Sarasota and other Florida eats.

Florida spring training kind of sucks, in my professional opinion, because the sites are so far apart and several are wastelands for decent food. I found a handful of decent spots in my week there this year, along with a lot of mediocrity, but I’ll just focus on the good here, including the fact that Sarasota of all places has a decent little food and coffee scene happening.

Baker & Wife is a farm-to-table type of place in Sarasota, recommended to me by a friend who lives nearby, and I was impressed by both the vegetable dishes and, as you’d expect from the name, the dessert. I went with two starters rather than a main, a salad of roasted yellow beets with goat cheese, pesto, and pine nuts, along with crab cakes with a spicy green papaya slaw; of all of that, the only aspect I didn’t care for was the slaw, which tasted too much of fish sauce. The beets were really spectacular, although I am a fan of roasted beets in any form, but I think they pair so well with goat cheese, any kind of nuts, and the salty, bright punch of the pesto. Dessert, I had the “baker’s bannoffie pie,” and I’ll let the menu describe it: “pecan and graham cracker crust, house made banana & vanilla bean pudding, chocolate chips, caramel, cream.” It was that good and then some. It all worked so well together.

Perq is a new third-wave coffee bar in Sarasota, using beans from various artisan roasters around the country, and offering numerous cold-brew and single-origin espresso options along with the usual. It’s a sizable cafe too, unlike a lot of third-wave spots, and they appear to rotate through various roasters – they had a number of I knew from my travels and when I chatted up one of the baristas, he mentioned several other great roasters they’ve used, like heart, Sightglass, Four barrel, Counter Culture, and more.

I had half a decent meal at Selva, a Peruvian restaurant downtown, where the ceviche was very good and the entree I had was not. The ceviche isn’t truly traditional; they have numerous combinations that include various fruits, acids, and types of fish, and the tuna/watermelon ceviche I got had larger pieces of fish than I’m used to seeing in ceviche. It came with a spicy lime sauce for dipping or pouring to taste, and I would recommend using that if you end up here. But the main course was kind of a mess – a duck breast that was cooked very inconsistently, and served with a risotto that was anything but.

There’s also a tiny Buddy Brew location right near Selva, at the entrance to the parking garage downtown not far from Tamiami Trail. I would go to Perq before this, but Buddy Brew is solid.

Elsewhere in the state, I discovered the brand new Foxtail Coffee in Orlando’s Winter Park neighborhood thanks to a scout’s recommendation, and both times I went there was a line out the door. They had four coffees available from different countries; I tried their espresso one day and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over the next, the latter of which came with a roasting demonstration from Iain, one of the owners and a baseball fan as well. It’s right near the old location of the Ravenous Pig, which has moved into the old Cask & Larder space but which I can report is still some of the best food to be had in the Orlando area.

Near the Jupiter complex is a very unassuming little coffee shop and roaster called Oceana, which does a lot of single origins as well but roasts most of them darker than I tend to like. Their pour-over options are the way to go – I had an Ethiopian the first day I was there, and I’ll be honest in that I was so in need of the caffeine I don’t remember much beyond the sheer pleasure of feeling it hit my bloodstream. Pass on the espresso as their extraction rate is way too high and the result is watery.

Merritt Island’s Cuban Island Cafe is worth a stop if you’re in that area, which I’d never visited before; I went for my standard choice, lechon asado, which in this case came with some amazing black beans, one maduro, one tostone, and well over a half-pound of pork.

I’ll also mention Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami, which appeared on a list of the best pizzerias in the U.S. a few years ago that I’ve kept on hand for my travels, hitting more than half of the 48 places they listed. The pizza itself was just average, but I had an escarole salad to start that was tremendous – lemon, anchovies, parmiggiano, and bread crumbs. It hit a little of everything, adding salty, sour, and umami notes to the slight bitterness of the raw greens. They have a few non-pizza options that might be worth trying if I ever go back to have that salad again.

Tampa/Clearwater eats.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET. Also, check out my review of the boardgame Evolution over at Paste if you haven’t already.

