By Dalia Colon
On the internationally culinary scene, the Tampa Bay area is probably best known for Bern's Steakhouse.
But as special as fine dining can be, some inexpensive meals can be just as memorable. If you're hungry for food that will fill your belly without emptying your wallet during the day or late at night, try one of these quintessential cheap eats in Tampa Bay.
1) Greatest sandwich since sliced bread
Chicago has deep-dish pizza. Philadelphia has cheesesteaks. And Tampa has the Cuban sandwich -- a lunchbox-friendly hoagie concocted by cigar workers in Tampa's Ybor City district. The sandwich starts with Cuban bread and contains ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and mustard, depending on whom you ask. There are myriad cheap restaurants in Tampa Bay that serve Cuban sandwiches, and there's even a Cuban Sandwich Festival.
2) History on a plate
Florida's oldest eatery, the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa's historic Ybor City district, offers a filling salad that pays tribute to the year the restaurant was founded. The 1905 Salad also gives a nod to Tampa's immigrant population, with Cuban-style roasted pork, Romano cheese inspired by Sicilians and other fresh ingredients.
3) Market research
Mazzaro's Italian Market is one of those bustling, big-city-style markets that attracts patrons from all walks of life: busy parents picking up handmade pasta for the night's dinner, workers buying a pound of freshly roasted coffee for the office, book club members nabbing some wine and hard-to-find cheese for their next meeting... and everyone in between. Part butcher shop, part bakery, part foodie wonderland, this St. Petersburg institution offers food for every taste and budget; the popular deli sandwiches are big enough for two meals. Pick up something to carry out, or enjoy your meal on the patio.
4) It's Greek to me
Whenever you have the chance to dine in an ethnic neighborhood, go for it. In general, the food is better quality and less expensive than what you'll find in mainstream restaurants. The city of Tarpon Springs is a flourishing Greek neighborhood full of restaurants where you can nosh on authentic mousaka, spanakopita, lamb served in more ways than you can count. Save room for baklava, too.
5) Not the only fish in the sea
The über-popular Frenchy's Original Cafe in Clearwater Beach is pretty quaint (read: small). So if you don't feel like waiting for a table, head to one of the other Frenchy's locations nearby. All offer a laid-back, beachy vibe with plenty of good, inexpensive seafood. For a truly Floridian experience, order the grouper sandwich.
6) Sweet talk
William Dean Chocolates aren't just pretty. You could say they have movie-star good looks. The brightly colored bonbons have been featured in the Hunger Games movies, and they taste as good as they look. These sweet treats, whose headquarters is in the Clearwater area, also make a classy gift. If you don't want to spring for an entire box, treat yourself to just one; or take a William Dean class so you can learn to make your own chocolates at home.