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This year, let Santa reveal his exotic side

Forget the mall. Instead, do your gift shopping at some of Tampa's more out-of-the-way places.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2002

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Mariachi Vallarta, a band that plays Friday nights at Estela’s Mexican Restaurant on Davis Islands, will serenade a loved one with six or seven songs for a fee of $300.

Think out of the box this holiday.

Cross the border or go transoceanic.

Eschew the dizzying heights of Manolo Blahniks and embrace the underslung heels of El General boots.

Switch off the Food Channel and talk personally to the local ravioli king and "encyclopedia of food."

Ignore the complications of satellite radio hook-up and order five men playing a serenade (installation not required).

In Tampa, no passport is necessary to shop a world of wares.

Pay to play

Perez has been playing the guitar since the age of 6 and the small, five-stringed vihuela for the past 13 years.

For $300, he's all yours. Perez's group delivers a serenade of six to seven songs.

They've been playing at Estela's on Fridays for more than five years. In their traditional traje de charro -- tight-fitting ornamented pants, short jacket, embroidered belt and boots -- the five-piece band moves from table to table playing sones, boleras and rancheras, working on tips and requests from a populace a bit over reliant on La Cucaracha.

(As it turns out, the song speaks more for the Mexican Revolution than for a scourge shared by Mexicano and Floridiano alike. Cecil Adams of Straight Dope has referred to it as the Mexican Yankee Doodle.)

Weighty stuff for an evening filled with Estela's margaritas and carne asada.

Boots made for walking

These days, Columbus Boulevard's old Cuban moniker of Boliche Boulevard could equally be Burrito Boulevard with West Tampa becoming Little Latin America. An influx of restaurants and stores representing Peru, Brazil, Dominican Republic and other countries line the streets.

North on Armenia, Mexican general store El Noa Noa carries the basics of the Mariachi lifestyle and more.

From six packs of Negra Modelo Mexican Beer ($10.49) to Pancho Villa prayer candles ($1.59), El Noa Noa features music, video, crucifixes, Jal-Mex seasonings, music, videos and El General boots.

With their distinctive Eagle logo engraved on the heel bottom, El General boots were made for leaving a mark. Many sport embroidered mythological and real creatures on the shaft. Costs for your own pair of El Generals is cheaper than a bribe -- from $135.

With Antonio Banderas bringing the Gran General Revolucionario to life in a film about Pancho Villa, the Pancho Villa prayer candle may soon be a hit in malls everywhere, though not for the bargain $1.59.

The meditation on the candle reads, in part, "give me enough energy and enough courage to encounter the most difficult obstacle in my life."

Or, perhaps you were handed a copy of Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Produce Results instead of a raise this year.

Fish! prescriptions for overcoming working in a "toxic energy dump," such as "Hat Day," might fail to be inspirational in the real world, but while you're at El Noa Noa pick up a velvet sombrero (from $29.99) just to make sure.

Pajama party

A long-time downtown favorite, the Oceanic Oriental Supermarket, exudes the exotic.

While the aisle of tea features beautifully tinned black, jasmine and other teas, a walk further to the back reveals an opulent world of hand-carved, rosewood furniture with mother of pearl inlays.

A chest is packed with silk pajamas, beginning at $69, embroidered with flying birds, gentle flowers and sequins.

The Oceanic also offers the bountiful. Bamboo bouquets deliver only the best of luck with more ornate 3-tiered designs starting at $29 and others as low as $14.99. Ancient Chinese believed that the gift of living bamboo brought the recipient good blessings.

The lion's head mask ($599) is most commonly seen at Chinese New Year, store openings or special functions. The ultimate in good luck, the lion's head dance is said to have come from an emperor's dream more than 2000 years ago. It's a gift perfect for two (when a suggestion of marital counseling might be in poor taste). The lion, after all, must have four legs. And both the head and tail must work together to give the elaborately painted Paper Mache king of luck quick, lively movements.

Food for thought

The Thai Market on S Dale Mabry Highway has been living its own blessing of prosperity for 26 years.

Manager Narumol Tanin has been there, smiling through each one. "You should have come last week," she offers, issuing a posthumous invitation to the Thai temple's yearly Loy Krathong Festival.

