I've been on the road a lot lately, commuting back and forth to Tampa for MFA classes, and man is that an experience that confirms the insanity of our food system. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that it's almost impossible to find quickly prepared, high-quality eats out near our highway interchanges, clogged as they are with Burger Kings, Taco Bells and Carl's Jrs. But when I pull into the dusty parking lot of The Garden, perfectly situated just where 41 hits 275, I know I've found a savior.
From the outside, it looks like nothing more than a minor roadside farmstand, bedazzled with signs advertising its "fresh 'n juicy" grapefruit and its "sweet & juicy" Georgia peaches. You know the kind of place I'm talking about — the kind of pit stop you normally zip past without considering twice. But another sign has caught my eye: "fresh authentic Cuban sandwiches." I am intrigued.
Dump trucks and 18-wheelers roar by, heading on and off the freeway and over to the enormous Sysco distribution center near The Garden, while a gas station across the street hums with folks filling up. Produce stalls line the outside of the farmstand, filled with potatoes, onions and yellow-flesh watermelons. A fan blazes away, doing little more than pushing around the hot summer air.
The Garden's interior reveals the true extent of its offerings. A shoulder-high glass case shows off a wide range of delectable-looking fruit and cream pies. Homemade pickles cure on the counter. And oh yes, there's the menu, laying out the stand's small selection of lunch offerings: the aforementioned Cuban, fried devil crab ("a tasty Tampa tradition!!!"), an Italian beef sandwich and a stuffed potato. I ask for a Cuban and some crab, pick out a particularly luscious miniature apple crumb pie and amble outside with my lunch.
First up: that Cuban. The sandwich is toasted perfectly, crisp enough on the outside for me to rap on it like a door, and it's been compressed so much that it's barely thicker than a cell phone. My first bite produces a satisfying crunch, then the sweet pork flavor gets all mashed up with the sharp spice of the mustard and the fresh brine of the pickles. It takes me all of 60 seconds to devour the first half.
The devil crab, unfortunately, is a different story. Billed as a "local Tampa favorite" (even though The Garden is in Palmetto), the dish looks like a small meatball. To make it, The Garden mixes up blue crab with Cuban seasonings, rolls it all in Cuban bread crumbs and then deep-fries it. But like most deep-fried food, the crust ends up dominating the flavor. There's a nice heft to the little nugget, but where's the crab? It gets lost in the breading.
The Garden's desserts lift me out of my doldrums. My apple pie, baked fresh in-house, has that sticky-gooey-sugary mouth feel of all great pies, and the crust and the crumb topping ably hold everything together. I use my car like a slow-burning toaster oven, and leave the pie on my front seat all day up in Tampa. When I get home late at night, the disc still feels warm to the touch.
Cheap Cuban sandwiches, outrageously good pie — to borrow the slogan of one of those chains stacked up around our highway interchanges: I'm lovin' it.