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Good Eatin'

If eating is your jones, your drug of choice, your joie de vivre, you have plenty of places in South Tampa offering cuisines of many cultures.

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003


[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Ernest Hooper digs into a steaming, spicy rib combo plate and glass of sweet tea con mucho gusto at Moses White & Sons Bar-B-Que in Ybor City, one of the places he recommends for tasty and generous portions.
The pleasures usually begin with the steam that rises from the combination platter at Moses White & Sons Bar-B-Que.

The smell of the sweet, tangy sauce, the sound of a smooth R&B classic from Marvin Gaye or the O'Jays and the taste of the sweet tea have prepared each of my senses for the venture. I pause before takeoff, admiring the juices that bead upon the grilled ribs and tantalizing chicken.

Somewhere in between the baked beans and the potato salad, I leave Ybor City. I don't quite know where I go, but it is a feel-good otherworld where no boss or bill collector is allowed to exist.

And I'm supposed to give this up to drink green kelp shakes?

Kathryn Wexler: Good-for-you eating
If you've seen me, you know eating is something of a passion. No, it's a drug. It's my form of Prozac. If you see me eating the white chocolate, chocolate chip cheesecake drizzled with hot chocolate and strawberry syrup at Mia's, it's probably because I had a fight with my wife.

Yes, you can argue I need to exercise more and I won't quibble. But if you argue I need to give up some of the finer foods South Tampa has to offer by imbibing on alfalfa sprouts and tofu burgers, it ain't happening.

Xtreme is a gym on Howard, not a dieting approach.

The task before me is to tell of some of the good eating offered by restaurants in the area served by City Times. You know they picked me hoping to get a list of all-you-can-eat smorgasbords that would contrast the staid eating practices of colleague Kathryn Wexler.

And yes, I know about a few places where the eating goes on and on until you have to be rolled out of the place sideways like the girl on Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. (Yes, that was me getting such assistance at Ho Ho Windows last week).

But oompa, loompa, doopity doo, I've got another lesson for you.

Look, you can do some eating that tastes great and is relatively less filling than that typical holiday assault that has you signing up for a lifetime health club membership on Jan. 2. All you have to do is be reasonable.

Start with sandwiches, and spare me the lecture on the perils of wheat. Man does not live by bread alone, but he sure has been eating it for a long time.

My favorite is the Vinny T at Mott & Hester Deli. Roast beef, havarti cheese, dill sauce and red onions on grilled rye. Want to cut back, have them hold the sauce. And if you really want to go healthy, tell them to use turkey instead of roast beef.

Right about now Wexler is either scoffing, laughing or both.

Another favorite can be found at the Wine Exchange. The Bordeaux is made with smoked turkey, brie and raspberry sauce. And they serve it with fruit instead of fries. If I'm eating fruit, I'm winning.

Traditionalists can opt for the Monte Cristo at Bennigan's. Yes, it's a triple-decked ham, turkey and cheese club that's battered, deep fried and served with raspberry preserves. But you can cut the calories in half by eating only half of it.

Make sure you get a box.

I also would like to salute Mia's tuna croissant (what's wrong with a croissant?), the Chick-fil-A original (it's cooked in peanut oil), the Jimmy Mac's grouper and two Mise En Place favorites: the Willy Moore and Russ Alba (anything with goat cheese can't be bad).

Here's another tip: go the appetizer route. Sure, you can get the entree accompanied by a salad at most places, but you know how fattening dressing can be. My approach is to avoid the salad altogether and make a meal with two or three starters.

It's a popular approach in Spain (I think they call it tapas) and with the crowd at Ceviche on Howard Avenue. Grilled prawns and steak tips can start or end any night.

For Ernest Hooper, eating food is beyond sustenance; it's a passion meant to be indulged and enjoyed, not nutritionally analyzed.
At Bonefish Grill, you can combine the crab cake appetizer with the rock shrimp appetizer and leave happier and richer.

Another option is to combine some of the likable choices at the Green Iguana, like swamp gator bites and Bimini conch fritters.

Don't forget the barbecued shrimp at Shula's (it's about the only thing I can afford there) or the dim sum appetizer at Profusion, which easily can serve as a meal. Just try to resist the temptation to order two or three. Or four.

