It's Sunday morning. My family and I are sitting at a picnic table by the Palm River. Soft winter sunlight is blinking through a canopy of moss-dripping oaks and skinny, tall palms.
There is a slight breeze, just enough to make the hair on my forehead move a little. In front of me is a steaming bowl of Thai fish ball noodle soup. Chopsticks in my right hand and a plastic spoon at the ready, I close my eyes for a moment and let go a small, relaxed smile.
Welcome to my happy place.
This thought of eating Thai street food at the Wat Mongkolrata Buddhist temple on Palm River Road comes to me each fall when the weather gets a little cooler and perspiration outdoors becomes more voluntary.
From about 10:30 a.m. to almost 2 p.m. each Sunday, hundreds of hungry food lovers arrive for what amounts to a makeshift brunch at what people have nicknamed Thai Temple. Dedicated fans know to arrive early. Come after 1 p.m. and the choices of Pad Thai, soup, Kanom Krok coconut custards, Thai Tea, spring rolls, fried banana and other delicious offerings narrow considerably.
The outdoor market is open during the summer, but fall is the best time to visit.
But it's only one of numerous spots east of Tampa that offer great opportunities to eat outdoors. Here are a few favorites I turn to when the weather cools down:
1902 W. Shell Point Road, Ruskin; (813) 641-9451
This little roadside stand offers a great glimpse of what Florida's seafood shacks of old used to be like. Soft-shell crab sandwiches, baskets of scallops, shrimp, fish and clams and homemade pies draw hungry visitors from all over the area to sit at the picnic tables in the open air under a tin roof. In the summer, the gnats can be a problem as the afternoon sun beats down. All that goes away in the fall. Get there early if you want fresh fried oysters. Oh, and say hi to Miss Julie for me if you go.
Lithia Springs Regional Park
3932 Lithia Springs Road, Lithia; (813) 744-5572
It only costs a couple bucks to gain access to this rustic, 160-acre park on the Alafia River. What you gain in scenery is more than worth the cost of admission. The cypress hammocks, crystal-clear, 72-degree water and sandy hills offer a beautiful spot to disappear for a few hours with either a picnic basket or a few things to cook on the numerous charcoal grills available near the swimming hole.
Smokin' Joe's BBQ & Grill
10252 County Road 39, Lithia; (813) 737-3010
Barbecue always tastes better outdoors. The red picnic tables under an awning between Rick's Meats and Smokin' Joe's is a great place to eat a hearty plate of barbecue and, if you're lucky, listen to a little blues on a nearby stereo. The telltale sign that Joe's is worth a visit: Lots of work trucks during the week congregate here at this back road joint between Valrico and Plant City. The smoked sausage is incredible, the ribs are moist and tender and the pulled-pork nachos are a guilty pleasure. And there are paper towels on the table if you get messy. Be sure to go inside the meat market to pick up a Cheerwine or a Sun Drop soda for the ride home.
Paul Sanders Park
3319 S. Kings Ave., Brandon
Locals nicknamed this “Tree Park” for the towering oak trees that provide welcome shade in the summer and an enchanted playground all year long. This is a great spot for a kid's birthday party, with thick-trunked trees perfect for climbing and an enormous children's playground at the center. There is no food served here, but with Tu Pais Latin Market, Bloomingdale Latin Market and The Stein & Vine restaurant and bar nearby, Paul Sanders Park is a lovely refuge to sit for a take-out bite to eat.
Parkesdale Farm Market
3702 W. Baker St., Plant City; (813) 752-0502
Get there now before all the snowbirds descend upon this iconic fruit and vegetable market and strawberry shortcake heaven. The “Garden of Eatin'” is a quirky, fun place to sit down with a milkshake — I recommend the seasonal pumpkin cheesecake variety — and drink in all the kitschy decorations. For the record, I have worn a crown and posed for a photo in the Strawberry Throne. Life is too short not to.