Tag Archives: Florida

Versailles Cuban Cuisine Stands Tall in Miami’s Little Havana

21 Apr

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A visit to Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood is like a trip outside the USA. The sights, the smells, the accents — you’ll feel like you’ve really journeyed to Cuba. For many of us, it will be the closest we ever get to the real deal. We only had a few brief hours to explore this go around, so it was something of a whirlwind tour, for certain.

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We rarely come to this part of the world without stopping for a meal at Versailles Cuban Cuisine. If not the best, it is surely the most popular and well known eatery in Little Havana. The food is consistently good and the prices always fair. It always seems to be a proper mix of tourists and locals. And if the locals are consistently eating here in large numbers, then you know they are doing something right.

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Lots of locals make Versailles a regular stop — even if it’s just to grab a jolt of strong Cuban coffee or a flaky pastry from Versailles always-busy bakery. This place is a bit of a compound. A cottage industry, one might even say. There is a walk up window to accomodate patrons on the go and it appears to be a never ending flow of humanity. Boston may run on Dunkin … but Miami runs on these tiny, shot glass-size shots of dark coffee loaded with more sugar than a box of Dunkin Donuts. Yes, you could say this is an acquired taste. I whoofed it down and immediately felt the combination caffeine/sugar buzz. Eileen didn’t care for it and I, not wanting to waste a drop, knocked hers back as well. My day was now in full tilt mode.

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Cafe Con Leche and Conversation — morning in Little Havana

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“The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant” — enough said.

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Check out the ornate mirrored walls in Versaille’s rear dining area

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The Versailles’ traditional Cuban sandwich is my go-to lunch order

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Save room for some Tres Leche Cake — it’s moist and sinfully good

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If you love coconut, give these sugar bombs (aka “Coquitos”) a try

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Playing dominoes to pass the day is a Cuban (and Miami) passion

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The art of making a hand-rolled stogie is alive and kickin’ in Miami

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The Breakwater – one of South Beach’s fabulous art deco palaces

Do not miss Versailles Cuban Cuisine. But more importantly, don’t miss Miami’s Little Havana. It is a cultural gem that showcases Florida’s diversity and strong connection to Latin America. One day I will get to the real Havana. That day is coming soon. But until then, this will have to do. My son told me he felt like we were in a totally different country. “That’s the whole point, Travis,” I replied. “That is the whole point.”

Versailles Cuban Cuisine – 3555 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33135

www.versaillesrestaurant.com; (305) 444-0240

Fat Kahuna’s Beachside Grille Brings Hawaii’s Aloha Spirit to Cocoa Beach, Florida

21 Apr

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What do you think of when you think of Cocoa Beach? Most folks from my generation think of the classic TV show “I Dream of Jeannie,” which was set in this coastal Florida community. Major Anthony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) was in the Air Force and I’m sure most of you know that Cape Canaveral is in the vicinity. I attended nearby Brevard Community College for one year, so I do have some working knowledge of the area. However, I must admit that my JuCo years were many moons ago. Areas can change a lot over 30 some odd years and the Melbourne-Cocoa Beach area is no different.  This region has long been popular with Spring Breakers and we happened to be returning during the annual Spring Break for many of our nation’s universities.

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We had planned on hitting The Pompano Grill, but it (as we found out) is only open for dinner. We encountered a very cool looking surfer joint called The Green Room. I was ready to eat there … until we eyeballed the menu. It featured a variety of health food smoothies, salads, and wraps — strictly vegan fare. That would have been fine for me and my wife, but we were also in the company of our two ravenous teenage boys. I asked a local for dining suggestions and she pointed us to a somewhat traditional seafood mecca overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I’m sure it would have been OK. Yet I was not seeking OK — I was seeking something fresh and out of the ordinary. It was then that we spotted Fat Kahuna’s.

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Fat Kahuna’s is actually sort of small — and brightly colored. The outside looked suitably beachy and the name was intruiging. A peek inside only made me more curious. It was a very hip little beach bar with ceiling fans spinning above and the sounds of Hawaiian music filling the room.

