I’ve spent a lot of time in Tampa, Florida. It’s a beautiful city with lots of wonderful memories for me. After all, my best friend lives there and whenever I visit it’s a great time. I met Xavier in Tampa – while visiting said best friend, actually – and lived with him there for four months before we made the move to Atlanta. I was job-hunting the entire time, but unemployment left lots of time to explore the city. I guess what I’m saying is, I know Tampa fairly well. But I’d never heard of Thai Temple before our most recent trip.
I am so glad that changed.
So, what I’m referring to as Thai Temple is actually called Wat Tampa. For whatever reasons, my friends in Tampa call it Thai Temple and I’m sticking to that for sentimental reasons. Basically, it’s a Buddhist temple that opens itself up into a marketplace every Sunday. A variety of vendors set up shop, and for nominal donations to the temple, you can enjoy anything from soup to curry to orchids to a watermelon-carving class.
You leave Tampa proper, drive around the bay, and go through what seems to be a residential neighborhood. After you park, this is what you see:
If you care to meditate after stuffing yourself stupid with delicious food, this is where it happens. I didn’t check out the action this visit due to time restraints, but one of these days I will.
So there are a couple of buildings next door, and vendors set up their wares all around. The cooking happens out in the open. If you want fried bananas, you can follow those bananas from the peel to the oil to your dish.
We opted to get some spring rolls first. Maybe they’re not the most authentic of fares, but I can’t resist spring rolls. Perfect ones have a flaky crunchy exterior that yields to tender filling. Maybe it was because we were incredibly hungry and eating them in line, but these fit the bill.
After the fires of hunger had been tampered by delicious spring rolls, we moved into line for the most popular item: noodle soup. Everyone got the same broth and fish balls, but you could customize the toppings and noodles in your bowl. We stuck to roast pork and medium noodles for a standard experience. Garnished with chile sauce and washed down with Thai tea, it was a perfect brunch. One item I might not have enjoyed – fish balls were surprisingly tasty. They were the texture of fluffy matzoh balls with a faint taste of the sea. The soup was closer to pho than any Thai soup we’ve tried previously. I’m not complaining.
Before we sat down to eat, we put in an order for a special dessert. More on that later, because we were informed that it would be a 45-minute wait! Aly labeled a styrofoam box with her name. The vendors placed it in the long pile of boxes to be filled.
As nice as it was to sit and eat overlooking water and palm trees, we got up to explore a little more.
There was lots to see. We sampled a new fruit: the longan nut. Here it is whole.
Then you peel it…
Then take a bite, but watch out for the seed inside!
Texture-wise, it’s like a cross between a soft grape and a lychee. It’s sweet but not overwhelmingly so. The longan nut vendor also offered watermelon carving classes. While I did not partake, here’s some of her work.
Finally it was time to pick up our dessert! I was very intrigued about this coconut-scallion concoction, especially since there was a 45-minute wait to get some. When we arrived at the stand, there were still a few people ahead of us in line, so I spent some time watching the vendors make the dessert.
They started with a big iron tray, full of wells. This contraption rested atop a flame.
The vendors poured a blend of fermented coconut milk and sliced green onions into the wells. One lady led the way with a teapot, followed by her partner who ladled batter to complete each portion.
After the pan was filled, they covered them with heavy domed lids. After the treats browned on the bottom, they were flipped and covered again.
A few minutes later, the vendors plucked fully formed cakes from the tray. They filled our labeled tray and we brought the goodies back to the table.
These were tasty morsels indeed. The skins were crispy but inside, the batter had cooked into a scallion-studded custard. Surprisingly, the sweet coconut went perfectly with green onion. It was impossible to stop with just one bite. Now I know why we waited so long for these!
Thai Temple is definitely on my list for favorite brunch spots in Tampa. Although it gets a little crowded, the food, prices, and variety were worth the minimal jostling.