Loy krathong means to float a banana leaf cup on water. Krathongs -- the banana leaves -- can be bought or made out of paper. On the November full moon, people go to their local river and place a flower, a candle and three lit incense sticks on the krathong, making a wish as they float away.

Tanin says, "It brings luck, I really believe it does." And she may know of what she speaks as she's been in business over two decades, even as the Winn Dixie on Kennedy Boulevard sits vacant.

The store is packed with Pad Thai noodles, curries, Smiling Fish products and 5-pound bags of red peppers. But among the treats that keep people coming back are the sweet pickled turnips, kept in the refrigerated section.

They are a habit-forming crunch of sweet, sour and salty, with an aftertaste of more sweet. The grocery also has a table of unique gift items less than $10 from ornate chopsticks to tiny items perfect for a Thai Spirit House.

The Siam Grocery, 6834 S MacDill Ave., has not been open a year yet, but proprietor Supone Tuck is putting everything she and her husband, Nettha, have into the venture. Nearly half of the small store is full of the Thai videos she rents for 50 cents apiece.

Tuck is an energetic miracle. Hit by a drunk driver and thrown 9 feet into the air, she has pins in her leg. It took her two years to relearn to walk.

Currently she sells a limited number of unique Thai children's pajamas ($10) that have hand stitching and metal ornamentation. Each week brings something new. "Little this, little that," she says, explaining her uncommon merchandising policy.

Back up MacDill Avenue to Little Manila. Marvin Coder suggests he "would have to kill" the person who found the secret to the store's Filipino barbecue sauce. The violence of the notion is rendered mute by his particularly large smile.

But the barbecue pork stick ($1) is that good. Not barbecue in the Southern tradition, the meat is cooked over steaming water, allowing for a distinctive moistness. Instead of hiding the meat, the sauce is sweetly silent in the tradition of melted butter on lobster.

Little Manila is distinct for its pink stucco facade, screened-in back porch with a lazy fan and unreasonably low prices. Finding unique holiday party food is easy. Little Manila is also a great place to contemplate a Filipino proverb: "If you buy things you don't need, you will soon be selling things you do need."

Rooms to know

At Ancient Arts "antique furniture, oil paintings, frames, oriental rugs, bronze, chandeliers and accessories" warehouse on the lower end of Westshore Boulevard, European 17th and 18th century antique reproduction furniture predominates.

With the sort of face-to-face love seat ($260) that would be pivotal in a romance novel bodice ripper, the mood here -- despite the location -- is enchantment.

A mahogany bird cage ($597) with multiple spires rises nearly 5 feet tall, making its bird's eye view something to talk about. The true ruler of the roost finds an elaborately upholstered king chair ($1,760). About 7 feet tall, the chair's arms end in carved lion's heads, and the entire production rests on regal lion's paws.

Ancient Arts also has a showroom on S MacDill Ave.

For smaller pieces with a huge impact, Uniques De France, 305 S Howard Ave., presents a multiroomed tableaux of chic, complicated embellishments. In terms of prices this store says gilt without guilt. Elaborate tassels begin at $32.

The real show stopper is a jewel-faced clock in a cello. Lush and hand-painted, it retails at $2,496.

Mediterranean Heritage on W Kennedy Boulevard smells of sweet cedar. It is here that the seduction of senses begins.

The store serves as the import point for Moroccan furniture across the United States. The designs not only reflect the rich mixed cultures of Arabia and Spain, but also the desire for comfort and serenity.

While many of the embellishments include camel bone, don't picket to save the dromedary. The bone, we are told, is carefully harvested from a camel that has naturally gone on to the Sahara in the sky. It then goes through a decade-long preservation and henna dying process. At the store, boxes begin around $40.

Carved, hand-painted decorated doors, both double and single, express exotic exteriors from $2,000. Traditionally in Morocco even the humblest house has a dramatic door to keep out evil spirits.

More food for thought

"People have started giving ravioli as gifts," explains Lauren Otis of the Ravioli Co. on Platt Street.