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Just take a gander at the interior (shown above). Pretty inviting, huh? My wife and I had just returned from a Hawaiian vacation a few short months earlier, so the surroundings felt familiar — and appealing. The upbeat hostess/waitress welcomed us with a big smile and led us to our table, which happened to be adorned with a cheerful orchid. The aloha vibe was clearly alive and well here. But I was now a bit baffled. How did this place even exist with little or no presense on the internet? Well, it turns out that Fat Kahuna’s had been open less than a year. The hostess explained that early reviews had been quite positive, although the place was still something of a well-kept secret. My goal is to make sure that this secret doesn’t continue on much longer. Their chef attended Johnson and Wales and the owners have spent a considerable amount of time in Hawaii. How’s that for a winning combo?

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A “Surfer Crossing” sign seems perfectly at home here

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A basket of tortilla chips with bean dip and a Big Wave Golden Ale

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The restaurant’s island-inspired decor was breezy and tasteful

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OK — so the atmosphere was nice and the people were friendly and the beer was cold. What about the food, you ask? Well, I am happy to report that it was fine as well. I ordered the fish taco plate with black beans, salsa, and coconut rice. The tacos were of the soft corn tortilla variety. The fish was mahi mahi — flaky, blackened mahi mahi, to be more precise. Everything was fresh and tasty. I became so relaxed and caught up in the Hawaiian vibe that I even ordered a second beer (they serve my current favorite, Kona’s BIG WAVE GOLDEN ALE). This is something I rarely do at lunchtime,  but, hey, I was on vacation, doggone it. Give me a break, will ya?

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Lesson to be learned here? Beach communities offer lots of dining choices. Many are good, many not so good. Most cater to tourists and the widest possible audience. Wait. Did I mean widest or widest? Yes … my answer will be YES. Too often fried seafood rules the day. Don’t get me wrong — I dig fried fish, oysters, and shrimp as much as the next guy. It’s easy to fall into that rut and never climb back out. Eating fresh does not mean having to sacrifice on flavor. Fat Kahuna’s is a perfect example of that. Beach views, fresh flavorful food with a Hawaiian Island flair — what exactly is not to like? Eat here now. You can say “MAHALO” later.

Trust me, friends.

At Fat Kahuna’s, you’ll ride a wave of deliciousness … with no fears of a wipeout.

Fat Kahuna’s – 8 Minutemen Causeway, Cocoa Beach, FL 32931

http://www.facebook.com/FatKahunasGrillBar; (321) 783-6858

The Floridian Brings Fresh New Ideas to Old Town St. Augustine, Florida

16 Apr

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On our return trip from Palm Beach, we decided to take an alternate eastern route and spend the night in the historic city of St. Augustine. It had been decades since my last visit, so it all seemed new again to me. St. Augustine remains a striking town with equal parts Savannah, Mobile, and Charleston. Southern, check. Close to the water, check. Chock full of history and stunning architecture, check. What perhaps sets it apart a bit is the distinctive Floridian vibe. Palm trees and Spanish tile everywhere. And that, my friends, is where The Floridian comes in.

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The Floridian’s delivery bike — spic and span and ready for action

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The hours are kind of complicated — the concept is not

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Classic Old Florida kitsch can be viewed & enjoyed throughout

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They do tasty sweets here too — this one nutty and delicious

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This Gator painting was lurking over my shoulder all evening long

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Great, fresh menu — I opted for the unique Florida Sunshine Salad

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Drinks are served up in an old-fashioned yet timeless Ball Mason jar

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The Dining Room is a combo of soft pastels and fish camp ambiance

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The bar is cool – and diners must visit if you choose to imbibe

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The Floridian’s thrift store sensibility is charming, for sure

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Few details are overlooked here. Even the floor looks terrific!

