For those who have yet to visit Tampa Bay or haven’t visited in a while, here’s a little background: the Tampa Bay region combines everything people love about Florida — roller coasters, Cuban culture, year-round outdoor activities and waterfront sunsets. It is the home of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, The Florida Aquarium and Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park. The community’s diverse history and vibrant population blends Latin American influences, Florida Cracker culture, and the descendants of Cuban, Spanish, German and Italian immigrants, who built historic Ybor City into the Cigar Capital of the World. All of this leads to why we came to explore and indulge. Tampa Bay is a hotbed of award-winning restaurants and the hub of craft beer brewing in the state of Florida.
We came to eat and see for ourselves exactly what’s been happening in Tampa. It had been years since I visited and my boyfriend had never stayed in the area on his numerous visits to Florida. We hotel hopped for a bit, while focusing on our main course of action: eating our way through the Tampa Bay area. Our first stay was at Le Meridien. This hotel was a historic Federal Courthouse, built in 1907. An extensive, multimillion-dollar renovation only six years ago turned Tampa Bay’s former Beaux Arts-style Federal Courthouse in the heart of downtown into the city’s newest boutique hotel. Despite the dramatic repurposing of the building itself, the hotel has preserved many of the most dramatic aspects of the original building. We walked on the original terrazzo tile floors, passing doors that used to lead to the judge’s chambers. We saw where guests were dining beneath the coffered ceilings in a former courtroom and slept in another former judge’s chamber. The renovation is well done and the contemporary furnishings are a beautiful contrast to the historic marble and columns. It is so well done that it earned Le Méridien Tampa honors from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
We tore ourselves away from the beauty of the hotel long enough to drive to Sparkman Wharf. This is where our gastronomic gallivanting began. This is a brightly colored collection of dining options set along the river. This outdoor food-hall served as an appetizer and craft brew pitstop before lunch at JOTORO Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar. With plenty of outdoor seating, we were able to enjoy some local suds and take in the river as the wharf sits on its banks.
JOTORO is a brand-new Mexican restaurant anchoring Sparkman Wharf bringing Tex Mex to a whole new level. One of my favorite moments was walking through the front door, which was flanked by an oversized pinata of an Alpaca. Helmed by Michelin-starred chef, Joe lsidori, JOTORO boasts traditional and fusion fare, over-the-top artwork, and a tequila bar at the heart of the restaurant. It’s easy to spend a long lunch here, or a satisfying early dinner-- which we did. We delved right into the eclectic menu and ordered a trio of delectable wood-fired tacos and, wait for it, a large side of kimchi fried rice, That’s right, and it’s topped with an egg. I wanted to eat every last thing on the menu. The highlighted green items are JOTORO faves. This Mexican mashup restaurant has our full attention. We recommend it so highly that we think Chef deserves another Michelin Star. Take what you thought was the best of East LA Mexican and multiply that by ten, then you will start to understand what it’s like to dine at JOTORO. Better yet, head to Tampa and see for yourself.
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