I never hesitate to cast a wide net over the Greater Tampa Bay area in search of hidden (and not-so-hidden) gems and today was one of those high-mileage days. Putting 100 miles on the odometer and spending two hours or more in the car is well worth the reward imparted by satiated taste buds...and after my lunch at Kafe Kokopelli in Dade City, my taste buds need a cigarette (and they're not even smokers). UD, of course, has simply rolled over and fallen asleep. That's right...uber yumminess has been identified in PASCO County! Someone alert the press.
I've always found Dade City to be cavity-inducingly adorable and have trekked northward on multiple occasions to dine at Lunch on Limoges. While the historic little burg seemed to falter a bit during the Great Recession, I was delighted to see that the lights were once again burning in most of the quaint storefronts, boutiques and gift shops in the heart of town. But let's get to the food.
After being advised by our friend Joanie (who lives in the vicinity of the resto) that there was a new chef at Kafe Kokopelli who had ratcheted the already tasty cuisine up a few notches, the hook was set. Up I-75 we went to meet her for lunch and find out if she was lying. She wasn't.
I was enchanted upon entry by the warm vibe and eclectic decor of this 100 year old former Model T showroom. While there is a lot taxidermy intermingled with the whimsical stars and twinkling lights (which could be a tad off-putting to certain diners, like myself, who may immediately jump to the conclusion that someone had been on a thrill-killing spree), I understand that all of the animals formerly resided at a nearby wildlife sanctuary and were only stuffed after they died of natural causes. The creatures (mostly big cats) are meant to represent those sacred to the Indian culture and native to Florida. Crisis averted...you may now proceed to strap on my feedbag.
Our server was warm and accommodating. Food did not come out at lightning speed, but at a respectable pace conducive to conversation which also confirmed that our culinary creations were being prepared to order. First up: Joanie's Cream of Carrot Soup. Sounds exciting....right? Okay, maybe not so much...but what appeared was a delightful, sweet and creamy concoction that was somewhat reminiscent of butternut squash soup in taste and consistency. After sampling it, I can honestly say that I would hit this again in a heartbeat...and I generally tend to favor soups that contain animal pieces (sorry, PETA) despite my aversion to sport hunting.
Underdog also started with a meatless app (really, there are a number of offerings at Kafe Kokopelli for those who eschew animal protein) - Fried Green Tomato Napoleon. This pulchritudinous plate consisted of lightly breaded and fried green tomatoes layered with goat cheese, kumquat marmalade, thin bread and butter pickle slices, basil oil and aged balsamic. As anyone who ever reads my posts knows, tomatoes and I have a love-hate relationship. They're desirable as long as they're cooked and pureed into a sauce, but I have a strange aversion to said fruit in its unadulterated form. The spousal unit, however, proclaimed the dish to be "AH-MAAAAA-ZING" and bolted it down to the last bite in short order. I will say that, titillated by his moans of ecstasy, I reticently accepted a small bite of the stack and found the flavor melange to be a uniquely delicious twist on a southern classic (tomatoes notwithstanding).
Joanie selected the Beer-Battered Catfish Sandwich (which may be ordered grilled or blackened for you more health-conscious folks) with house pickled peppers, house tartar sauce, fresh tomato, bibb lettuce and sweet bun for her lunch entree. What a gorgeous thing it was! Flanked by hot and crunchy homemade pub chips, our petite friend did her best to wrangle this massive beast, but was forced to leave a substantial portion on her plate due solely to the sheer size of it.
My better half could not resist the lure of the Braised Short Rib and Beer Cheese Nacho starter, so he ordered it as an entree and was not disappointed. A generous portion of more of the thick and crunchy pub chips were presented, liberally blanketed in tender, smoky short rib meat, beer cheese, pickled red onions, scallions and red wine demi-glace. Heart attack on a plate, perhaps...but what a way to go!
Being madly tormented by the plethora of tasty-sounding menu offerings, making a final decision was a challenge for yours truly. When I saw the combo meal options, the light at the end of the tunnel was revealed. Kafe Kokopelli offers an assortment of appetizer/soup/salad/sandwich options from which diners can make selections to form their own combo meals ($9 for two selections, $13 for three). While I felt that two would more than satisfy my bird-like appetite, I made the sacrifice and went with three...sheerly for journalistic purposes. That's the ticket.
My delectable combo (personalized to perfectly suit moi) consisted of Almond Crusted Fried Brie with grilled Florida peach and local honeycomb; an herbaceous, sherry-and-crab-chunk-laden She Crab Soup (which did require a well-deserved $2 upcharge); and a half Cuban Sandwich. Everything on the plate was thoughtfully prepared and really, nothing could've been improved upon as far as I'm concerned. I loved the crunchy on the outside/melty on the inside wedge of brie and the grilled peach was the perfect accompaniment. I've been disappointed with a few she crab soups I've tried lately (I. C. Sharks' and Rumfish's versions to name a couple) because of the heavy use of oregano, Old Bay and other strong seasonings which detracted from the delicacy of the crab. This crab soup was worlds away from the aforementioned wannabes. Lightly creamy, refraining from being overly-rouxed, boasting a subtle hint of sherry and chock-full of sweet crustacean morsels...I may have a new favorite (sorry, Keegan's). Oh, and my Cuban was divine. Lots of warm, tender, slow-roasted pork, better than average ham and salami, Swiss cheese, mayo, mustard and pickles were pressed firmly between two slabs of crispy Cuban bread. Move over, Tampa...there's a new kid just north of town who also knows how a proper Cuban is made. I defy anyone to find a finer $15 lunch deal than this...anywhere.
Dogboy still needed his "happy ending", so he ordered Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream on the side. Decadent...and I loved its little strawberry rhubarb gelée sidecar.
Final word: Lurve! Cuisine is both creative and approachable. Ambiance is cozy and charming. Happy hour starts at 1:00 PM (which, serendipitously coincided with our arrival time). After lunch, you can stroll the downtown area, peruse the shops and historic architecture, and digest before you head back to Hillsborough. Well worth the drive.
My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.