Jose’s Real Cuban Food in Bradenton looks like a dump – I wasn’t even sure I’d pulled into the right parking lot – but the food makes it worth getting over your initial jitters about walking into the place, with huge portions of authentic Cuban dishes at very reasonable prices. I’m a huge fan of lechón asado, slow-roasted pork shoulder that’s been marinated in a garlicky sour orange mixture (like a wet rub) and is served shredded, usually with rice and beans. Jose’s offers the basic black beans and rice combo, but you can upgrade to yellow rice (with saffron and garlic) or moros (rice cooked with the black beans) for a buck or so, plus your choice of maduros (fried sweet plantains) or yucca frita. The pork was tender and the flavors were well-balanced between the citrus, the salt, and the garlic – not overpowered by the garlic as too often happens, since garlic is cheap and can hide the taste of subpar ingredients – and the plate had to have at least a half a pound of meat. I went with the basic beans and rice but next time would go for the yellow rice instead, while the maduros were superb, not too greasy and cooked just to the point of caramelization without burning. That plate was more than enough for me, but if you’re a bigger eater than I am, for $14 you can get a sampler “taste of Cuba” platter with the pork, ropa vieja (brisket slow-cooked in tomato sauce), and picadillo (seasoned ground beef) with the same sides, after which you won’t need to eat for a few days.

The Refinery in Tampa is a Kiley McDaniel favorite, one he’s been recommending to me for about two years now, and I finally made it late on Friday night after seeing Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford play. The Refinery’s a farm-to-table restaurant with a menu that changes a few times a week, mostly small plates with four or five entrees, and an extensive beer/wine list. I went with three small plates, one of which was dessert – a roasted beet plate with a beet soubise, catfish fritters, and their sweet twist on biscuits and gravy, all of which were grade 55s but none plus. The fritters were a little disappointing because they were so big and bready that I didn’t taste the fish at all, so while they were perfectly fried (smoking hot when they reached the table) and came with a delicious remoulade-like sauce and some pickled tomatoes on the side, they could have been corn fritters or zucchini fritters or anything else and I wouldn’t have known it. The dessert was clever, a cocoa wafer serving as the biscuit, a dollop of chocolate mousse serving as the sausage, and a floral crème anglaise as the sauce, not too sweet but not quite as chocolatey as I’d hoped for. I think the Refinery’s best attribute is the quality of their ingredients, but I wish, for example, they’d showcased the catfish in that dish the way they showcased the beets on the other savory plate.

Buddy Brew is a local coffee roaster in Tampa with a decent selection of single-origin pour-overs as well as one espresso option, all third-wave stuff and fairly high-quality. I tried the Peru Cajamarca as a pour-over, definitely getting the toffee and cocoa flavors listed on the description (although the power of suggestion is quite potent when you’re talking about anything as subjective and borderline pretentious as “notes” in coffee, wine, chocolate, or tea) but looking for a little more acidity to balance it out. I preferred the espresso, which uses their Double Dog blend and had that dark cocoa + berry combination that, for whatever reason, I think makes the best espresso. I’m assuming there’s some Ethiopian beans in there, but they don’t identify the components on their site.

Lenny’s in Clearwater gets such high marks, with Alton Brown even paying them a visit recently when he did a show in the area, but it’s entirely about quantity over quality. Their “redneck Benedict” is just sausage gravy on biscuits with poached eggs added, but the eggs were badly overcooked (and shaped oddly, like they’d been cooked in thimbles) while the biscuits were clearly not fresh, and why bother when they’re going to be obliterated underneath a half-gallon of heavy sauce? Don’t waste your time. Clearwater’s a bit of a wasteland for food – one of you recommended Cafe Pont on Ulmerton, which I didn’t have time to try between games on Friday – but you can do better than this for breakfast.

Sacramento, Oakland, Palo Alto eats.

Klawchat is tentatively scheduled for 1 pm EDT Friday. I’ll also be on the Herd around 1:40 pm, which will be taped.

