Off unassuming side roads and in nondescript strip malls, Sarasota hides some of its finest culinary offerings. Eschewing the confines (and high rents) of Downtown Sarasota, these maverick restaurateurs create diverse and delicious pockets ripe for foodie exploration but too oft overlooked. Google Maps calls this one Chili’s Plaza, but it holds so much more. 

Darwin's Evolutionary Cuisine. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan

Darwin’s Evolutionary Cuisine  With an aim to be an area staple for locals, Chef Darwin Santa Maria returns just in time for summer—and all those who call Sarasota home year-round. Complete with Darwin’s signature eye for atmosphere, the restaurant itself is a wonder to look at, from the murals on one end to the intriguing rope walls and interior rock-face installations on the others, but the menu presents the real feast for the eyes. Sporting the expected Peruvian flavors and favorites, Darwin whips up ceviches and pokes, tacos and tapas, which he’s taken to calling “piqueos,” each with a little twist to make them his own. For those looking to indulge, try the lechon crocante con tacacho—a traditional Peruvian dish of slow-cooked pork belly marinated for 24 hours with Peruvian spices and apples, topped with chimichurri and served with mashed green plantains. The latest venture by a serial entrepreneur, this time Darwin wants to keep it low-key. “I just want to be the local spot,” he says. “I just want to get back in the kitchen and cook.”

Peperonata Pasta and Empanadas. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan

Peperonata Pasta and Empanadas by Stef   Fans of the Downtown Sarasota Farmers Market will know the name, but realizing that Stefania Fochi’s local-famous empanadas can be found any day of the week may be a bit of a revelation. With everything made from scratch each week, from the dough to the fillings, Fochi brings a lifetime of experience and a knack for perfection to the operation—and foodies have taken note. Beginning eight years ago with a smattering of traditional Argentine flavors, such as beef, chicken, spinach and lamb, the menu today seems ever-expanding, as regulars clamor for everything from breakfast empanadas to dessert. “As I add on new flavors, they never let me stop,” Fochi explains. “Each gets is own following.” A true family operation, homemade pasta and sauces, courtesy of Fochi’s Italian parents, stock the shelves.


Siam Orchid. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

Siam Orchid Thai Cuisine   Occupying the corner of the plaza, Siam Orchid rises tall and proud, beckoning hungry visitors over the concrete threshold into a spot of quietude. Dimly lit, with nothing but hushed tones and the quiet clink of silverware to break the stillness, this Thai eatery provides the perfect location for a peaceful lunch, and the menu to back it up. Start the meal with some Thai spring rolls—served with house-made sweet and sour sauce, filled with ground beef and bean thread noodles and deep-fried in rice paper—but save room for Panang Chicken, served with snap-peas, broccoli and more, and prepared with lemongrass and herbs from the proprietor’s own garden. “I grow everything at home, so everything is fresh,” says Malai Vijitehanton, who, along with her husband, the chef, keep Siam Orchid running smoothly. Enjoying its 30 year anniversary this year, stop in to try an old Thai standby—shrimp pad thai—with tamarind straight from Thailand.