TAMPA — It always feels like restaurants that have themes are trying to hide something. Like maybe if you are distracted enough by the decoration and immersed in the story line, you'll pay less attention to what's on the plate.
But what if the theme was food?
Chris Rose spent years working in the corporate environs of a cartoonish king who sold burgers, and later for a steak house that gave the illusion of being in the American West, despite the fact that it was in Tarpon Springs.
Since April, he has been the proprietor of Eats American Grill, a spot he opened on S Dale Mabry Highway that he is using to educate diners on the origins of American food, both ubiquitous and unique.
Let's start with the unique.
A plate of pineapple fritters ($6.29) — origin, Hawaii — was one of the most head-scratchingly delicious tastes I've had in some time. In essence, it is a corn fritter, with celery and onion in a corn batter. But chunks of pineapple are mixed in before they're fried, and it makes much more sense than it seems like it should. The sweet and sour sauce is almost unnecessary, because the fruit is so sweet, but the sauce has a hit of sesame that is a nice counterbalance.
Two other favorites from the appetizer list were the fried pickle chips ($4.99) and the Bite Me Back Shrimp ($7.99). The pickles are thick cut and battered in such a way that the tart dills stay nicely attached to the crunch, and the shrimp are Rose's recipe, fried popcorn shrimp tossed in a spicy sauce. It's a lot like the bang-bang or boom-boom appetizers elsewhere, but it is done well.
Almost everything at Eats comes with a story, including the complimentary potato chips that arrive with the menus. They are Saratoga chips, named after the New York city where lore suggests an aggravated chef invented them to silence an annoying customer. Made in-house, the texture is a step above bagged, though the seasoning was uneven. A dipping sauce was included at some visits, but not others.
The menu makes its biggest regional statements in the sandwich section. Eats' version of the Buffalo, N.Y., classic beef on weck ($8.99) does the original proud with thin roast beef and a horseradish sauce on a salt-and-caraway roll called the kummelweck. Rose said there were two challenges in developing this sandwich. First, he had to find a local bakery that would make him kummelweck in the limited quantities he needed. He found one, but if you were hoping to call and get some for yourself, he's not telling where other than to say it is in Pinellas County. The other challenge involved the sauce. In Buffalo, the sandwich comes with raw horseradish. That didn't fly with customers here, he said, so he toned it down and made a more subtle sauce.
A lot of regions lay claim to the pork chop sandwich ($8.99), so there is no appellation connected to it here. Nicely fried, it stays juicy. And the Eats BLT ($8.79) supplants the traditional fresh red for fried green tomatoes. They play well with the thick-cut bacon, but the Texas toast seemed an odd bread for that sandwich. Its thickness worked against the stars.
Entrees feel a little more classic and formal, and are available in a number of combinations. Among the things we tried were the sirloin steak, which was tender and cooked as ordered; a light crab cake, with a nod to Maryland; and a plump chicken breast, juicy off the grill and covered in barbecue sauce. Also, we tried the ribs, which are described on the menu as "fall off the bone." To their benefit, they are not. They are tender, but require a minimum of work — as they should — to leave a clean bone. These entrees are available individually and in combination ($9.99-$18.49).
A few things needed work. The Philly cheesesteak ($8.99) boasts shaved ribeye steak, which is traditional, but it seemed too tender, almost like the meat was better than what it should be for a cheesesteak. And even the notoriously cranky Philly joints offer an option of provolone to the standard Cheez Whiz. The 1880 Texas chili ($3.29 cup, $4.99 bowl) is pretty tame for Texas standards and is full of beans. Beans may have been part of the Texas chili two centuries ago, but evolution has largely eliminated them from serious consideration in Texas. A side dish of macaroni and cheese was a little strange, the cheese just melted on top of the macaroni with bacon and bread crumbs. I wouldn't debate that this might have been what the origin of the dish looked like, but if it was, it has been greatly improved since.
Desserts also underachieved a bit. The fried Oreo sundae ($6.29) sounds great, and the Oreos themselves are soft, warm and tasty after their time in the oil bath. But once the batter-covered fair food is gone, it's a large goblet of vanilla ice cream. The pineapple upside down cake ($5.89), with all respect to the Rose family recipe, was very sweet.
The restaurant itself feels like a sports bar — another American creation — with most of the walls covered by flat screens, but at least one of the TVs is dedicated to family programming. The staff is well versed in the menu, and if Rose is there, he makes the rounds and is willing to engage in culinary trivia. See how long you can hang with him.
If your favorite region of the country isn't covered on the menu, just wait. Rose is planning rotating specials featuring a specific region of the country, including food and drinks. And he takes requests.
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.