Tag Archives: florida

thai temple: Tampa’s most unique brunch?

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:

The first building you see after parking

The first building you see after parking

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.

IMG_3143

Fried banana vendor

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.

Spring rolls, waiting to be demolished

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.

Noodle soup and Thai tea.. perfect brunch

Noodle soup and Thai tea.. perfect brunch

As nice as it was to sit and eat overlooking water and palm trees, we got up to explore a little more.

A meal with a view

A meal with a view

There was lots to see. We sampled a new fruit: the longan nut. Here it is whole.

longan_nut_whole

Then you peel it…

longan_nut_peeled

Then take a bite, but watch out for the seed inside!

longan_nut_seed

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.

carved_melons

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.

thai_dessert_pot

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.

thai_dessert_ladling

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.

thai_dessert_pots

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.

Dessert served

Dessert served

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.

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Adventure: Diving in Key Largo

Let’s get up to speed. I learned how to scuba dive, got my PADI open water certification, and fell in love with it all.

My partner-in-crime, coincidentally, is also a certified diver. When he lived in Florida, he dove all the time. He even has his own gear. So once I was certified, it was only natural that we would want to dive together. And thus came our next adventure.

Here’s the thing, and I write this for the other twenty-somethings out there who find their dreams limited by cash flow. Diving isn’t what you’d call a cheap hobby. Buying basic gear (fins, mask, snorkel, boots), scuba school, and my certification weekend set me back quite a bit. But once you’re certified, you can spend something like $50-75 and get on a boat. That’s a splurge, sure, but not completely unreasonable. The priciest thing is usually getting to the place you want to dive. To travel and stay in Mexico, Thailand, or Australia isn’t always cheap.

While you can travel all over the world to dive, we’re lucky to be within driving distance of a great choice: Key Largo. The trip is not what you’d call a short jaunt from Atlanta. But if you stop in Tampa and see friends, it’s divided into two very manageable portions. Since the dive season was starting to wind down, we found a stay-and-dive package for an incredibly reasonable price. So reasonable, in fact, that we will probably make an annual tradition out of this trip.

We drove. Down through Georgia, with a quick trip to Tampa. Andre and Catae graciously allowed us to crash at their place for a few hours of much-needed rest. Then we headed down through Alligator Alley. No forest fires this time, like last year.

Snapped out the window, somewhere on I-75 between Fort Meyers and Miami

Instead, we were graced with a lovely sunset hiding behind naked trees.

Upon our arrival to Amoray Dive Resort, it felt like we’d been taken back in time. Our room looked like it had been designed in the 1980s and never updated. With its white wicker furniture, neon upholstery, and a TV that had an antennae, it was like no hotel room I’ve seen recently. However, it was clean and comfortable. And furthermore, we could wake up, stumble sleepily down the steps, and be ten feet from the dock. We weren’t there for a fancy room, though. We were there to dive. And dive we did.

The next morning was simultaneously scary and awesome. We woke up early to grab my rental gear and secure our spots on the boat. It was packed! There were tons of people milling about, attaching tanks to gear, and stringing up weight belts. This was my first time as an independent diver and not a member of a class, so I took an extra-long time making sure that my stuff was properly set up. It was tough to focus. I was literally bouncing up and down with excitement, just like a little kid. I feel so bad for my boyfriend sometimes. He has to be seen in public with me. But just as quickly as my excitement mounted, it faded away when we anchored at the dive site.

Listen up, future divers. Here’s how you enter the water from a boat. You rarely just climb in like you’d enter a pool. Instead, you execute a “giant stride entry.” This involves standing on the edge of the boat, taking – you guessed it – a giant step, and then dropping into the water. From there, you float for a second, meet up with your buddy, and descend. Xavier went first. When it was my turn to follow, I stood paralyzed at the edge of the boat with all of my gear on. It was about four or five feet to the surface of the water, and with my crippling fear of heights, it was just too much to bear. Moments away from my first real scuba diving in the gorgeous Florida Keys, I panicked.

The first mate of the boat was a very nice guy, but he started to get impatient. “I’m going to give you a little push,” he told me, leaning over to knock me overboard. I thought about skydiving and just went for it before he could touch me. The drop was quick and easy, as these things usually are once you get over your fears. And then Xavier and I sunk beneath the surface together for the very first time.

Well, let’s talk for a minute about just how incredibly awesome scuba diving is. First of all, when you dive a coral reef, you’re going to view the most amazing things. You sink gracefully to the bottom of the ocean floor and at first it’s a little creepy because, you know, you’re sinking. But you can still breathe. And you can see! Imagine going to the aquarium, and looking through the glass at the schools of fish, the gently undulating coral, the occasional big fish that swims by and scatters everything in its path. When you dive, you’re not just watching that. You’re inside of that.

Second of all, you’re weightless. You’re floating. You’re unencumbered by gravity, and you can play with that for fun and for utility’s sake. My dive buddy was the best at this. It’s considered an absolute no-no to touch the coral with any part of your body or gear; for one, you’ll damage a delicate living organism, and also, it very well might be poisonous. Xavier gets around this by floating upside down on his head to look under reefs. He’s the most fun person I know outside of the water, so it was only fitting that we had a blast thirty feet deep.

That was the only photo we got of us together underwater. If you think taking a self portrait is challenging in the best of circumstances, this was a nightmare!

For you lovebirds who are looking to dive together, I will also offer this piece of advice: kissing underwater is a challenge, but not impossible. Just remember that if you try to adjust your lips, your mouths will be flooded. This makes for somewhat awkward moments and will require you to stop kissing and immediately reach for your air supply. Fortunately, practice makes perfect – and practicing is fun!

On a whim, I purchased a disposable underwater camera. These exposures don’t even come close to doing justice to what we saw: a shark, an eagle ray, a manta ray, a sea turtle, huge barracudas, the most colorful little fish. But I brought it underwater for two of our six dives, and the shots are pretty cool.

This one was taken in a moment of utter awe. It’s upside down because that was my viewpoint. I was simply playing in the water. I’d somewhat mastered my buoyancy, and was enjoying the weightlessness by laying backwards and floating upside down. I was completely lost in my own little world when I looked up and saw a giant school of fish around me. It sounds really corny, but I was one with them, and for a second I felt like a fish and an impostor all at once. Most of all, it was so exciting to be there. The moment was overwhelming in the best possible way.

Next, we played around a bit. This is my boyfriend showing me in scuba-signs that he is okay.

And here he is in the midst of a school of largish fish.

Here I am, awkwardly trying to pose for the photograph and keep my fins above the coral reef.

And here I am exploring some more. I think that’s a grouper under the reef. You can see its creepy glowing eye.

In a nutshell, diving is amazing. I cannot wait for our next trip.

Although we spent hours underwater, there were plenty of sights and adventures on Earth’s surface. Our resort had kayaks, which we enjoyed after an initial hiccup in sea navigation. (I won’t elaborate, but let’s just say it wasn’t me – I was a coxswain, remember?). We explored the mangroves around the bay and worked on our tans under the strong rays of sun. Sunglasses? Who needs ’em?

The view from the resort was amazing, especially at sunset. We sat on the dock and enjoyed our own musical entertainment.

And for some reason, one morning I awoke early enough to catch my first sunrise in years.

The trip to Key Largo was a raging success. How could we not have a blast swimming with sharks? We enjoyed a very relaxing long weekend. It was also the grand finale to an action-packed summer that put my finances in the proverbial hole. Fall around here is going to be a lot tighter. But that means exciting budget adventures, creative recipes on the cheap, and lots of time to explore Atlanta with my camera. Sounds great to me!

(All photos are mine! If you want to use one, just ask).