I bounced around northern California a little last week and found a few spots worth highlighting. The find of the trip was Bakesale Betty in the Telegraph/Temecula District of Oakland, a recommendation from a scout who shall remain nameless but whose culinary credibility went through the roof, because BB is a 70. They’re known for their fried chicken sandwich, which includes a large portion of perfectly fried chicken breast, about half the thickness of a whole breast, spicy, crispy, and not really greasy. It’s served with a big dose of a cabbage-based slaw in a mild vinaigrette and served on a slightly dense white mini-baguette. I told the cute girl taking my order that “I was told I need to order a fried chicken sandwich and a lemon ice,” but they were out of lemon ice. That may be why I got the to-die-for just-out-of-the-oven molasses spice cookie for free, although I prefer to believe that it was my stunning good looks and winning smile that sealed the deal. Sandwich + bottled Tejana iced tea were about $8.50. Srsly.

I also had two hits in Sacramento, one dinner, one breakfast. Dinner was at Kathmandu Kitchen, a Nepali restaurant on Broadway in the middle of a sort of ethnic restaurant row, two or three doors down from an Ethiopian place called Queen of Sheba that has a good reputation. At Kathmandu, I tried the vegetable sampler, which was, surprisingly, enough food to fill me despite the absence of meat. The platter comes with two samosas, five momos (a steamed dumpling with a thick doughy wrapper), dal (lentil soup), bhat (as far as I could tell, just white basmati rice), naan, green beans with a little chili pepper, and five different sauces/chutneys – one with mint, one with tomatoes, one with tamarind, one that was sweet like a fruit preserve, and one that was yogurt-based. The samosas, momos, and green beans were all intensely flavored, although the momos were too heavily flavored, with a fragrant (cardamom?) note that I didn’t like. The dal was thinner than what I’ve had at Indian restaurants, but I don’t know if this is authentic to Nepali cuisine. The naan was a little dry, but I don’t know if there’s a white bread product on the planet that I don’t like. The only real failure was the chai, which I found undrinkable, but again, may be suffering from a lack of acquaintance with authentic Nepali cuisine. Solid 50, leaning towards 55 for good service.

Breakfast – twice – was at Cafe Bernardo, a funky upscale bar/restaurant that does fancy breakfasts right but charges pedestrian prices. I tried the Belgian waffle, with a pecan butter that I could eat by the pound; the amaretto French toast, with very high-quality bread and toasted (slightly overtoasted) almonds, and a portion that exceeded my gastric capacity; and the chicken apple sausage, split in half and grilled, not dry and just a little spicy. Order tea and for $2.75 you’ll get a pot with loose leaves and at least four cups’ worth of tea in it. Street parking abounds but there are meters. It was just about full on Saturday morning at around 9 am, but half full the day before at around 8:30. It’s a 50/55 as well.

One bad meal in Sacramento came at New Canton, also on Broadway, a very popular dim sum restaurant. I had four dishes; two were good, two were hot, and if you did the Venn diagram on those the intersection would be the null set. I gave up for fear that dish #5 would be the one that poisoned me.

I was in Palo Alto for the Wheeler/Storen matchup and ate two meals there. The Counter is an upscale burger bar on California Avenue with a build-your-own shtick similar to that of Blu Burger in Phoenix, although the Counter uses Angus beef instead of American Kobe. It’s apparently a nationwide chain, although I didn’t know it at the time and have never seen one before. The ingredient quality was good, and the portions of toppings were generous (I’m going from memory but I believe I had their soft herbed goat cheese, sauteed mushrooms, roasted red peppers, mixed baby greens, and grilled onions), so much so that half of them slid off the burger as I ate. The problem was that I ordered the burger medium, which they say is their default option, and got one that was well-done. I mentioned this to the bartender, who called the manager over, who took one look at the burger and told me it was on the house. She mentioned that it was “two in a row” for the kitchen, so someone got in a little hot water that day. I might not have said anything, but the burger was pretty dry from the overcooking. I’ll give them some benefit of the doubt because the ingredients were good and the manager was hopping mad about the issue, so at least they take it seriously.

So, spending less than expected on lunch, I decided to go a little upscale for dinner and hit a fancy Cuban place on California, La Bodeguita del Medio for dinner, which was a dud. I ordered masitas, which is usually a dish of marinated pork shoulder chunks that have been slowly braised until tender; the chefs at La Bodeguita apparently feel that trimming the fat off the meat is for sissies, and the meat appears to have been cooked too quickly at too high a temperature, resulting in meat that fell apart but was dry. The meat and caramelized onions were sitting on the rice and black beans, which ended up swimming in sauce. I had asked the waiter how spicy the dish was, and he said “mild,” which was an outright lie. And the place isn’t cheap. I guess it’s a 40 – really, you want to find someplace better, but in a dire emergency it’s playable, like if your star restaurant is closed for 50 days for using a banned substance.