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 I started my meal by ordering the Grit Cakes. This take was especially unique thanks to the inclusion of a spicy chili-cumin aioli and a seasonal salsa highlighted by small cubes of roasted sweet potato. A Wainwright Cheddar is also employed, giving the appetizer a true diversity of flavors and textures. There was a lot going on here, but it all managed to work just fine.

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My son’s po-boy with fresh Pork Sausage and Fried Green Tomatoes

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Behold (above) the Florida Sunshine Salad. It is a feast for the eyes and the belly. Look at those vibrant colors! Look at those plump Florida shrimp! Look at those BEETS!!! Hey, how often do diners actually get fired up about beets? Not very often, I can tell ya that. But you know what? They are the star of the show in this daring dish. If your only experience with beets involved a glass jar, I strongly suggest you reintroduce yourself to fresh beets. There is a BIG difference. Great texture with natural flavor that is often diminished during the normal pickling process. Fresh Plant City (FL) strawberries are also invited to the party, as are large chunks of blue cheese from Thomasville, Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy.

The inventive cuisine served at The Floridian is Southern-inspired … to a degree. More importantly, they are using farm fresh ingredients that spotlight the best natural bounty that the Sunshine State has to offer. The atmosphere is winning and the staff hip and helpful. If you’re looking for touristy, this ain’t your place.  

It’s not exactly vegan, but it’s close.

And it’s a smart choice for those ready to take a step beyond fried seafood.

So come tour The Floridian — where fresh flavors coming shining through.

Consider it a vacation for your palate.

The Floridian – 39 Cordova Street, St. Augustine, FL

(904) 829-0655; www.thefloridianstaug.com

Moonshine Jelly — The Breakfast of Champions!

11 Feb

Yes, folks — there really is such a thing. And, for this, we owe a hearty thanks to the people at Southern Cider Company of Oxford, FL. Now this Oxford is not home to any institutions of higher learning, yet they surely could teach you a thing or two about crafting fine ciders and jellies.

I first spotted this product at a roadside tourist trap in Florida and it immediately struck me as a novelty gift item. But how good could it be? And how much moonshine do they really incorporate? Yup, I had my doubts about this product and chose not to purchase any that day. Days and weeks passed and the concept somehow lingered on my mind. OK, I admit it — I’m a bit of an odd bird. Stuff like this keeps me awake at night. I eventually broke down and sent an email to Southern Cider’s Jan Montanaro expressing my curiousity. She didn’t seem the least bit surprised and was very gracious in offering to send us a sample 18 oz. jar via US Mail. The package arrived at our Alabama home just a few days later.

Upon further inspection of the product’s ingredients, we were pleased to see that this is pretty much an all-natural jelly. Sugar, white wine, water, pectin, lemon juice and moonshine (corn whiskey). I popped a piece of wheat bread in the toaster, cracked open the jelly jar, and gave it a shot. And you know what? I liked it. It is very good. And you can really taste the moonshine. The good stuff too — no funky aftertaste. Jan, I am extremely impressed!

Sure, this product is obviously a conversation starter. But that doesn’t mean it can’t taste good. We enjoyed it and think you will too. So if you’re bored with your usual grape or strawberry jam, let Southern Cider Company’s Moonshine Jelly give your breakfast a kick in the pants. And as the old hillbilly song goes, “Them that refuse it will be few.”

www.southernciderco.com

Mr. Gyros Greek & Mediterranean Grill in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

31 Dec

Mr. Gyros was recommended to us by some online food critics. The reports were overwhelmingly positive. That was enough for us to seek them out. I have long been a fan of Greek & Mediterranean food — especially the fast, comfort food variety. Gyros, Souvlaki, Fried Zucchini, Spanakopita, Falafel, Moussaka, Calamari, Baklava, etc. This love affair can be traced back to my youth. And no, I do not have any Greek ancestry. Far from it. I’m just about as Anglo as you can get. But I do know good ethnic cuisine when I taste it.