Perfect for holidays and even baby showers, the pasta named from the Italian word ravvolgere, 'to wrap," is hardly the simple sailor's food of its roots.

With her husband, Otis, whom she calls the "encyclopedia of food," she fills ravioli with such morsels as roast sirloin, spinach, grilled tomato, asparagus, Buffalo mozzarella, roast duck and herbs. Prices range from a four-cheese concoction at $3.80 per pound to market price Maine Lobster.

Gift certificates are available. (Why cook when boiling water can make you look so continental?)

And really, why get caught in the kitchen when you can relax with a belly dancer shimmying at your elbow at Byblos Cafe? Raks Sharki, Arabic for the Dance Of The Orient, is a dance created for women, by women. It is one of the oldest dances in the world.

Byblos Cafe Mediterranean Cuisine and Market on S MacDill Avenue offers two shows on Friday and Saturday at 8 and 9 p.m.

Offering more than 11 types of olives in its deli and innumerable delights off its comprehensive menu, Byblos is a jewel of traditional Lebanese hospitality.

Holiday spirit

Clear's Silat of Florida on S Dale Mabry Highway teaches many martial arts, but none so interesting as the Indonesian street form of Pentjak Silat. Considered too dangerous to be a sport, this defense system isn't even shown on ESPN's Extreme Games. Clear's offers instruction in this art two days a week.

Clear's also offers seminars. On Jan. 12, there are classes in "Tai Chai Push Hands" and "Teet Lung Pai Freestyle Chi Sao Sticking Hands," from $40. Both traditions teach relaxation and defense. Some knowledge of martial arts is helpful, but not required.

Richard Clear is a Si Gung (senior teacher/master) and Guru Tiga (third level senior teacher). He began his study of the Internal Arts, Kung Fu, Silat and Tibetan Arts in 1976 and has studied under 40 teachers. He also instructs two-day executive programs from $4,500 that offer a complete self-defense method with no further teaching.

Clear says people who take the course go through massive life changes. He tells of people who went from timid to alive. A partner can take a class for an extra $1,500. Gift certificates are available.

Martial arts call upon the internal spirit, but the Rev. Benjamin D. Hall calls upon the otherworldly spirits.

Monthly he leads a seance at Angel Heart New Age Gifts and Metaphysical Center on W Kennedy Boulevard. It's not the Hollywood version with candelabras flying through the air, but one from the heart where, in theory, one uses meditation to open doors.

A striking man with penetrating aquamarine eyes, Hall has been featured on television programs for his professed ability to communicate with the dead.

Clients bring an article of the departed human or pet to the guided meditation. Classes are limited to 10, require a reservation and cost only a free will donation.

Finally, the gift that keeps on living.

-- Rhonda K. Kitchens, a Tampa librarian with a dog named Oskar, was the subject of a Nov. 1 City Times profile, "Understanding Rhonda K."

Contact information

Estela's Mexican Restaurant, 209 E Davis Blvd.; 251-0558.

Mariachi Vallarta, 989-0058 or 505-9582.

El Noa Noa, 4215 N Armenia Ave.; 354-9216.

Oceanic Oriental Supermarket, 1609 N Tampa St.; 228-8110.

Thai Market, 3325 S Dale Mabry Highway; 837-5735.

Siam Grocery, 6834 S MacDill Ave.; 832-3805.

Little Manila, 6211 S MacDill Ave.; 839-8875.

Ancient Arts Gallery, 530 S MacDill Ave.; 876-4949.

Ancient Arts Warehouse, 5400 S Westshore Blvd.

Uniques De France, 304 S Howard Ave.; 259-4444.

Mediterranean Heritage, 2907 W Kennedy Blvd.; 875-9552.

Ravioli Co., 2202 W Platt St.; 254-2051.

Byblos Cafe, 2832 S MacDill Ave.; 805-7977.

Clear's Silat, 3402 S Dale Mabry Highway, Suite A; 835-5098.

Angel Heart, 3441 W Kennedy Blvd.; 877-8117.

-- EDITOR'S NOTE: City Times sent freelance writer Rhonda K. Kitchens off the beaten path, in search of holiday shopping alternatives. Here's what she uncovered.

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