Bags of Asian chips and snacks hang vertically against the bamboo walls of Tampa’s newest walk-up Filipino food spot, Lucky Tigré. Near the register, there are boxes of Green Tea Pocky and cans of calamansi juice. On the counter, a few loose paper menus are held down by a round tin of Tiger balm.
If you’ve ever been to the Philippines, this image may conjure up the idea of an old sari-sari store. Turns out, as I learned on my recent visit to the spot, that’s exactly what 24 year-old entrepreneur Julie Sainte Michelle was going for when she opened it.
Well, kind of.
Opening Tampa’s first sari-sari store
“A sari-sari store is like a little convenience store where Filipinos go to get snacks and drinks,” Julie explained when I stopped in to Lucky Tigré yesterday morning. “We’re Tampa’s first sari-sari, but we’re not a traditional sari-sari. And we’re not trying to be.”
I glanced around the outdoor restaurant. The vibrant tiger mural on its front wall screamed retro Americana. On the long, high-top dining counter, there were lush green plants in pots with faces carved into them.
“This is our nod to the sari-sari,” Julie continued. “We’re like them, we pay homage to them, but we’re a little bit different.”
As I relaxed beneath the lights, graffitied murals, and wood beamed ceilings of Lucky Tigrés interior, my subconscious mind began to observe and define this “difference.” The most obvious differentiator, of course, was the fact that the spot served food. Sari-saris in the Philippines are purely sundry shops. The uniqueness of the restaurant, though, went beyond its menu.
Lucky Tigré is trendy and contemporary. It’s exterior has a classic Asian flair while simultaneously feeling like a place where young people would gather for Instagram-able eats. Sitting in this chic space, immersed in the visual interplay of cultures, I realized that Julie—and her young team of friends and fiancé—had created more than just a restaurant. They had designed a space that epitomized their shared experience of being Gen Z Asian Americans.
And, through their intelligent planning and creative menu, they were now giving those from other cultures, like myself, a momentary chance to step into their shoes.
Hand-made, trendy Asian-American eats
Now, despite the fact that Lucky Tigré’s atmosphere and concept are super cool, the company was famous long before it became a vibey brick-and-mortar. In fact, when Julie and her fiancé Seanissey first launched the business, it didn’t have a formal home at all. Instead, it operated as a “pop-up” shop out of other restaurants and cafés.
“In the beginning,” Julie said, “We were just serving dim sum. Dim sum is definitely a very Asian American thing. In my house, we eat it for every holiday, every celebration. It’s very representative of my culture, so I knew I wanted to start with that.”
The public took to Julie’s dim sum immediately. She recalls times where lines of foodies would wrap around the buildings hosting her and Seanissey’s mobile operation. This interest and demand pushed the couple to expand their menu before finally encouraging them to open their own space. On October 15th of this year, Lucky Tigré—in its current form—was born.
Multiple dishes that originally made Lucky Tigré popular are still on its menu today, but the brick-and-mortar location also boasts many new offerings. So, atmosphere and back story established, I turn now to what keeps many of you lining up outside of Tampa’s first sari-sari.
From bao buns to rice dishes, let’s check out the food.
Dim Sum (Dumplings)
The food that started it all, Lucky Tigré’s dumplings are still probably the best thing on the restaurant’s menu.
Offered in four varieties (beef, pork and two kinds of mushroom), these delicate umami purses are fresh, flavorful and served in unique handcrafted broths ranging from coconut chili to “tangy” garlic soy.
Chicken Adobo Bao Buns
Though they weren’t part of Lucky Tigré’s original pop-up menu, these fluffy buns have quickly become the restaurant’s best-selling dish. After trying them, I’d chalk that up to the tender shredded chicken—and the juicy drip it sends running to your elbow.
Char Siu Lechon
In addition to their small plates, Lucky Tigré offers a few entrée sized dishes as well. Though many of these offerings rotate and change, the Char Siu Lechon, which features honey BBQ pork and crisp atchara slaw over rice, has been on the menu for a while.
Given that pork is a Filipino staple, and Char Siu is found in many Asian American restaurants, this dish is a great embodiment of the melding of cultures that Julie and her young team represent.
Boba tea is a common treat in many different Asian countries, so Julie knew she wanted to serve (at least) a few varieties at Lucky Tigré. Today, the menu boasts five different flavors from “Mango Fruit” to the ever-popular “Brown Sugar.”
If you’re feeling adventurous, I’d recommend trying the “Sea-Salt Ube.” With its bright purple color, the drink is as photogenic as it is refreshing.
A culturally-inspired, Tampa must-try
If you’re interested in immersing yourself in Fil-Am youth culture, exploring Asian-American traditions or simply indulging in some of Tampa’s smartest foreign fare, it’s time to pay Lucky Tigré a visit.
From the décor to the eats, this hole-in-the-wall spot is a powerhouse.
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