Wright’s Gourmet House, Tampa, Fla.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: when it comes to food, fresher is always better. If everything is made in your restaurant, it’s going to taste better. If every ingredient travels a short distance to your restaurant, it’s going to be better.
But when it comes to a deli, fresher isn’t just better, it’s vital. Freshness is simply mandatory to a deli being able to succeed because of just how many fresh ingredients go into making it work. When bread, meats, cheeses and vegetables are the star ingredients at your restaurant, you have no margin for error in terms of keeping things fresh. If they’re not, your product is not going to sell very well.
That brings us to Wright’s Gourmet House in Tampa. It’s about to hit its 50th anniversary, which says that they’re doing something right. What it is are three things: freshness, quality and taste. Sandwiches, salads, desserts and other items are all made in-house, using some of the finest and most uncommon ingredients available, usually at no extra cost to the customer.
Case in point: the cheeses available. At most places, you get the standards of American, Swiss, cheddar and provolone to add to your sandwich, with more exotic cheeses unlikely to be available. At Wright’s, provolone is joined by New York cheddar, havarti, Jarlsberg and Brie. All of these are free, with the exception of Brie, which does add a dollar to the sandwich. Still, those cheeses aren’t all that common in grocery stores, let alone in a restaurant deli.
Another example is found in the drinks, which Amy exploits very well. Wright’s serves four kinds of tea, adding fruit to the basic sweet tea flavor. Alongside the standard lemons, though, Wright’s offers mint leaves, and Amy used that to make her own drink. When she orders sweet tea here, she first packs the cup with mint leaves, then adds the tea, allowing the mint to fuse with the flavor that’s already there. She did this for me on our visit, and I was surprised at first, but quickly realized that her addition was good.
But to be a great deli, you have to have great sandwiches. How many you have or what names you give them doesn’t really matter, what matters is whether or not they’re good. At Wright’s, that is never an issue. This place uses quality ingredients and takes its time to prepare its sandwiches, making sure that everything is up to its high standards. For instance, Amy’s mother, who joined us on this trip, opted for a Cuban sandwich and received her sandwich at the same time Amy and I received our non-toasted sandwiches. This was after she had beaten us to the restaurant by 10 minutes and already placed her order.
That’s how much Wright’s cares about quality. Much like Bern’s does with steaks and desserts, Wright’s makes sure everything is prepared just so. As a courtesy to its customers, it also spells out on its menu how long it will take to make sandwiches that will take a lengthy amount of time.
Any amount of a wait is worth it, although I had none at all because I opted for Wright’s signature sandwich, the Beef Martini. Apparently, the sandwich was created in 1976 by the grandmother of the founder of the restaurant, and it’s basically a combination of pretty much everything I find awesome in the world of the deli. The sandwich includes roast beef, mushrooms sauteed in white wine, bacon and a garlic herb spread that is reminiscent of Ike’s Place’s Dirty Sauce. It’s on their version of white bread, which they refer to as buttercrust.
It’s outstanding. I had to add a slice of provolone to it because I enjoy the taste of cheese (especially when mushrooms are involved), and it was perfect. The roast beef is tender, the mushrooms add another layer of flavor and the garlic herb spread gives it an extra zing. It’s an excellent sandwich, and you have plenty of it. I was able to finish the entire thing, but that’s only because I have a healthy appetite.
Amy, who of course does not eat beef, opted for the Turkey Martini, which is basically the same thing with turkey instead of roast beef, and added havarti to it (easily her favorite cheese). She tells me it’s amazing, and I’m not at all surprised.
But no trip to Wright’s is complete without grabbing something for dessert, and here, that usually means a giant slice of cake that is actually big enough for two people. When you get your sandwich, you pass by the cakes, which are all chilled along with the drinks. Wright’s features 11 different varieties of cake, from the banana-layered hummingbird to the chocolate-on-yellow Alpine Cake to red velvet.
However, I had to go with the chocolate peanut butter cake. That combination is almost irresistible to me (and as my recent Tampa expedition proved, the almost is now in fact necessary), and in cake form with peanut butter frosting, it had to be done.
It was exactly what I was hoping for. The peanut butter frosting was thick, strong and flavorful and the chocolate cake was moist and delicious. This was everything that a good cake should be and was so large that the two of us couldn’t finish it in one sitting. We ended up saving some of the cake for another time after attacking about 3/4 of it. You get a lot of a high-quality cake in one slice here. If you’re not a cake lover, no problem. Cupcakes, pies, brownies and cookies are also available. My Aunt Margaret would definitely approve of that arrangement.
Tampa isn’t the first place that comes to mind when most people think about sandwiches, unless they’re thinking of the Cuban. But when you have nearby ingredients and the knowledge of how to prepare them properly, you’re going to have some excellent results, no matter what your area is known for. Plus, I got to enjoy it with the love of my life and her mom. I’m not sure how you beat that.
Time to go: Late afternoon. Wright’s can have a line out the door when lunch hits, but after lunch, it’s substantially more manageable. If you come after 2, you should be in good shape.
Wait during my visit: None. Amy scheduled us very well. She’s pretty awesome to have on these trips for a number of reasons.
Location: Wright’s is at 1200 S. Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, Fla., which is basically the main highway in Tampa.
Parking: There is a small lot, which is good, because street parking that close to Dale Mabry would suck.
Cost: Standard cost for sandwiches, about $8. Cake is $5, but it’s huge and worth it.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs inside and outside.
Specialty items: Deli sandwiches, cakes