One of Tampa's most popular restaurants has locals craving okra like it's French fries, and here's why
You either grew up with the stuff or you didn't, and if you didn't, there's a solid chance you're never signing up for Team Okra. I grew up in a part of America where they had a habit of boiling Brussels sprouts into oblivion, like that was the most normal, reasonable thing you could do to such a noble vegetable, so we already had a lot on our plates, quite literally; by the time I started traveling through the South, I figured I'd already had my fill of slippery veggies.
Do you remember the first time you had okra? I sure do—stewed okra and tomatoes, as it happens, the particular rendition a slithering snake of a dish, one of those very old regional specialties one politely samples, because okra stews and soups are an important part of America's food history; I wasn't racing home to make the stuff. The second time, things went a little better; this time the okra was hacked up, bite-sized, cornmeal-battered and fried, and all I can remember thinking at the time, was, is there an onion shortage? Could we not just have an order of onion rings?
There are so many things to eat, there are so many delicious vegetables to enjoy, and life is only so short—why eat okra, if you don't like it, and for me, many years went by, without. This summer, however, I found myself in Tampa, sitting at Ulele, one of the most popular restaurants in town, with a giant plate of okra in front of me, and I very nearly ate the entire thing by myself.
The preparation was so simple, so why didn't I think of this—hand cut, length-wise, the okra is dropped into the fryer, getting it nice and crisp, but still keeping plenty of that deep green color. Then, it's tossed in freshly squeezed lime juice, and kosher salt. On the plate it goes, along with a ramekin of house-made ketchup, zipped up with smoked paprika.
Cheerful, bright, nearly light as a feather, and still possessing all the good of the okra—that earthy, mellow taste is so much nicer when the interior crisps up in the fryer, turns out—all the while losing the less good (and not missing it), this is okra as the ultimate fried side. Happily, the simplicity of this dish makes it relatively simple to replicate, and the folks at Ulele, part of the Columbia Restaurant Group (the family-owned organization behind Tampa's oldest, and most iconic restaurant, the Columbia), were only too happy to pass along instructions.
Take a healthy portion of fresh okra, cut lengthwise into 1/4 or 1/2 inch slices, depending on the size, then drop it into the fryer—the restaurant suggests 350 degrees, for four minutes—until crispy. Place the okra in a generously-sized mixing bowl, and then toss with fresh-squeezed lime juice, and a dash of kosher salt, and prepare to rethink your entire relationship with okra, forever.
Do not, however, forget the ketchup—at Ulele, they make their own, insisting that regular ketchup doesn't complement the okra nearly as well, and they're on to something, surely—the key ingredient in the house dip appears to be smoked paprika, which gives it a bit of musky heat, along with a hit of allspice. While there's nothing like fresh ketchup you've made yourself, you'll probably do just fine with any spicy ketchup from the store.
Hungry for more? If you're in Tampa and are curious, and you ought to be, Ulele has plenty else of interest on the menu, which they describe as “native-inspired” – specifically, by the indigenous Tocabaga Indians who lived along the shores of Tampa Bay, as well as Florida’s earliest pioneers. The visually-impressive restaurant was opened in 2014 in a former water pumping station along Tampa's Riverwalk, just a short walk out of the downtown area. Okra is just one classic staple you'll encounter – look for oysters (go for flame-grilled), crab, pork, beef, and even alligator.