As a teenager, I dined frequently at Knossos in Vienna, VA. Great place, but sadly not around any longer. Mr. Khan treated us like family … always obliging when we pestered him for the largest portions possible or for extra Tzatziki dipping sauce (made with Greek yogurt, cucumbers and other seasonings). Former Knossos owner George Bilidas (the longtime Greek God of Northern Virginia’s culinary scene) still operates The Amphora, a killer 24-hour diner in Vienna.  

Mr. Gyros is housed in a strip center in Palm Beach Gardens, FL

Greek sweets (like Kadaifi seen above) are a must @ Mr. Gyros

The Gyro Platter at Mr. Gyros is very nicely done. Tons of freshly sliced meat (the usual beef & lamb combo), a cup of thick white tzatziki sauce, really good pita bread, lots of fresh sliced onion, lettuce, and tomatoes. It comes with a Greek salad, rice pilaf, or fries. We strongly recommend the Greek salad. It is excellent and fortified with crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives, and the ubiquitous green pepperoncini.

Just look at the spicy sliced meat, folks. And those super fresh veggies. This is really fine stuff. In fact, Mr. Gyros was recently voted a “Best Casual Dining” winner by the Palm Beach Post. Beer and wine are also offered if you choose to turn your meal into a regular celebration. We are just plain happy to have found this gem of an eatery. Owners John and Yianna are doing it right at Mr. Gyros. We don’t live in the PBG area, but my parents spends about 6 months each year on nearby Singer Island. That means we shall return … and you can bet that Mr. Gyros will be on our dining agenda.

MR. GYROS – 10901 N. MILITARY TRAIL, PALM BEACH GARDENS

(561) 627-3979; www.mrgyrosflorida.com

Lunch and Dinner 7 days a week; major credit cards accepted

Best Pizza on Siesta Key — “Bada Bing!”

5 Jun

Those of you who know me well know how much I enjoy a good pizza. I mean a really good pizza … made by professionals who know what they are doing … not some pimply-faced geek pulling minimum wage. Great pizza made with “amore” is increasingly difficult to find these days. Yet turn on the TV and The Sopranos seem to have a great pie joint on every corner. It’s just not fair, right?

Thankfully, I discovered such a joint on Florida’s Siesta Key. We lived on the Key for a couple years and learned very quickly that this was a go-to pizza hangout. Real pizza. Jersey-style pizza. Made by a couple of brothers named Solorzano. Their folks run an authentic Italian restaurant — just a couple miles away in Sarasota. The brothers operate a cozy little pizza shop just a short stroll from the white sands of Siesta Beach. Follow your schnozz, you’ll find it. Once you’re there, locals will give you a knowing wink. You’ll be on to their little secret.

You’re likely to hear classic songs like this while you sip on your chianti

They’ve got all the traditional Italian delights you’d expect at Solorzano Brothers. And they’re all magnifico. But just like Sinatra was a notch above Bennett, and DiMaggio a more prolific slugger than Rizzuto, Solorzano’s gelato, calzones, & pastas are ultimately overshadowed by the big boss — PIZZA PIE.

Another example of the soundtrack to your primo Solorzano’s meal

Have a look at the above pie. Now that’s an offer you truly can’t refuse!!!

You can load your pizza up with all the toppings you want, but I still prefer to go straight pepperoni. Why clutter up a good thing, huh? No need to “guild the lilly” at Solorzanos — let the real Italian flavor shine through. Take in all the ambiance too. The brothers will likely be talking trash behind the counter … or maybe bragging about their favorite New York sports teams … or debating their favorite episode of The Sopranos. Tony Soprano’s mug hangs proudly on the wall alongside images of Old Blue Eyes, ex-Giants QB Phil Simms, Al Pacino, or perhaps an old Dean Martin album cover. Just what you’d expect from a couple of pizanos from Hoboken. And all the stuff I wanna see at a REAL pizza joint.  

