A week ago I flew down to Tampa to visit a relative in Ocala. My mom met me at the airport after arriving from Chicago. Having hunger pains from snacking all day, we decided a big Mexican was sounding good.
After adjusting as best I could to the sauna-like humidity I asked the Mexican girl manning the car rental desk where we should go. By the way, and I’m sure this is stating the obvious; Latinos in Florida are a lot more diverse than the southwest U.S. Its really nice to meet Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, and hear the many different dialects the make up Florida. Latinos who’ve been transplanted to the Southwest U.S. seem to originate mostly from Chihuahua and Sinaloa. Or maybe its just the people I know.
Anyway she pointed us to La Cascada, at Hillsborough and Armenia near 275. I honed in on the address via my GPS and found a wonderful family run place serving enchiladas, tacos, huge burritos, and chips a plenty. Typical Mexican food, but excellent tasting chicken and beef – and served fresh and in big portions.
Once again rule number one of traveling pays off: Ask a local. This place was on a smaller street no more than half a mile south of Hillsborough, a super arterial with every restaurant chain you can imagine, but rather than a bland and predictable dinner at a pre-fab small box restaurant we enjoyed the atmosphere among the local owners and their friends who were dining, if only for an hour. The staff and owner knew everyone there, and welcomed us in too. You know you’ve landed on a good family run joint when the owners have their kids sitting in the corner table working on homework. And good corn flour tortillas too. La Cascada is at 5004 North Armenia Avenue.
Next stop: Astor, Florida. Where? Good question. If you’re in the north-central town of Ocala, hop on highway 40 and drive about 30 miles east through the Ocala National Forest. En route you can visit Silver Springs, an original theme park/nature reserve created even before Disney’s time. During my last trip down I stopped at “Blair’s Jungle Den” for a soda and snack. I wanted to see this riverfront bait shop again, so upon arriving Astor we drove down the windy road leading to Blair’s - but found the St. John’s River creeping into the front of the store and fish gutting sinks. According to the proprietor the St. Johns River flows UPSTREAM to Jacksonville, and hurricane Fay had pushed the water levels up quite high. I wished him the best as I sloshed back to the car.
On the other side of the river is the Blackwater Inn. Promoted on their site as “Astor’s Premier Place for Fine Dining,” I might amend this to read “Astor’s ONLY Place for Fine Dining.
This wood paneled and mirror walled doesn’t appear to have been updated since 1974, but if the Blackwater continues to maintain the charm it currently has there’s no reason to ever make changes. Walking in you see comfortable sitting room with plush sofas and newspapers to read while you wait for your table. The dining area consists of a large rectangular room with raised booths at the rear side and seats which allow views of the river from all tables. At 2pm most of the Sunday lunch crowd had moved on, so we were seated at a table right up against the glass wall facing the river. On busier days you can watch watercraft pull up and dock as anglers and boaters visit this long standing establishment. We had catfish, catfish, and more catfish and enjoyed the self described “lavish” salad bar while enjoying a really long Sunday afternoon dinner. Above the Blackwater there’s Williams Landing, a bar overlooking the river.
Back in Tampa: Mema’s Alaskan Tacos, in the historic Cuban enclave of Ybor City. This place must be Wahoo’s Fish Taco’s cousin. The local independent flair and young vibe carry right over. Mema’s makes there tacos a particulary unique way in that the roll the meat, (chicken, beef, etc,) INTO the tortilla and fry it all up together. Another unique dish? Alligator tacos. Good stuff. Here’s another write up from Tampa Bay Eats. 1604 North 17th Street, right along the trolley line.
Lastly, over to Clearwater for Tuesday lunch at the Palm Pavilion. Located right on beautiful wide Clearwater Beach this place features an enormous dining room, live music at night, and a huge patio, (with shade!) in which to enjoy the ocean views. After eating out for three days I ordered a chicken salad – but we ended up gorging on coconut shrimp too.
If you’re ambling up and down the beaches and shops of Clearwater make this your lunch stop. They’re at 10 Bay Esplanade, on the north end.
An important lesson learned: If you walk down to the beach with a to-go box you WILL be surrounded and accosted by lots of birds looking for a hand out. Be warned.
And a breakfast related note: The Microtel breakfast sucks- in Tampa and Ocala that is. In May I stayed at a Microtel in West Des Moines Iowa and had access to waffle maker, flavored coffee, and fresh fruit. The franchise owners at these two Florida locations would be best served to visit West Des Moine.
In order to market a “breakfast” it should be more than something you can get out of a vending machine. Pre packaged muffins and bagels with a toaster on the fritz does not a continental breakfast make.