Owner Dallas Owens likes to call his Mojitos Grill "a little bit of South Tampa in Brandon." By this he means it's hip and fun, with tapas and a focus on adult libations garnished with loud music.
The Brandon-Riverview area doesn't have a lot of independent heavy hitters that can compete with Bonefish and Carrabba's, Outback and Buca di Beppo. Opened in May 2006, Mojitos Grill, which is far enough south to technically be in Riverview, has managed to keep itself in the game by not ceding Monday through Thursday business to the chains. On Mondays it's all-you-can-eat crab legs for $18.95, and there are $3 mojitos on Wednesdays. Thursdays are ladies nights with drink specials, and the last Wednesday of the month lures canines and their people with live music outdoors and well-priced specials for "yappy hour." On Sunday mornings, the restaurant puts out a lavish spread for brunch, offered at a reasonable $18.95, $12.95 for kids.
In short, Owens' do-what-it-takes attitude has made the restaurant something of a destination for those Brandonites who feel like stepping out without a major drive involved. The draw is a breezy, easy, casual night on the town that won't break the bank.
Squarely in the middle of the attractive, but slightly soulless Winthrop Town Centre shopping center, Mojitos Grill is a high-ceilinged affair with faux Tuscan plaster walls and tin ceilings. Wide windows expose two sidewalks flanked with outdoor tables; whether you sit in or out, the sound system is booming with a mysterious blend of Third Eye Blind and Sugar Ray circa 1998.
Servers are mostly college-age kids eager to please, with enough menu knowledge and good cheer to get the job done smoothly. The menu is half tapas, half Spanish-inflected entrees, much of it familiar. At dinner one night we enjoyed a crock of hefty meatballs ($6.49) wading in a pool of thick tomato sauce and capped with shredded Parmesan. The flavors were simple but balanced, as could be said of a handful of shrimp ($8.49) nestled in a pond of garlic butter (although it seemed like they were already cooked shrimp heated gently in the butter, not sauteed in it, but that's a quibble when the shrimp are tasty).
The kitchen branches out from classic Spanish tapas with mixed success, offering a pleasant seared ahi tuna ($9.49) paired with trusty wasabi sauce and sesame-fragrant seaweed salad, but losing its way with red curry chicken skewers ($9.49) that were unfortunately dry.
Signature entrees come with a choice of soup or salad (a very respectable mesclun/tomato/cuke melange with balsamic vinaigrette) and two sides (not the usual perfunctory offerings, but yucca fries, crisp potato wedges and risotto cakes adding sophisticated possibilities). Our favorite one night was a flavorful skirt steak topped with a nicely vinegary chimichurri. Desserts are not made in-house — the ample New York cheesecake ($6) and gargantuan creme brulee ($6) satisfy the urge for a sweet without knocking anyone's socks off.
A display of these cheesecake slices was eminently skippable at Sunday brunch in favor of more exciting options. A young man stands ready to concoct your dream omelet or Belgian waffle, the latter offered with a smorgasbord of fresh berries, warm maple syrup and whipped cream (but they should ditch the messy, industrial, squeeze-it-yourself pastry bag in favor of a bowl).
In the adjacent room a dozen or more covered chafing dishes allow folks to go more lunch (flavorful black beans and rice, especially good when paired with a scoop of Cuban picadillo or shredded chicken) or breakfast (scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage). Bagels and lox would be improved with the introduction of a toaster, but in all a sumptuous lineup of brunchables, especially with a mimosa tossed into the mix for $18.95.
And yes, the namesake beverage ($7.50) is a refreshing, minty concoction, also offered in a range of other flavors like pomegranate and watermelon, but Mojitos' greatest gift is bringing affordable, hip fun, in an independently owned restaurant, to suburban Hillsborough.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.