Tony says “Just get to Solorzano’s right now … capiche???”

http://www.facebook.com/#!/solbrospizza?ref=ts

Siesta Key Rum Gets Solid Early Reviews

19 May

As former resident of Siesta Key, seeing the little island mentioned in the media always brings a smile to my face and a sparkle to my eyes. Especially if it has anything to do with tropical libations and the key’s vibrant beach life. Can’t wait to give this rum a shot (pun intended) when we next visit SW Florida.

Here’s a recent piece that ran in the St. Petersburg Times …

SARASOTA — I’m standing at a table that appears to be half chemist’s bench and half impromptu bar. While holding a plastic thimble of clear liquid, I listen to the story of how molasses pressed from organically grown Florida sugarcane becomes that rare thing, a sippable white rum of character.

The man telling the tale is distiller Troy Roberts, lifelong rum aficionado and co-owner of Drum Circle Distilling, a distillery and producer of small-batch, hand-bottled rums. Siesta Key White Rum hit retailers’ shelves and bartenders’ arsenals — first on Siesta Key, of course — in March. The first batch of Siesta Key Golden Rum, Roberts says, needs a few more weeks in 10-gallon new American oak barrels before it is ready for market.

We sampled the young white rum from Batch 1 first. It was crystal clear and full flavored, aromatic on the nose and smooth but with just enough agreeable edge on the palate. It would be fine simply poured over ice, but it would make a mighty good mojito, too.

Next we barrel-sampled the aged rum, the golden, straight. The rambunctious youngster, weighing in at this stage of its life at an overmuscled 65 percent alcohol by volume, nearly lifted the top of my head off. Then Roberts cut a sample in half with water to approximate its polish when it has finished its time in the barrel, to yield a civilized 80 proof spirit. The golden rum, having borrowed some structural tannins and its color from the oak, is even smoother than the white and more complex. It compares favorably with my usual rum of choice, Mount Gay Barbados.

Everything about Drum Circle Distilling is small-scale and hands-on. Roberts and his father assembled the gleaming stainless steel mixing and fermentation tanks and the copper still and rectifying column. They scraped and painted the floors and walls of the industrial park warehouse-turned-distillery. They’re the ones who mop up after the messy business of loading the mixing tanks and transferring the sticky mix of molasses and water to the fermentation tanks, where Roberts’ own custom blend of two yeasts is introduced into the process prior to distilling. Likewise for moving the raw rum into aerating tanks and, for the golden, on into barrels. The bottles are filled, corked and labeled by hand and then the batch number is entered by hand on each label, which bears an evocative island illustration by Ringling College of Art & Design graduate Ron Borrensen.

The white rum retails for about $22 and the golden is expected to go for less than $25. For the growing list of merchants, bars and restaurants where you can buy the product of Roberts’ labor of love, check out drumcircledistilling.com.

John Bancroft is a freelance writer in Sarasota, specializing in food, wine and travel.

Mofongo Recipe Getting Lots of Attention

27 Jun

Benny’s in Miami, FL is said to make one hell of a mofongo. Or should I say they make a “mofo” of a mofongo??? The restaurant was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” and has been generating lots of attention ever since the episode first aired.  It doesn’t look pretty, but it reportedly is a taste sensation. Look for McMofongo at your local McDonald’s in the near future.  

According to Wiki, “Mofongo is a popular meatball dish made with fried plantains or yuca. The dish is part of various Caribbean cuisines including Cuban cuisine (where it is known as fufu), Dominican cuisine and Puerto Rican Cuisine.”

Benny’s Mofongo

6 large plantains
6 small garlic cloves
3/4 cup pork rinds
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/2 cup pure olive oil, plus more for frying

Peel the plantains and cut into 1-inch slices. Put the plantains in a bowl of water with a pinch of salt to keep them moist until ready to cook.

Mash the garlic, pork rinds, 1/4 tablespoon of the salt, and 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a mortar with a pestle. Transfer the garlic mixture to a bowl.

Heat about 5 inches of oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot (or in a deep-fryer) until a deep-fry thermometer inserted in the oil registers 300 degrees. Line a plate with paper towels.

