The United States has a well-deserved reputation as a melting pot, and Florida is no exception. In fact, Florida packs a few surprises in the form of cuisines you never knew you could find in some of its towns.
Here are stops I’ve made along the way, as well as others worth checking out. (Disclaimer: I know this isn’t the definitive list. It’s a start. I welcome e-mail about your own finds. Reach me at Barb@BarbFreda.com.)
Tarpon Springs. The sponge population drew Greek immigrants to the area in the early 20th century, and businesses grew to cater to that population. You can still visit the sponge docks, buy Greek souvenirs and, of course, eat plenty of good food at any number of restaurants up and down the street fronting the docks, Dodecanese Boulevard. Let the scent of lemons, oregano, lamb and garlic perfuming the air guide you into one of the restaurants below.
What to Eat:
Don’t miss spanakopita (spinach pie), moussaka, gyros and baklava (walnuts and honey in phyllo dough).
Hellas Restaurant, Tarpon Springs, 727-943-2400, www.hellas-restaurant.com
The Original Mama Maria’s Greek Cuisine, Tarpon Springs, 727-934-5678, www.theoriginalmamamarias.com
Costas Restaurant, Tarpon Springs, 727-938-6890, www.costascuisine.com
Orlando. Yet another surprise for me. Just north of downtown Orlando lies a heavy concentration of Vietnamese restaurants and groceries.
What to Eat:
Iced coffee (strong coffee laced liberally with sweetened condensed milk), pho (noodle soups), fried spring rolls and green papaya salad – crunchy and refreshing, the salty fish sauce mixing with tangy lime and minty basil.
Lac Viet Bistro, Orlando, 407-228-4000, lacvietbistro.com
Pho 88, Orlando, 407-897-3488, www.pho88orlando.com
Little Saigon, Orlando, 407-423-8539, www.littlesaigonrestaurant.com
3. French Canadian
Hollywood. A strong contingent of French Canadians travels to Hollywood every winter for daily doses of sunshine – and they want their comfort food!
What to Eat:
These sun-seekers brought poutine: French fries doused with brown gravy and mixed with cheese curds. That’s right – squeaky cheese curds, French fries and savory gravy over all.
Dairy Belle, Dania, 954-920-3330, dairybelleicecream.com. A charming, outdoor, old-fashioned burger place. I place my order at the window and when it’s called (“cent quarante neuf”), I realize it’s a good thing I know my numbers. I understand a bit of the French spoken around me and peruse local free circulars written in French. And I share the poutine down to the last cheese curd, half of a really wonderful cheeseburger and a great soft-serve ice cream as a treat to finish. (Note: If you know of other wonderful poutine stops, please let me know.)
Miami, Tampa and everywhere else. No one should leave Florida without at least one Cuban meal, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. You don’t need to find fancy restaurants – comfortable, family-friendly spots where Spanish is usually the first language will do.
What to Eat:
Café con leche (hot milk with a shot of espresso on the side) the way the locals have it: walk up, order a shot, down it and keep on going (after checking in with the other patrons about the weather, the news, etc.); tostones (fried plantains); ropa vieja (long-simmered pork); lechon (slow-roasted pork); Cuban sandwich (cubanito) or medianoche (a smaller version of the same: ham, roasted pork, mild Swiss cheese and pickles pressed in a flat grill until the cheese melts; add salami if you’re in Tampa); black beans; and flan.
Versailles, Miami, 305-444-0240,
Las Culebrinas, Coral Gables, 305-445-2337, www.culebrinas.com
Exquisito, Miami, 305-643-0227, www.exquisitorestaurant.com
La Rosa, Miami, 305-541-1715, rosarestaurant.com
Yiya’s Gourmet Bakery, Miami, 305-754-3337
Michelle Faedo’s, Tampa, 813-247-3020, www.devilcrab.com
Deerfield Beach, North Miami and Coral Springs. I was sent to a treat of a German store, The Real Emil's Sausage Kitchen in Deerfield Beach, run by Walter Voos. Voos, a master butcher who perfected his craft in Germany, creates fresh, no-filler, no-chemicals, honest-to-goodness great sausages. Regulars hang out and chat in the shop, where the shelves are lined with German newspapers and groceries. The scents of spices and smoke (Voos smokes meats in the back of the shop) greet you as you enter.
What to Eat:
I crave the Oktoberfest brats, the veal sausages and these little ready-to-eat sausages known as kasekleine – No-Name Cheese Sticks. The pierogies are some of the best around. In the restaurants: beer (of course), schnitzel, spatzle, sauerbraten and brats.
Real Emil’s Sausage Kitchen , Deerfield Beach, 954-422-5565, www.european-sausage.com
Schnitzel Haus, Miami, 305-754-8002, www.schnitzelhausmiami.com
Old Vienna Restaurant, Coral Springs, 954-344-7175, www.oldviennamenu.com
American German Club, Lake Worth, 561-967-6464, www.americangermanclub.org
Also of Note
It’s hard to include every cuisine in one short piece, so here are a few other types – and places to eat them – worth noting.
Think grits, greens, barbecue, cornbread, pork chops, sweet tea and great desserts.
Skyway Jack’s, St. Petersburg, 727-867-1907, skywayjacks1.com
People’s Bar-B-Que, Miami, 305-373-8080, www.peoplesbarbque.com
Enjoy paella, Spanish tortillas, chorizo, gazpacho and, of course, sangria.
Delicias de Espana, Miami, 305-669-4485, www.deliciasdeespana.com
Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant, Orlando (also St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Tampa), 321-281-8140, www.ceviche.com