Phoenix eats, 2009.

Before I get to the food, the BBC’s site had a somewhat scary article about a link between hot beverages and esophogeal cancer. Consuming beverages over 160 F – which would include black tea and drip coffee – was associated with higher incidence of that very nasty type of cancer. On the bright side, green tea should be brewed at 160, so it’ll be served around 150-155, and the milk in espresso-based drinks should only be heated to 160, meaning that it’s also consumed below that mark. Of course, almost any coffee place that serves green tea will serve it around 200 degrees, including Charbucks, so do what I do and ask the barista to throw an ice cube or two in there.

On to Phoenix eats.Havana Café is a local mini-chain of three restaurants, one on Bell near 64th in northern Phoenix. The food is Caribbean rather than just Cuban, with a lot of Puerto Rican dishes and, most importantly, maduros up the wazoo. The ingredients are clearly very high quality and the food aims for a somewhat “cleaner” look than typical Cuban joints. The pollo Cubano, a half chicken breast marinated in a lime-orange mojo and pan-seared, was bright and tangy, while the pollo ajillo had hints of garlic but probably wouldn’t give your neighborhood vampire more than a brief scare. Just about all entrees come with white rice, most come with black beans, and I think all come with maduros, which were spectacular. They also have a huge selection of tapas featuring foods from the same Caribbean islands as well as a few from Spain; their mofongo is good, as are the masas de puerco, but their tostones were coasters and their alcapurrías were very greasy. I recommend it for lunch, but not for dinner, when they charge fine-dining prices for what is more or less peasant food. It’s a solid 50.

A reader (sorry, I’m too lazy to see which of you it was) suggested the Cornish Pasty Company over by Arizona State, and it’s now a major Klaw recommendation. The concept is great – it’s a tiny place in a strip mall, dark and narrow … like the mines in which the Cornish men who ate the pasties their wives made would work. A Cornish pasty is a type of pocket pie, a flaky pie crust wrapped around a filling that usually contains meat and root vegetables. The Cornish pasty company offers a few dozen pasty varieties, but I went with the “Oggie,” with the classic Cornish pasty filling of beef, onions, and potatoes. The filling was rich and thick and peppery, and the meat was soft enough and cubed well enough that it didn’t require a knife, and the crust was flaky and buttery and perfectly browned. The pasty itself cost $6.50 (I think it’s the cheapest one on the menu) and I barely got past half of it. On a sample of two meals – plus a bit of a caramel apple dessert pasty – I’m giving it a 60.

Another reader suggestion, Los Olivos, was less successful. It’s somewhere between really authentic Mexican food and chain Tex-Mex food; the portions were generous but everything was overdone – oversalted, overflavored, and oversauced. My wife, usually less critical than I am, said that her food wasn’t bad so much as “a mess.”

One of our favorites from last year, Blu Burger, is still going and still serving amazing Wagyu (American Kobe) burgers, but their location in Scottsdale near Kierland closed on March 7th. They still have three other locations and are opening two more soon (according to our server) in Peoria and Chandler. We did hit the one in north Scottsdale twice, and everything was the same except for the fact that while they still offer sautéed mushrooms as a topping for $1 extra, they no longer offer raw mushrooms as a topping. When I pointed out the absurdity of this, the server told me that they cook all the mushrooms they get.

The Phoenix Ranch Market near Phoenix airport has a full-service restaurant, Tradiciones, that offers mostly different fare from the quick-service options available inside the market. (Speaking of which, the quick-service food is still excellent, but they seem to be slacking on trimming the carnitas before cooking; the last two times I went there I ended up having to remove large chunks of pork fat from my mouth. Pork fat is good for cooking, not so much for eating.) The best thing going at Tradiciones is the tortilla chips served before the meal – just made, not in the least greasy, and salted. The food itself was just average; I tried the pollo asado, which seems to be a signature dish of the restaurant and the market, and it was … roast chicken. Good roast chicken, but really, it was just roast chicken. The absence of carnitas or chili verde (the latter only in a burrito, I believe) on the menu was a disappointment. The food is better inside the market and much cheaper. Grade 50.

