By JULIA ALBINI
Florida is like a little America; one state composed of people from all over the world including retirees, college students, innovators and of course true Floridians. Consequently, different towns and cities have reinvented themselves while depicting strong cultural influences. Thanks to determined entrepreneurs, there is a wide variety of ethnic restaurants worth exploring that allow us to experience food from another country in the comfort of your own backyard. Tampa might be notorious for its grouper sandwiches, but you’d be surprised by how much else the city has to offer.
Byblos is a Mediterranean restaurant on South MacDill started by two brothers, Roger and Ziad Estephan, years after moving to America from Lebanon. From old European men playing cards on the patio to young couples out on their first date, Byblos is a popular spot for all ages. From the moment you walk in you’re stunned with European treasures. Burnished bronze urns atop every ledge along tall walls adorned in crimson drapes above filigree light fixtures. The booths are capped with pillows and Mediterranean throws of unique designs making for a cozy, at-home atmosphere. Hung on almost every wall are different works of art depicting gods and goddesses with the occasional icon hidden in the mix.
You’ll be instantly drawn to the Lebanese music they have playing softly in the background. My boyfriend and I were seated in a booth big enough for five, but with all the food we ordered it seemed to be the perfect size. Customers will find their Byblos Mezah most appealing if they’re trying to get a little taste of everything. This platter is prepared for two and includes hummus, baba ghanuj, labneh, kebbah, falafel, grape leaves and tabbouleh.
Hummus is a common spread that originated from Mediterranean islands, but has become a huge trend in America over time. The other three spreads, baba ghanuj (eggplant based), labneh (Greek yogurt based) and tabbouleh (vegetable based), aren’t as common. They were served alongside warm slices of pita with a side of lightly seasoned olive oil. Kebbahs are bite-sized balls made of lean beef blended with cracked wheat and seasonings that are then deep-fried. Falafel, another dish that has adapted to the American culture, are deep-fried vegetarian balls that were complemented well by the assorted spreads. Grape leaves, also known as dolmas, are a Greek dish consisting of hand rolled grape leaves stuffed with rice, parsley, and tomato. The platter was big enough to get a taste of authentic Mediterranean cuisine, but also light enough to satisfy a hungry appetite.
Samurai Blue is a Japanese sushi and sake bar located in central Ybor. Their high ceilings are a metaphor of just how high their bar is set for an authentic Japanese dining experience. Alongside the wall when you walk in is a glass case sushi bar where fresh fish is displayed on ice in front of the sushi chefs’ workstation. Dine with dinner and a show as the chefs carefully prepare each roll.
Aside from their cold fish starters are various warm and other cold dishes. According to staff, their bamboo steamed pork filled dumplings known as dim sum shumai are a house favorite. This traditional entrée is served with ponzu sauce: a thin, citrus-based dipping sauce. Everything from their floral booth décor and cultural music to their enticing menu will have you wanting to come back for more.
Piquant is a hidden gem in the heart of Hyde Park that will make you believe you’re sitting in a little café in the streets of Paris. Although owners Rosana Rivera and Ricardo Castro have no French descent, their foods speaks for itself that they play the part well.
Upon entering the main doors is their patisserie and espresso bar where they serve breakfast and on-the-go lunch specials. Everything from authentic croissants to delicately prepared Maxine torte are baked fresh every morning and displayed through the glass case when you first walk in. They’re notorious for their cream of potato and bacon soup called crème du potage et lardon, which is out of this world. For a more profound taste of French epicurean cuisine try their croquettes de yucca: fried yucca and bacon croquettes served with fresh cilantro aioli. A meal as tasteful as this is only complete with a fine glass of Chardonnay.
Yeomen’s Cask and Lion is a tiny British pub downtown. Walking through the front entrance you’re greeted by two wooden foot guards as you would at any royal tavern in Great Britain. Aligning the walls are giant portraits of royal figures, like Queen Elizabeth, but with a punk-twist to their artistry. The far back wall is embellished with perfectly trimmed grass surrounding a lit portrait of a bulldog in a British flag tee. Even the long wooden wall behind the bar is painted over in a British flag design, but Yeomen’s creativity doesn’t stop at the décor.
Each item on the menu has a witty name whether it be the Double Decker, Kate’s Kickin’ Chicken, or the Piccadilly Spears. Then of course there is The London Eye: five counterpart cheeses including provolone, Swiss, American, cheddar and mascarpone on sourdough bread served with sweet potato fries. A minor holiday might be just what you need after a meal here – their portions will leave you bloody full!
Arirang Korean Restaurant located on South MacDill will take you on a journey exploring everything a little restaurant in Korea would have to offer. Customers are greeted at the door by young women dressed in a long silk dress referred to as a hanbok, or joseon-ot, depending on what region of Korean you’re from. Their hanboks are pink with delicate designs running through each seam, which harmonized well with the theme of the restaurant. Much of their décor consist of small Korean riches from ceramic teapots and vases to iron candle fixtures, and everything in between.
A house favorite is their infamous kimchi pa jeon: a Korean traditional pancake with chopped kimchi and mixed vegetables. It is served with a light seasoned sauce that will make it hard to put your fork down. In traditional preparation, kimchi was fermented underground in jars for months at a time. It’s Korea’s national dish and is made in hundreds of varieties. For a crunchier taste try their yaki mandu and fresh egg rolls on the house. Yaki mandu are fried or steamed dumplings filled with chopped pork and beef and vegetables finished with a light garlic sauce. Their traditional egg rolls are stuffed with chopped pork and vegetables and fried to perfection. Their warm welcomings and endless generosity will make you feel right at home. To end, try their skewered chicken marinated in homemade teriyaki sauce for a sweet, but tangy taste.
As if their food alone isn’t enough to blow you away, you’ll understand how fascinating the experience is after knowing every item they serve is made from scratch. Restaurant owner, Misook Mundell, uses her family’s recipes to prepare every dish on the menu.
There are so many ethnic style restaurants in the Tampa Bay area that people often overlook. Why eat out at the same few restaurants when you can experience an authentic, cultural meal without leaving the comfort of your own backyard? Kiss those grouper sandwiches goodbye and open your eyes to a city of endless dining opportunities.