Restaurant review: Best things to eat in Sarasota-Manatee: Aug. 18-24
A Cuban sandwich and Korean barbecue taco are among the favorite things we ate recently in Sarasota and Bradenton.
It’s the dead of summer. Lots of heat and humidity and thunderstorms, sure, but also minimal traffic, making this a great time to go exploring, especially for out-of-the-way restaurants. So, for the latest edition of my recently launched “Best Things to Eat” column, I visited a couple of Old Florida dining destinations found a bit off the beaten path in Sarasota and Bradenton. Also, in light of the recent COVID-19 surge, I made sure these were restaurants offering plenty of outdoor dining as well as quality takeout services.
Recent restaurant review:Best things to eat in Sarasota-Manatee: July 28-Aug. 3
Another recent restaurant review:Best things to eat in Sarasota-Manatee: June 24-30
J.R.’s Old Packinghouse Cafe for Cuban sandwich, Ybor Burger, chicken wings
Opened by owner and chef J.R. Garraus in 1999, J.R.’s Old Packinghouse Cafe occupies a building that dates back to the 1950s – and that was nearly destroyed by fire five years ago. Fortunately, that delightfully funky old wood structure looked just fine when we stopped by to dine on the covered, front porch patio during a recent visit. Everything was just as I recalled, except for now the restaurant that regulars call the “O.P.C.” offers liquor in addition to wine and beer, including selections from nearby Big Top Brewing. Don’t worry, though, nothing fancy. The menu offers a list of “booze” and then “mixers.”
Now, I’ve previously come to J.R.’s solely for Cuban food, which we’ll get to in a minute, but on this visit I wanted to try what the menu billed as “The OPC’s Famous Fresh Jumbo Chicken Wings.” They come in several flavors including our choice of traditional Buffalo (five for $8.95) and garlic and parmesan (five for $8.95), ordered crispy. They arrived with that ideal layer of crunch covering big, juicy hunks of tender white meat, each sauce plenty flavorful but even better when combined, which we did on the advice of our excellent server, Kim. For appetizers, also be sure to consider the chips and queso ($6.95). The queso is homemade and vastly tastier than the stuff that comes in those giant metal vats.
Garraus is a Miami native and he makes a Miami-style Cuban sandwich ($11.95), which means no salami, the Tampa method of Cuban sandwich making. One bite at J.R.’s, though, and even devout fans of Tampa-style Cubans such as myself should be converted, at least temporarily. It’s a comfort food masterpiece built with the legendary La Segunda Central Bakery’s peerless Cuban bread, which arrives at the table precisely pressed with just the right amount of butter and a dab of spicy brown mustard instead of the traditional yellow. Sink your teeth through the crusty exterior and find a generous helping of gooey Swiss cheese, firm sliced pickles, sweet ham and, at the bottom, the star of this show, a pile of slow-roasted shredded pork. Yes, Cuban sandwiches are ubiquitous in Florida, but they’re very rarely this tasty.
Click on the latest edition of my annual best burgers in Sarasota story published in May and in the comments section you’ll find this from Emily L.: “Wow. How could you possibly leave off J.R.’s OPC? Yummy, messy and scrumptious. They belong on ANY best burgers list ever.” Before my most recent visit, I had never tried a burger at J.R.’s, which offers four specialty selections. This time, I ordered the Ybor Blackened Burger ($14.95) that pays homage to Tampa’s Ybor City and its Cuban heritage with a half-pound chuck patty that arrived pink inside, just like I ordered, on toasted Cuban bread with massive toppings of that premium melted Swiss cheese, that sublime shredded pork, grilled onions and Thousand Island dressing. To quote Emily again, it was indeed “yummy, messy and scrumptious” and definitely belongs on my next list of best burgers.
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Birdrock Taco Shack for beef tamale, Frito pie and Korean BBQ tacos
Tucked away in a corner of Bradenton’s Village of the Arts behind Motorworks Brewing, Birdrock Taco Shack occupies a colorful historic cottage with indoor seating in the former living room area as well as a spacious deck adorned with shade sails. It’s where Chef David Shiplett – owner of such popular Bradenton restaurants as the old Ezra and Soma as well as the newly opened Cottonmouth Southern Soul Food located nearby – has been crafting globe-trotting tacos and creative Tex-Mex (by way of California) dishes for the past five years.
Like most folks, I can’t visit a “taco shack” without immediately wanting to nosh on some chips and salsa so that’s how we started our most recent Birdrock visit. One of the better deals in town, it’s three bucks with free refills for the big basket of thick-cut tortilla chips and the accompanying molcajete bowl brimming with the deep-red salsa that recalls freshly puréed tomatoes and onions goosed by judiciously portioned spices to give it a nice kick. Yeah, it’s a top-shelf salsa. We also order the Pepper Jack Queso ($7), the bowl of queso blanco augmented by a most-welcome spread of pickled veggies and diced tomato.
Tamales originated in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago, which makes them not only one of the greatest but also one of the oldest classic comfort foods on the planet. Yeah, people have been practicing making tamales for a very long time and fortunately Shiplett’s beef tamale ($5) is a worthy entry in the tradition. Steamed in a corn husk, it’s like a really moist slice of cornbread filled with tender ground beef and then covered with chunks of tomato, radish and fresh cilantro – as well as perhaps my favorite part of the dish – the sweet-heat chile butter.
If you’ve ever spent any time in Texas, chances are you’ve had the good fortune of stuffing your face with a Frito pie. Created not long after the San Antonio-based Frito Corporation began selling their famed corn chips during the Great Depression, a Frito pie is basically just chili poured over Fritos. It can also be beef chili poured right into a bag of the chips, perhaps with some shredded cheese and chopped onion or maybe sour cream and jalapenos. Shiplett’s version of this Lone Star State goody comes served in a molcajete bowl and contains big, succulent bites of barbecue chicken, beans, queso, salsa and, yes, lots of those delectably salty and crunchy corn chips ($5).
Definitely not your average taco joint, Birdrock offers a dozen selections and they contain various proteins with recipes inspired by South American, European and, to the greatest extent, Asian culinary traditions. You won’t find any ground beef on the taco menu but you will spot Shiplett’s version of short-rib Korean barbecue, which finds the deftly marinated meat served on a flour tortilla tasting at once sweet and tangy and mixing nicely with the tomato pico and crispy onion strings that give each bite a satisfying crunch ($7).
Birdrock also serves barbecue chicken, pork, duck, blue crab and lobster tacos as well as a half dozen meatless options featuring Brussels sprouts (with Thai peanut sauce), Spanish rice and beans, edamame, red hummus, beet and goat cheese, and my recent favorite, the Avocado Banh Mi ($3). Served on a corn tortilla, it features their fresh guacamole (which I also recommend as an appetizer) with pickled veggies including, yes, jalapenos, tomato and cabbage.
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Wade Tatangelo is the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment and dining editor. Have a suggestion for a restaurant to visit? He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by subscribing.