Brian from Laveen has been pushing Joe’s BBQ for years, and I finally had a reason to go out that far to try it. It was solid-average. The Q had good flavor – I went with pulled pork and brisket – but was kind of dry, which is odd since the place was busy. I often find dry Q is the result of low turnover, since Q is something you have to make in advance and try to keep warm until it’s ordered. BBQ beans were good, a little sweet but not too much so, and the corn was, well, corn. The homemade root beer is good but strong, almost spicy. It’s a fringe 50 for me.

Raul and Theresa’s in Goodyear is a little tough to find – you have to go past the stadium, behind the airport, and you might drive right past it as I did – but worth the trip. It’s straight-up Mexican food with the usual suspects on the menu, but the food is incredibly fresh. The guacamole was an easy 65 on the scale, maybe a 70, bright green, chunky, and tasting primarily of avocadoes, not of all the junk that usually gets layered into it. The rice that’s served with every dish was fresh, not too salty, with a good tooth. My entrée was chicken enchiladas with red sauce, obviously made to order, and probably about 10% more food than I really needed to eat. Again, the actual flavor of the chicken came through, enhanced by the red sauce, not drowned by it. Overall grade 60.

Butterfield’s was our one breakfast out, and it’s a zoo on Sundays, not helped by a server with two personalities (alternating between friendly and why-the-hell-are-you-bothering-me) and no ability to estimate wait times (he was off by 100%, and not in the good way). The food was mostly good – I had a waffle that was light with good crust and an almost cakelike flavor, and I tasted the pancakes, which were not heavy and had that same flavor, which I’m thinking was vanilla combined with butter. The chicken apple maple sausage wasn’t dry but also didn’t have much flavor beyond apple. My wife loved her whole wheat brioche French toast. The restaurant is a solid 50, but plays up because of the big menu.

Goldbar Espresso in Tempe seems to get rave reviews, and they talk a good game about the freshness of their coffee, but the espresso there is atrocious – they pull the most diluted shots I think I’ve ever had, with maybe twice the water that they should be using, so the result is something like what you’d get if you tried to make espresso using Maxwell House grounds. I sort of knew I was in trouble when I walked in and looked at the menu board and saw a caffe mocha as the first item; if a coffee place really prides itself on its coffee, shouldn’t espresso be the top listing? And they use Hershey’s syrup in their mochas, too. Hershey’s is to chocolate what McDonald’s is to beef and what Bud Light is to beer. Anyway, my wife went to Starbucks and I went a month without coffee.

I’ve mentioned Gelato Spot before, but having stopped there at least a half-dozen times last month I’m upping my grade to a 55. I had found in the past that they kept the gelato too cold, but they’ve fixed the problem, and their chocolate seems darker than it was in the past. The coconut gelato is still a favorite. I did try the chocolate caramel brownie flavor, but it was too sweet, and there’s something about their caramel that I don’t like, a sourness that shows up in the caramel gelato too.

Manhattan: Cuban food and chocolate pie.

Had to go to Manhattan for a meeting on Monday and then walk ten blocks to do a TV hit, and in between the two was a Cuban place called Sophie’s, one of a chain of six in midtown and downtown Manhattan. It compares favorably to Versailles in Los Angeles, which (according to several of you) is itself a pretty good spot for Cuban food.

Sophie’s has a funny setup – the one I went to, on Lex between 40th and 41st, has a small seating area with table service, but also has a cafeteria-style line for people who want their food to go. I sat down and ordered one of their regular platters (as opposed to one of the four specials, which vary depending on the day of the week), the roast pork. Most of their platters include a meat and two sides for $8; I went with yellow rice and black beans, and then ordered a dish of maduros on the side for another $1.50. The pork had outstanding flavor and I got plenty of end meat, although the center was a little bit dry. The pork at Versailles came in a tart mojo sauce, which probably was the reason the meat there didn’t dry out in the middle. The yellow rice was … well, it was rice, but it was fresh rice, and didn’t have any hard or dried-out grains because it had been sitting for too long. The maduros weren’t hot, but were sweet and well-browned. They serve the fruit/dairy concoctions called batidas, but I was only willing to be so full before going on TV.

