Sunday, September 09, 2007

The culinary underbelly of Tampa

Yesterday I took two of Tampa's food journalists on a tour of my favorite hole in the wall restaurants. The mission; to show that exceptionally good food can be found in the most unlikely looking places, that every day people with a passion for their trade can produce results every bit as good, or better, as the culinary elite.

Our first stop, and the one with neighborhood significance, was Martha's. While it may be old hat to some readers, to the uninitiated I must climb on my soapbox and sing it's praises.

Sitting at a rickety table and sharing the only menu between the four of us, we decided to share the biscuits and gravy and catfish and eggs. (We had 6 more stops to make, so moderation was the watchword of the day). The biscuits and gravy arrived post haste.

The term "food porn" has been thrown around quite a bit in culinary writing of late. While a perfectly seared piece of glistening foie gras may do it for some, this plate of biscuits smothered in white, pork filled goodness was my food porn. The biscuits, a cross between a quick bread and a yeast roll, were light, fluffy, slightly burned, and delicious. The sausage gravy, a whole that is greater than the sum of it's simple ingredients of sausage, flour, milk, and black pepper has the potential to be a gluey, gummy, glutenous mess of blandness to the nth degree, or a light, velvety, heart attack inducing, life changing experience. Yes, it was the latter, with just a trace of a soda waterish tang to get you in that spot where your jaws hinge. Moderation went out the window as I dove in to the plate again and again.

The catfish arrived with just a telltale trace of the frying oil streaking the plate that showed the pefect amount of use to the fryer, none of that squeaky clean, transparent, brand new grease for me, thank you. The simple anglaise breading of flour, salt, and pepper was all that was needed to seal in the moisture and preserve the texture of a perfectly fresh filet. The curious pairing with eggs sent all semblance of kosher running for the hills, but I was raised Irish catholic and don't need to worry about such things. The eggs were scrambled and cooked (possibly unkown to the cook) omlette souffle style, which resulted in an airy pillow of eggy goodness.

The passion and ethos demonstrated by the family run operation at Martha's is little heard of these days. One of the journalists was impressed to the point that he wants to run a feature on Ella and her food in the near future. I highly suggest that you sample their wares before anything happens that could send them the way of the dinosaur.

Mission accomplished, I exposed a culinary gem in a most unlikely box.

Other places outside of the neighborhood on the tour that you may want to look in to:
La Cabana Antiquena(Columbian)
Mi Mexico
Gold Ring
Big John's BBQ
Cephas Hot Shop (do NOT let him talk you into drinking the aloe before eating - that's a story for another day)


Just getting a taste said...

I've been going to whatever restaurant occupies that spot next to the insurance place for the past 15 years or so but I have'nt been to Martha's in awhile, I'll have to check it out. My new discovery is Happy Fish in Fiesta Plaza at Tampa and Armenia. They have 50+ kinds of flan. 50+. No kidding!

Michelle said...

Ella, the owner, has cancer. She can be seen sitting at the counter reading the newspaper most days. She is a wonderdul woman and is very proud of Martha's. Because of high medical bills, she has had to look at the option of selling, but she doesn't want to. I recommend anyone make the trip to Martha's, especially Seminole Heights residents. This is one of those little gems we really need to ensure stays around.

FM said...

One thing is missing from the article, for the un-initiated. Where is Martha's?

Mal Carne said...

On Nebraska, just south of Hillsborough. I believe that the cross street is Frierson.

Torgo said...

Big John's BBQ .... yum. That place is awesome.

Mal Carne said...

I received this from Jeff Houck this morning:
"Hey guys,
I went back to Martha’s to check a few things and got to talk to her[Della].
She’s had a car accident since we visited. Sounded horrific. She still had bruises on her arms. Her daughter can’t work anymore because of it. Della’s also been laid out by chemo. “I couldn’t walk last week,” she said.
The restaurant is about to sell to a gentleman from Michigan who, she says, plans on making no change in either staff or menu."

It seems that sometimes people just can't catch a break. Best wishes to Della in her recovery and for her family. I truly hope that the new owner continues on with the quality and care that Della and her family have.