TAMPA — That sort of looks like Granddad's old Army uniform up on the wall. Which makes sense, because it sort of tastes like Grandma's fried chicken on the plate.
Then, on another wall, there is a poster for Twin Peaks, a show about a strange combination of characters that seemed as if it shouldn't work but did anyway. Which makes sense, because one appetizer is a fried jalapeno pepper stuffed with peanut butter.
Love's Artifacts Bar and Grille has been open since March, bringing a neighborhood hangout south of Gandy Boulevard in a spot that stood as a used car lot for almost a quarter century. When Lynn Love began the transition to convert his family's car lot into a restaurant, he became a prime example of coping with the economic collapse.
So what kind of food can you expect from a venue that used to sell every make and model of car? Pretty much every make and model.
The decor is antique-store eclectic. That mirrors the menu. There is Southern. There is barbecue. There are hints of Cuban and Italian. And, presumably, Atlantis.
Start with the Southern, because the fried chicken platter ($9.95) was a memorable and memory-piquing dish, with a half a lightly battered bird fried golden and juicy. Pick two sides from the long list that will be read off to you — it isn't written down anywhere — but are all good. Buttery mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach were natural fits.
Love's foray into food started with barbecued ribs, and they're still here. You can get a whole rack to take home ($18.95), or make a dinner of three ribs and two sides ($8.95). The three ribs would make a reasonable prop on the set of a Flintstones movie, and though it takes some primal work to get the meat to fall off the bone, it does, and it's worth it. The ribs are brushed with a housemade sauce, which is better judiciously used on them than it is when it shows up a little too generously coating the pulled pork platter ($10.95).
The pork "conquistador" ($9.95) sauces slow-roasted Cuban pork with a lemon-wine-butter that tastes like someone was thinking piccata. And the Atlantean shrimp ($10.95) was a healthy serving of good shrimp sauteed with enough garlic to ward off a cold.
We tried the pork chops ($10.95) and didn't find them tender as the menu promised, but the mushroom gravy was so good that it should come standard on the mashed potatoes.
If you want appetizers, you may have to ask to see a drink menu. Try the peanut butter-stuffed jalapenos ($7.95). It doesn't really make sense until you taste it, but the peanut, the chili and the cilantro sauce all come together as a sort of Southern satay.
The back of the dinner menu is devoted to an Academy Award-level thank you list from Love to friends and family that helped him in the transition. It is beautiful and sincere, but I couldn't help but think that it would be a good place for the appetizer menu. On our first visit, we didn't get appetizers because we didn't know they had any. The drink menu only came after we asked about it, after we had ordered entrees. Keeping desserts in stock seems to be an issue as well. One visit, key lime pie was good. Other visits, no sweets were available.
The place fills up when there is live music on the weekends, and it's worth coming in to gawk at all the perfectly mismatched furniture and china, and reminisce over the wall art of classic album covers. I'm sure I had half of them. But I never had that big knight's ax over the bar.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. Webster dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.