Also worth mentioning – the Mississippi Mud Pie from the Little Pie Company. It’s sort of like the darkest, richest brownie batter you’ve ever tasted, served in an Oreo cookie crust. A bit outrageous at $22 for an 8″ pie, but it is decadent and there’s no trace of milk chocolate (better known as “chocolate for people who don’t like chocolate” or “sissy chocolate”) anywhere in it.

Los Angeles eats.

Versailles, recommended to me by Joe Sheehan, is a local mini-chain serving authentic Cuban food and I ate at their location on Venice Blvd in Culver City. The menu is extensive, so I asked the waiter for suggestions, and without hesitating, he pointed to three. Figuring that was a good sign, I went with his pick from the list of pork dishes, lechon asado, pork shoulder marinated in a citrus-based mojo and then roasted for several hours at a low temperature. The meat should pull apart easily with a fork, which it did, and it had been largely trimmed of exterior fat. The sauce was too tart for me to just eat the pork on its own, but the buttery white rice that came with the dish was a perfect complement that cut the acidity of the meat. (I admit I followed the example of the young Cuban kid sitting next to me, who was inhaling a roast chicken dish by mixing everything together on his fork. His meal didn’t stand a chance.) The maduros were insanely good – who needs dessert when you have maduros? They are dessert – and the meal also came with a small cup of black bean soup that was a little bit thin but also not as heavy as most black bean soups I’ve had. I actually went to Versailles with an hour or so to kill before heading to LAX for my redeye and ended up in and out of the restaurant inside of a half-hour. You order, and in a few minutes, the dish is in front of you. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, though.

The rain on Sunday morning meant I could have a regular lunch before going to the MLB complex in Compton. The Waffle, on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, was hopping at noon on Sunday, and as you might imagine, they serve … waffles. They’re Belgian-style in shape, although they’re not as light as true Belgian waffles, which are made by folding beaten egg whites into a waffle batter that contains an absurd amount of butter. These were closer to traditional waffles that had been baked on a Belgian-style waffle iron, so they were on the dense side, and the plain waffle had a subtle taste of vanilla but otherwise tasted a little plain. The “house sausage” was good, not too greasy or too spicy, just solid-average.

The issue of Los Angeles magazine in my room had an article on the area’s twenty top bakeries, which was as clear a call to action as I’ve ever seen. One of the things I dislike most about living in Boston, aside from the permafrost, is the lack of decent bakeries. Aside from a very small number of good shops in Back Bay, we don’t have good ethnic bakeries or good high-end bakeries around here. I do a lot of baking, but there’s a difference between wanting a cookie and making an entire batch. I only made it to two of the twenty shops recommended, in part because one of the options, Amandine in West L.A., is still in business but apparently never open.

La Provence Patisserie, tucked into a strip mall on the south side of West Olympic in Beverly Hills, was more style than substance. Their almond croissant was very good, flaky, not dry, with real (possibly homemade?) almond paste inside, but their big seller, their macaroons, were insanely overpriced ($2 apiece for a tiny sandwich in any of a half-dozen fluorescent colors) and tasted like sugar rather than coconut. There was a clear see-and-be-seen vibe to the place, and since I have no particular need to be seen and no desire to see, that didn’t add anything to the experience.

The Vanilla Bake Shop in Santa Monica was a better bet. They do cupcakes, and despite the name, they do a lot of chocolate cupcakes. I went with the sampler, three mini-cupcakes for $5, so I could try three flavors – mint chocolate chip, black and white, and chocolate raspberry. The first two were just chocolate cupcakes with different kinds of buttercream frosting, while the third cupcake was filled with raspberry preserves and topped with chocolate ganache and a fresh raspberry. The bottom line here is the cupcakes: moist and very dark with a strong cocoa flavor, while not too sweet. You get enough sugar in the frosting, so backing off the sweetness in the cake is the right call. They do have non-chocolate flavors, and their specific varieties depend on the day, but I didn’t see any point in wasting time on something that wasn’t chocolate.