Drain and pat dry the plantains. Fry without crowding, in batches, if necessary, until the plantains are cooked, but not hard, 15 to 20 minutes. It’s best to check the plantains after about 15 minutes; to do so, remove a slice from the oil and cut into it – if the center is still pink, keep cooking; if it’s yellow, the plantains are ready. Transfer the plantains from the oil with a slotted spoon, and drain briefly on the paper towels.

Mash the fried plantains with the remaining 1/4 tablespoon salt and 1/4 cup olive oil until just soft. Add the garlic mixture and continue mashing until the mofongo is completely blended. Serve hot.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Roadside Rib Shack Offers Some Redemption

24 Feb

We continued our Florida BBQ quest today with a trip to the Roadside Rib Shack, which is located just off Highway 41 on Bahia Vista Road in Sarasota. They bill it as “Southern Style Barbecue,” and that is exactly what I have been seeking — with not too much luck I must add.

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It is a nice-enough looking establishment from the outside.  The ribs are tender and tasty … the pulled pork was flavorful but a little too fatty for my taste. I know, fat = flavor, but I’m still trying to be somewhat healthy, even when eating smoked pork BBQ. The cole slaw was OK — not great — but far better than the slop I was served at The Oaks just about 24 hours previously. The meat was served on a Kaiser-style yeast roll.   

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Small but comfortable on the inside, the Roadside Rib Shack gets an A for effort when it comes to their BBQ sauce variety. They offer you the choice of sweet, spicy, or mustard-based. All are good, but I preferred the spicy variety. Owner Derek Luther makes it himself and the extra care shows. The sweet sauce had a Memphis vibe to it, while the mustard sauce took me back to the 5 years I spent in the beautiful South Carolina Lowcountry. This, I believe, is the first time we’ve seen this unique sauce served at a FL eatery.  Nice going, Derek!

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Mr. Luther was quite personable — I always appreciate that courtesy. They also have a sense of humor at the Roadside Rib Shack. I could tell by looking at the T-shirts (see below) they sell in the front of the restaurant.

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This wasn’t the best BBQ we’ve had in Florida, but after our recent trials and tribulations this was definitely a step in the right direction.

Chifles Plantain, Cassava & Tortilla Chips

22 Feb

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We love these products — they are made by Plantain Products of Tampa, FL. You can find them at Publix stores throughout Florida. If you live outside the Sunshine State, visit Chifles store locator feature at:

http://www.chifleschips.com/retailers.php 

Here’s a little history on the company …

Segundo Argudo’s home country of Ecuador is famous for Plantain Chips. Segundo’s wife, Peggy, is from North Carolina and they both met in Washington D.C. while Segundo was studying geophysics on a scholarship program from Ecuador. After working as a geophysicist for several oil companies, the family; including the two children, Stefanie and Ricardo, settled in Tampa, Florida. Mr. & Mrs. Argudo immediately began experimenting with making Plantain Chips from their memories of the same delicious snack which was sold by the many street vendors in Cuba. The Argudo’s began selling Chifles products in 1965, initially in Tampa, Miami and then New York. The company operated from two plants before moving to the present location in 1972. Mr. Argudo passed away in January of 2000 from a sudden illness.

The plantains and cassavas are imported from Ecuador and Costa Rica where they are processed in the company’s 20,000-sq. ft. facility with 30 employees located in Tampa, Florida. The products are sold to approximately 20 Snack Food distributors primarily concentrated in the New York area and Florida.

Our success has been attributable to quality. This not only describes our fine products but the employees who are responsible for all the details required to manufacture the Plantain and Cassava Chips. We are also proud of our ethical business philosophy in dealing with customers and employees.

Plantain Products Company is a manufacturer and distributor of Plantain Chips, Cassava Chips, Pork Rinds, Tortilla Chips and Plantain Soup Mix. Plantain Products Company began operations in 1963 by Mr. & Mrs. S.G. Argudo in the kitchen of their home. Mrs. Argudo is currently President and CEO. www.chifleschips.com

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