Friday, April 22, 2011

Pape Kibo's in Hudson, FL

Hudson, Florida is where I grew up. Actually, I lived in the next town over but I went to Hudson High School and all of my friends were there, so I claim it as my childhood home. Like many kids feel about the place they are from, I deplored Hudson. To the south were the mostly retirement communities of Port Richey and New Port Richey that I still affectionately consider to be “God’s waiting room”. Catering to mostly geriatric residents, teens were frowned upon in general. To the north and east of Hudson was mostly nothing. A few pockets of mainstream subdivisions existed but a short drive off any main road and you are in unattractive pine forests dotted with trailer homes with several broken down, dusty vehicles in each unkempt yard. There right smack dab in the middle of this Shangri La was the canvas for my youth –Hudson.

In the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years, I made some friends that would end up shaping my life forever. Without going into the boring details, Kristi, Rob, Ann, Toni, Laura, Kim, Jim and a few others were my very best friends. For a few years, we were an inseparable group. We went to movies, the mall, the beach, church, the bowling alley and many other places together. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say they changed my life forever. I would go on to be briefly married to one of the girls and we have a wonderful son together. Another remains my best friend to this day.

Laura and I met somewhere around 12 years old although I might be off by a year. Her dad owned an insurance agency and was deeply involved in the few positive parts of the community. Both of her parents treated me with a respect rarely given to bratty pre-teens especially knowing I was a young boy chasing after their daughter. Yes, Laura was my first REAL girlfriend – in the sense that 13 year olds can be boyfriend and girlfriend –but by our actual dating years she had long since dumped me (for a musician –go figure). What transcended though was a terrific friendship that has endured since and I’d have to say that while I’ve been closer to other people at different periods of my life, Laura has always been, and I suspect will always be, a major player in shaping my moral compass.

We don’t get to see each other very much. Our lives are both pretty busy. We both have our families and life commitments. Still, 4 or 5 times a year, we manage to make a few hours to grab a bite and catch up. I was the one who had to cancel our last dinner so I guess it’s my responsibility to reschedule. Recently, I was heading a couple hours north for a business appointment when I realized I’d be passing Laura’s office around lunch time. Knowing it was a long shot because Laura almost never answers her cell at work, I thought to try to call to see if she wanted to grab some lunch. I was surprised that she answered but even more surprised when she told me that we should try this great new restaurant in Hudson. HUDSON!!! To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a great restaurant in Hudson. Crappy take out Chinese, Applebee’s and Perkin’s has been the Hudson food genre. But Laura has a pretty honed palate so if she says “great”, I believe her. I met her at her office and off we went to Pape Kibo’s.

We pulled up to an unassuming building on Old Dixie Highway not far from Hudson Beach. Walking in, there is nothing too impressive: Key West pastel-colored walls, small tables, mismatched chairs. Immediately to the left, though, is the special’s board. This is where it get’s interesting. Specialty sausages of lamb and duck, kangaroo steak and crocodile are written out in unassuming fashion. I was not going to be disappointed. The regular menu has a few interesting twists but remains pretty standard. It’s the wild game specials and hard to find oddities, though, that are compelling to me. Depending on the day, you can find antelope, llama, iguana or python. With some advanced notice you might also order bear or lion (A lion steak will run you $350 but a lion burger is a mere $50). There wasn’t anything too special on the menu the day I showed up for lunch but I did try the crocodile which was cooked really well with welcoming, attractive topping of a creamy sauce with shrimp and tomatoes.

No, it doesn’t taste like chicken. A little chewy like many wild animals, the flavor was similar to alligator, frog or turtle (all of which I love). I also tried the sausages of duck and lamb which were sublime and exquisite. The duck was subtle and well spiced and the lamb was perfectly distinct as great lamb always is. There were also a few dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) that I adore. The Mediterranean flare was perfectly manipulated in this dish.

The appetizer of mussels rivaled the exquisite flavors that I remembered from my trips to Belgium where mussels reign supreme on any restaurant menu.

Prior to this day, my only reason to go to Hudson was to visit with Laura who owns a business there. Today, there is a second reason. Pape Kibo’s is a jewel in Tampa Bay and I would tell anyone that asked that a trip to Hudson has moved up on the scale from “are you out of your mind?” to “must go”. From Tampa, it’s about an hour’s drive and well worth it. Perhaps after a day of swimming with the manatees in Crystal River or a visit to the gardens and mermaids of Weeki Wachee, you could swing into Pape Kibo’s for dinner on the way back. There are steaks and seafood and salads for the unadventurous but for the inner Bizarre Foods lover, there will certainly be something to delight.