For actual meals, try the Rigatoni D at Maggiano's, the chicken Marsala at Cheesecake Factory (actually, I like everything at Cheesecake Factory) and a new favorite, the fusilli with chicken at Cellini, a hidden gem on Bayshore Boulevard, south of Gandy.

Yeah, I eat seafood. And it's healthy, right? Like the shrimp, scallops and fish over linguine at Jackson's or the merluza (a type of fish) at Columbia.

For sheer value, catch one of Ciccio & Tony's special pasta nights where you can load up for one price. The Mexican entrees at Estela's are cheap and choice, and you also can find bargains at Pipo's and 220 across the street.

Come to think of it, the best way to see Davis Islands is through your stomach.

I guess that's my problem. For me, food is a joyous journey, a virtual tour, not merely a means of nutrition. It's not about gluttony, it's about joie de vivre.

You can curb your dieting to such proven staples as rice cakes and tabouli in the hopes of living until you're 100, but I think I would rather get more joy out of each day, than live more days.

And I want you to know this: My grandmother, Ann Cooper, turns 101 on Jan. 9, and she has never had hummus, soy burgers or rice cakes.

She has, however, had chitterlings, pig's feet and collard greens.

-- Ernest Hooper, columnist for the St. Petersburg Times in Tampa, can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406. Food is but one of the joys in his life. He is father to two sons, Matthew and Ethan, and a 14-month-old daughter, Madelyn, who fancies Gerber chicken carrot pasta.

EATING WELL: The joyous journey

-- Moses White & Sons Bar-B-Que, 1815 E Seventh Ave., 247-7544

-- Mott & Hester Deli, 1155 S Dale Mabry Highway, 289-9758

-- Cheesecake Factory, International Plaza, 353-4200

-- Profusion, International Plaza, 353-8400

* * *

A matter of taste

Must Kathryn Wexler and Ernest Hooper be at odds? Couldn't they give peace a chance? They tried, and then filed this report.

KATHRYN: I introduce Ernest Hooper to a strange, new world: food that doesn't kill.

We go, naturally, to Nature's Harvest deli. The choices abound. There are kidney beans, blanched cauliflower, tofu pie -- all mouthwatering.

"Oh, God!" Hooper utters.

Must be his toxins talking.

ERNEST: By no means did I expect Kathryn to delve into my favorites at Mott & Hester Deli, a place so renowned in South Tampa it's been open for 20 years.

After all, the only bread she is willing to consider is flat, black and devoid of taste.

KATHRYN: I order him a Nature's Harvest special. It's a thick concoction called Ground Nut Stew.

"You don't really eat that," he accuses.

Laura Budzik, deli supervisor and a wickedly good cook, says it has butternut squash, potatoes, peanuts, cabbage, peppers, black-eyed peas and nuts.

Yummmm!

ERNEST: The best thing I could say about the stew is it tasted a lot better than it looked.

If I were stranded on a deserted island, I could get by eating that stuff for quite some time. It had some surprising flavor with a healthy dose of spices, and the crunch from the nuts was a nice complement.

But it could never inspire the kind of gleeful anticipation that accompanies me whenever I prepare to bite into Mott & Hester's Wild Turkey.

KATHRYN: He opts for some brown Basmati rice, the long-grain kind, to add to his stew. He pokes at the plate. He eats a little, complains a little. Eats a little, complains a little. Doesn't finish it.

He takes me to this place called Mott & Hester Deli. I can tell I'm in trouble.

Maybe they could just throw a slab of tofu on the griddle?

ERNEST: My hope was that she could craft a decent lunch from some of Mott's healthier choices. How could she go wrong, I thought, with squash casserole, shrimp salad and antipasto?

Unfortunately, Kathryn didn't share my enthusiasm. She danced around her three choices.

KATHRYN: "I'm still hungry," he says, back at the office.

That's what you get when you turn up your nose at a side order of cauliflower.

ERNEST: I knew it was a lost cause when Kathryn complained she was starting to feel sleepy after her meal.

Didn't she realize that was a good sign?

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