Whenever I take a road trip, I look for local food. This is not exactly born of some grand desire to “eat local” (although I do heartily endorse locavorism, something made easy by living in one of the best places in the world for fresh citrus, seafood, and free-range beef). No, I seek out the local food because how different regions of Florida (and the United States, and the world) eat fascinates me. Florida food historian Andy Huse told me once, “if you want to know about a culture, look at what they ate” and I’ve learned he’s quite right.
Whenever I read of an eatery that catches my interest, I note in a Florida Bucket List reminder list I created on my iPhone specifically so I can see everything in Florida. It’s driving me crazy because I can’t recall how I heard about this place. All I know is that I’ve had it on my Florida Bucket List for at least a year, and I finally made it there last week.
Anna Maria Island, if you’ve never visited, is this slice of sandy paradise, although it’s losing ground to development. Beautiful beach cottages that evoke a Florida where people came for the beach, went to the beach, and stayed for the beach are giving way to slightly larger, less Florida-like homes that happen to be on the water. Like most coastal communities south of Tampa Bay, the island is given to exploding into shocks of color here and there, a rapid upshot of fuchsia here, a jolt of crimson and saffron there.
The wonderful thing about beach communities like this is the implied abundance of the sea’s bounty: mahi, grouper, shrimp, and oyster abound at local restaurants. The heartbreaking thing about these same communities is the dearth of restaurants doing anything well other than that bounty. It’s often a case of “amazing oysters” and soggy burgers, with little or no middle ground.
Poppo’s Taqueria, then, doesn’t fit at all, which makes it perfect here. It doesn’t have seafood. It’s a counter service taco place, not on the water, and not given to large groups. It’s reasonably priced. They have regular tacos here (you can get carnitas with onions, lime and cilantro for under three bucks) but I came for the Florida boar tacos (well worth the 50¢ upcharge, I might add, as was the other 50¢ upcharge, for sour cream.
Two tacos (wild boar, both with sour cream) and an order of tortilla chips left me about $8 poorer, I believe. Not bad at all. And a word about those tortilla chips: while Poppo’s makes your food as you order it (think Subway with better ingredients), the chips will come out after your meal. They’re thick, salty, and unlike any other Mexican restaurant tortilla chip you will ever eat.
I fell in love with this place, which is about 15 miles from my home in Gulfport but, because of pesky things like Tampa Bay and roads that don’t get you there “as the crow flies”, it takes about an hour to get there.
It’s the sort of place that blends in to the riot of colors on the island. I know I’ve passed it before, but I’ve never noticed it, even after it fell onto my radar for Anna Maria Island. It’s a blip of a storefront, hidden in plain sight. Tropical green things surround the wood porch with its funky birdcage chairs and shabby chic cushions. Inside, it’s almost utilitarian, with a beer bar on one side (local beer, of course, plus the usual island beer – in Florida, it’s the law that if you have sand in your parking lot, you must also sell Corona Light) and a taco bar on the other.
Calypso and I ate in folding wooden chairs on the front porch and watched the storm roll in over the Gulf of Mexico. Well, from that direction, anyway. For a beach-y place, Poppo’s doesn’t really afford you a view of the beach. Or the water. But that’s OK, because they have these tacos that make it all worthwhile.