In the article "High school confidential," published in Creative Loafing's 2012 Food Issue, Yuri and I visited Saigon Deli on Armenia and New Soul on Willow, both in Tampa, as a part of our "10 Restaurants Under $100" challenge. Unfortunately, by the time the deadline came around, those were the only places we'd dined. Now free from the constraints of time and the printed page, here are our reviews of the next four restaurants we sampled. The remaining four on our list are currently underway.
As a reminder: Taste will be judged on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest; price will be assessed as $, $$ and $$$ — or cheap, reasonable and unjustifiable.
Brocato’s Sandwich Shop
5021 E Columbus Dr.
Cloud: Given that Brocato’s is actually set up as more of a traditional restaurant, it’s probably not going to receive the same sort of writeup I gave to Saigon Deli or New Soul, which both require the diner to have a somewhat open mind. Brocato’s is run similarly to a fast food joint. You order your food, grab a receipt, sit down, and wait for your name to be called. I ordered the lunch special, which consisted of a sandwich and a single side. Since countless people have already talked about the Cubans, and since I'm not the biggest fan of the sandwich, I opted to go for a small Chicken Parm sandwich. I had minimal expectations; the place specializes in Cuban food, after all, not Italian.
I will never pre-judge another restaurant so callously again.
The Chicken Parm was by far one of the best I’ve had, with plenty of well-breaded chicken, sauce, and cheese. I was most appreciative of the bread, which didn’t immediately turn soggy upon contact with the marinara sauce, unlike other sandwiches I’ve had in the past. As for my one side, I had the famous stuffed potato ball, which is seasoned meat and vegetables surrounded by creamy mashed potatoes, subsequently dunked into a deep fat frier. It’s as good as it sounds, and just as fattening. There’s another special that allows you to get two sides. I don’t know why you would ever need to, short of replenishing your calories following the Olympic decatholon, but it’s there should you ever want it. For almost two meals' worth of food, I spent $11.76.
Yuri: Since Andrew decided not to go for the classic Cuban sandwich, I took it as my duty to order it, in order to give Brocato’s a fair shake. The meat is piled high in the sandwich, yet the flat press they do (as with all proper Cuban sandwiches) keeps eating it from being too much of a chore. If you have some less-than-adventurous friends when it comes to eating and you still want them to try something new, then Brocato’s is definitely a place you should consider.
8502 N Armenia Ave. #1A
Cloud: Tampa boasts numerous pockets of culinary diversity. From the ton of Asian places on Armenia, Yuri chose China Yuan, just a few minutes away from the deliciously cheap Saigon Deli. China Yuan is located in the same center as multiple other Asian restaurants, an Asian mart, a Peruvian Tapas restaurant, and a night club.
China Yuan looks much nicer on the inside than it does on the outside, everything clean and shiny. There's even a portrait of a herd of horses on the wall, which I’m sure is symbolic of the mighty fortitude of Chinese chefs and how they trample all others in their wake. Anyways, I ordered the House Special Fried Rice, featuring roasted pork, chicken, and shrimp. While I wasn’t impressed by the taste, the portion was beyond generous. It probably could’ve served three of me. For $9.50, it’s almost justifiable, seeing how they probably spent $9 on the ingredients themselves. The $2 can of root beer, though? Not cool. At least offer refills. All in all, though, with a bill totaling up to $12.29, not including tip, this meal isn’t worth it.
Yuri: While at China Yuan I ordered the roast duck which, like the fried rice, could have easily been split with another person. The meal was definitely overpriced, but I was appreciative that they even had roast duck on the menu and that they did it right. The meat was moist and sweet, although I would have liked it to have had crispier skin. If you’re an adult who lives in the area around N. Armenia, China Yuan is worth a try. If you’re a cash-strapped teenager in South Tampa (like me), you may want to pass on this one.
Tampa Bay Bagel Company
4004 S MacDill Ave.
Cloud: I love breakfast significantly more than I love lunch or dinner, which is why I was excited to try out the Tampa Bay Bagel Company 10 minutes away from my house. The breakfast menu looked chock full of items until I realized they were either repeats of the same item but with different sides, or something that hardly merited its own spot, like a bagel with cream cheese. I settled with a pretty traditional breakfast sandwich consisting of egg, cheese, and bacon on an asiago bagel. I had a choice for the cheese and breakfast meat, but they didn’t tell me I had the choice of how I wanted my eggs done until I picked up a meal later for my parents. Something I would’ve liked to know. After ordering, I awkwardly walked around to the counter where there was some semblance of a line, paid, and waited until they prepared my order. The food was made in a weird “whatever’s-made-first” sort of order where the person behind you has the possibility of getting his meal first. I waited roughly 10 minutes without the relief of an apparently absent AC system, until my food was finally up. The sandwich itself was good, not great. If you’ve ever had breakfast at Einstein’s, this tasted pretty similar, the only difference being that the eggs were freshly prepared instead of being the weird yellow wedges Einstein’s likes to offer you. They do know how to make bagels, as expected, but the $6.41 price tag is a bit steep for a breakfast sandwich, a drink, and bad service. I’d honestly just rather get breakfast at Panera.
Yuri: Unlike some of the other places we visited, I had actually been to Tampa Bay Bagel Co. before. I knew the service would probably be a little slow and that it might be a little pricey, but the fact was this: they make damn good bagels. Their “Morning Special,” which included a solid cup of coffee and a bagel (cranberry walnut for me), hit the spot that morning. It’s a nice place to do breakfast with a girl, too, although I’d probably plan on paying.
Taste: 3.5-4.5 (depends on who you ask)
5306 Palm River Road
Cloud: If you have a Sunday morning free, you owe it to yourself to visit this place at least once. A friend of mine lives a couple streets over and would tell us magical stories of empty pavilions bustling to life overnight with stands offering exotics foods for nominal fees. I would always put it off until Yuri and I actually visited the temple as part of a World Religions class this past semester of high school. We came back the following weekend to get food, and this was our second time there. The first time we went, early arrival and unpleasant weather made the lines short and bearable, and getting soup only took us about five minutes. The price was about $4 or $5, I want to say $4, but it wasn’t the “soup or salad” sort of soup you get before an entree at restaurants. This soup was the entree. We also got the fried bananas, which are prepared in huge batches, and those alone are worth the trip. They were only $3 for a “small” bag. A large bag would require either a lot of help, or the risk of going into cardiac arrest. Their Thai tea is pretty awesome, too.
The second trip, made the 17th of June, featured much nicer weather, and as a result, much larger crowds. Opting out of a half-hour line for soup, I went for the meat on a stick. I got two sticks of beef, two of pork, a bag of rice (more akin to a rice patty, so I could just bite off and chew) each for $1, and two drinks, each also for $1 (yeah, China Yuan) totaling $7. With the bag of fried bananas, everything together ended up being $10. The profits are directed to the Buddhist monks and their temple, meaning you pretty much owe it to society to eat here if I haven’t convinced you already. Just be sure to get here early, though, around 10 am.
Yuri: Out of all the places we visited, the Buddhist temple on Palm River Road takes the cake for best ambience, no contest. The place is almost always bustling without ever really giving off that claustrophobic feeling of being overcrowded; it’s also nice to be able to eat outside. There are a hell of a lot of options at the temple, but if I had to recommend one it probably would be the Pho (the Vietnamese soup Cloud mentioned).