mill Brandon, beer from Slim Pickens Cider & Mead, and more.

Buy tickets: http://www.xorbia.com/e/cltampa/brewers/

The event is sponsored by Brandon Harley-DavidsonSmashburgerMini Doughnut FactoryFlorida Brewers GuildTampa Bay Beer WeekTampa Bay Brew Tours by Thirsty PelicanYbor City Museum SocietyThe Mill BrandonRoundhouse CreativeLyft, and UNATION.

Brewery list:

  • 3 Daughters Brewing
  • 7venth Sun Brewing Co.
  • 81Bay Brewing Co.
  • Big Storm Brewing Co.
  • Big Top Brewing Co.
  • Cigar City Brewing
  • Cigar City Cider & Mead
  • Crooked Thumb Brewery
  • Darwin Brewing Co.
  • Dissent Craft Brewing Co.
  • Dunedin Brewery
  • Escape Brewing Co.
  • Flying Boat Brewing Co.
  • Hidden Springs Ale Works
  • JDub’s Brewing Co.
  • Marker 48 Brewing
  • Saint Somewhere Brewing Co.
  • Sea Dog Brewery
  • Tampa Bay Brewing Co.
  • Tampa Beer Works
  • The Wild Rover Brewery
  • Ulele Spring Brewery

Check out the beer list here: https://www.cltampa.com/brewers

The Rez Grill now open at Seminole Hard Rock Tampa

Full disclosure: I was invited to The Rez Grill for a tasting of the menu in exchange for my opinion. These opinions are my own and do not represent Seminole Hard Rock Tampa.

I stopped by The Rez Grill at Seminole Hard Rock Tampa for a taste recently. The inside is a mixture between retro and modern decor – the seating was quite comfortable even in the communal area. The manager and mixologist take just as much care of the experience inside as the Executive Chef Frank Anderson. Chef Anderson is a transplant from Los Angeles and it shows.

Many of the menu items at The Rez are easily approachable American cuisine, but with culinary twists and additions that amplify the dishes to a more gourmet level. Chicken & Waffles and St. Louis Ribs aren’t anything new to people in Tampa, but I really enjoyed the consistency and moisture of the waffles and chicken. Bacon Jam was a nice touch. The ribs were also quite tasty.

One thing that was different was that many of their dishes invite you to share and trust me the portion is plenty for a party of 3-4 people or more depending on your appetite. I was surprised at the large portion sizes, but I think the idea behind The Rez is to offer some great food at a price point that can draw both older and younger diners with different amounts of cash to spend. Splitting entrees will lead you to spend around $10 per person in a party of 3-4 people for entrees.

A major winner to me on the menu was the appetizer options. They were all incredibly delicious.

The Benton’s Ham with Biscuits were fantastic. The oysters were probably one of the best I have had in Tampa – you must try those if offered the chance. The Chicken Liver Toast and Pimento Toast were also winners in my book. I would be happy to stop by The Rez sometime and grab a cocktail with an appetizer and share it with a friend or family member.

The dessert options were also excellent and my favorite two were the Espresso Creme Brulee and Chocolate Budino. Chef Anderson also created the dessert menu and executed it well.

There are quite a few things I didn’t try including the prime meats, burgers, sandwiches, and Florida-caught seafood. The price points of these dishes suggest different offerings between fine-dining and casual dining. Dinner entrees can range from $17 for Cavatelli Pasta to $85 for Wagyu A-4 Japanese Steak.

From the cocktail menu I tried the Improved G & T which features St. George Gin, Elderflower, Tonic Water, B’lure Ice and makes the cocktail turn blue. It was a fine gin and tonic drink, but personally I’m not a huge fan of Gin. I’m still waiting for my moment when I become a fan.

What did impress me was The Rez Cocktail which has house-infused pineapple tequila, mint, lime, and club soda. It tasted like a mojito and was incredibly delicious. I would order this drink anytime at The Rez. The wine selections that were poured during the tasting were also great. You’ll find quite a number of California wines on the list which may be a homage back to Chef Anderson.

Speaking of Chef Anderson, he was very hospitable and definitely not hard to talk to for a chef. His methodology behind each dish was explained well and I think he has lots of potential to create some great eats at The Rez Grill and at Seminole Hard Rock Tampa in general.

Overall, The Rez Grill has some great options and if you find yourself at Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, I’d recommend making a stop and giving it a try. Do bring a friend or two or three.

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.