Cava Sangria, Feral Chickens and the Hunt for the Best Grouper Sandwich: Exploring Tampa, Florida

Tampa-1
Downtown Tampa just after sunset. The River Walk lights change color every few minutes. Here they are purple and green.

Our hunt for the best grouper sandwich began last summer at a restaurant in Panama City Beach, Florida called J. Michael’s. It was so good that it became an obsession that led us to visit three straight days during our weeklong stay. Heading back to the Gulf coast we found out we weren’t alone in our quest when we Googled “best grouper sandwich” and found many recommendations all over the Tampa Bay Area. But, we also discovered that the Tampa Bay area offers a lot of fun things to see and do, and a surprisingly rich history.

After we landed and dropped our bags at our AirBnB we were in need of lunch. I had read about Ulele, a restaurant that features creatively prepared local ingredients in a park-like setting. It was the first and, by far, best grouper sandwich of the trip. It was also a perfect start to our Florida adventure. If you go, do not miss the Key West Key Lime stack for dessert. Trust me on this one.

After two days at the rv show we were excited to see something other than an rv. We began our first full day of exploration by driving to the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Hundreds of manatees gather there in the warm water near a power station when the water in Tampa Bay gets cold. No one was very active and they reminded me of potatoes in a pot of water except that the occasional head would surface for air. However, the nature trail next to the center offers a nice trail through the wetlands to a tower where you can get a good view of Tampa Bay. After spending the morning there dodging school bus loads of kids, we drove off in search of gulf beaches and another grouper sandwich. The drive took us to Clearwater Beach and a grouper Reuben sandwich. The cold air kept us from exploring the beach on foot so we drove south along the beaches eventually crossed back to St. Petersburg and made our way to downtown Tampa on a path that took us along Bayshore Boulevard. The long curving boulevard on the edge of Tampa Bay boasts the world’s longest continuous sidewalk and offers a stunning view backed by the beautiful homes of the Hyde Park neighborhood.

I love photographing cityscapes as the sun sets and the River Walk in downtown Tampa was a great place to get views of the city and the old Tampa Bay Hotel, a Moorish Revival building across the river that is now the centerpiece of the University of Tampa. We spent time watching the lights come on as the sun went down and I took a lot of pictures until it was dark and we ventured off for another less than stellar grouper sandwich before heading back to our hotel.

Plant Hall
Plant Hall at the University of Tampa is the former Tampa Bay Hotel.

Our last day started with French crepes and Greek coffee at La Creperia Café in Ybor City just northeast of downtown Tampa, an area that was our favorite discovery of the trip. It was founded in the late nineteenth century as a factory town to house the Cuban workers for a cluster of cigar makers. Over the years, immigrants escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe and the violence and repression that accompanied Italy’s unification also came looking for work in the cigar factories and helped create an incredibly diverse and vibrant city that was soon swallowed by the growing city of Tampa. The Ybor City Museum State Park does an amazing job of telling the story. I work in museum exhibits and love to visit other museums either to see a specific exhibit or because the subject interests me. Every once in a while, though, I am surprised by a real gem with a compelling story told well through pictures and artifacts. This is one of those special places. Located in a former Italian bakery famous for its Cuban bread, it also tells the history of the building and its huge brick ovens. A particularly harrowing story is that of the man who specialized in repairing the ovens without cooling them off! The story in six words. Water. Burlap. Nerves of steel. Yikes! My advice is to visit the museum first then walk the neighborhood. There are restaurants, bars and cigar stores where they still roll cigars in the front window. There are also families of feral chickens wandering the streets – a link to the past when workers brought chickens with them from Key West. Now, they roam the streets protected by law and they have their own Facebook page.

Ybor city-1
Ybor Museum State Park is located in the former La Joven Francesa Bakery the brick built in 1922 by Francisco Ferlita to replace the original wooden structure built in 1895.
Ybor city-2
Some of the wild chickens that roam the streets of Ybor City

Ybor City’s mix of cultures also gave birth to the Cuban sandwich – roast pork from Cuba, salami from Italy, mustard and pickles from Eastern Europe. A restaurant that opened in 1905 to make Cuban sandwiches for the cigar workers has become a landmark that is still owned and operated by the same family. Columbia Restaurant is an experience you cannot miss. This “Gem of Spanish Restaurants” has a menu that features dishes dating back to its opening days. It reads like a history book. It’s full stories behind the dishes and it dishes a little gossip from the restaurant’s past. We went for dinner two nights in a row after exploring RV’s all day. Carolyn LOVES sangria so we were especially excited to try their signature Sangria de Cava which features champagne, brandy, orange liqueur and fresh fruit mixed in a pitcher tableside. It was so good we had it both nights. Dinner the first night was the incredible Grouper “Bilbao”. A generous piece of grouper on a bed of tomatoes, onions and potatoes roasted in a clay pot. It was perfectly cooked and it was simply perfect for the two of us. Dinner the second night was Mahi-mahi “Cayo Hueso” which featured a piece of marinated fish with “Good Rice” (a vast understatement), yucca and plantain. The rice really was absolutely addictive and made a perfect dish for a chilly night.

Ybor city-3
Grouper “Bilbao” at Columbia Restaurant.

Our last stop was a quick trip to the Lowry Park Zoo before driving to the airport. It’s not large but it is worth a visit. It’s divided into geographical areas; Florida, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The animals all have roomy enclosures and they do an excellent job of telling visitors about the different animals on graphic panels throughout the park. Plus, they offer unique experiences like feeding a giraffe and running with wallabys. Unfortunately, the day we visited was fairly cold so most of the animals that are used to tropical climates were either inside or were huddled in their enclosure keeping warm.

Though we went for the Florida RV Super Show, we are both really glad we spent time exploring the Tampa Bay Area. We barely skimmed the surface and we can’t wait to go back. It also makes a great starting point for exploring the central gulf coast.

Author: lee@runawayrowes.com

Born the same day Gemini 7 launched. I love to travel and photograph new places.

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