The Tampa Bay area's main culinary claim to fame is as a breeding ground for restaurant chains. Some of the biggest have started right in our back yard and spread like thirsty vines throughout the land, among them Outback Steakhouse, Hooters and Bonefish Grill. • But suddenly, a number of chains have recently moved in from elsewhere. • We checked in at some casual restaurant brands that have opened in the past six months to find out if we've got a new favorite place for pizza, burgers or fries. Jim Webster, Times food critic
, Hard Rock Cafe
Location: 5223 N Orient Road, Tampa; toll-free 1-866-502-7529
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday; 11:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday throughout Saturday
Prices: Entrees $10-$25
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Discover; no reservations, full bar, live music
After parking in the garage, we walked into the resort and saw a sign that said the cafe was ahead. We passed slot machines that were based on every game show, game of chance, board game, sporting event, mythical entities and a couple of otherwise totally innocent wild animals. There were several more signs. Straight ahead to the cafe. Turn right to the cafe. Turn left to the cafe. There may have been a couple of switchbacks. Roughly a quarter-mile later, we were there. Not sure what county we were in, but at least we're at the Hard Rock Cafe.
The Hard Rock Cafe is a mythological entity. I was in high school when Madonna was just getting started, and whenever someone showed up at school with a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, it meant they — or more likely someone they were related to — had gone on vacation to some exotic place, which was conveniently denoted on the shirt under the cafe logo. Paris. Stockholm. New York. Tokyo. And I came to learn that it probably meant that they had had a hamburger in that exotic place. Or maybe just visited the gift shop.
Now our local Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is outfitted with a Hard Rock Cafe. But I'm not really sure who it's for. The energy required to get there makes it seem more appropriate for someone who is already at the complex to do other things.
The menu is more than burgers, but burgers are the centerpiece of the menu. There are about a dozen specialty burgers with themed toppings, and all check in at 10 ounces and $14.75. We tried the apple and provolone burger, which is an interesting combination including maple mustard, bacon and caramelized onion, but apple slices get slippery, so there were structural issues. We also tried the local legend, which here amounts to a burger wedged into the middle of a Cuban sandwich. Adding beef to all the pork isn't a bad idea.
The pucks of beef — legends though they may be — were compressed and perfectly uniform and round. Too perfect. In a rock 'n' roll setting, it felt pretty corporate. And I paid less than $14.75 for a ticket the first time I saw AC/DC in concert. But, while I was eating the burger, AC/DC popped up on the video screen. So that was nice.
A relative bargain were the desserts from the "bites" menu. They were $3.49 each, and while intended for individuals, they were big enough to share. Each was a glass full of thick custard-y or creamy sweets. My favorite was the chocolate peanut butter pie.
As we prepared for the long trek back to the car, we stopped in at the gift shop, where they sell T-shirts. Among them is one with the cafe logo over the word "Tampa."
When you might think of going: After a long night of feeding a slot machine. Or, more specifically, after a long night of feeding a slot machine has paid off.
. Pizza Fusion
Locations: Downtown (777 N Ashley Drive, Tampa; (813) 463-1600) and Westchase (9556 W Linebaugh Ave., Tampa; (813) 792-1516)
Hours: Downtown: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Westchase: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Pizzas $6-$24
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Discover; no reservations, vegan items, gluten-free items, beer and wine
Now, even our pizza can have a conscience. Pizza Fusion has opened two locations in Tampa, and the menu highlights organic items in italic. And there is a lot of italic on the menu. The company also proudly touts its recycling and conservation initiatives.
None of that gets it anywhere, though, without good pizza.
We tried the organic original crust and the multigrain, both of which are thin with a nice chew. We also sampled the gluten-free crust ($2 to $4 extra) and were surprised how similar it was to the wheat-based crusts.
There are a number of specially topped pies, ranging from classic (pepperoni) to cliche (Hawaiian, BBQ chicken), but all work with quality toppings.
An order of mushrooms stuffed with sausage and goat cheese ($6) dried up in the oven and looked unappealing, but an all-organic beet and feta salad ($5 or $9) was beautiful, with candied walnuts and red onions on a bed of arugula.
The dining room — certified for environmental design — is colorful and comfortable, especially if you get a seat within range of the oven on a cold night.
When you might think of going: After shopping at the farmers market, or dropping off the recycling. Or when you want a good pie.
m Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
Locations: Citrus Park (7982 Citrus Park Town Center, Tampa; (813) 920-5157) and Wesley Chapel (Shops at Wiregrass, 28222 Willet Way, Wesley Chapel; (813) 994-7144)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Burgers $8-$10
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Discover; no reservations except for large parties or special needs; limited beer, wine and margaritas
There is more to the menu than burgers, but since the restaurant has burgers in the name, that will be how we judge it.
The company has more than 400 locations across the continent, but entered the bay area with two spots in the past several months. It's family friendly fast-casual and decorated in an eclectic Americana theme. That both locations are in shopping malls provides a pretty good barometer of the target audience.
The menu has about a dozen burger options. The patties are 6 ounces, and you are given the cooking options of "a little pink" or "no pink."
The Pub burger ($9.49) emerged as a favorite, as much for the onion bun as the interesting toppings of beer-braised onions and mushrooms. There were other fun toppings. The Whiskey River BBQ burger was a little messy with the sauce, but worth the effort with cheddar cheese and fried onion. Same with the Burning Love burger, with its fried jalapenos and pepper Jack cheese. But both of those were on plain buns that didn't add anything to the sandwich.
Two words about the french fries: free refills. Not sure how that fits into the new dietary guidelines, but probably not well. They are the wide steak fry variety, which is not my favorite, but they were served hot, in small batches.
When you might think of going: After a long day of shopping for new clothes for the kids. Or a team lunch after winning a big soccer game.
. Pollo Campero
Location: 4060 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 870-0400
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. seven days a week
Prices: Individual meals $4.99-$8.49
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Discover; counter service, drive-through
We have plenty of fried chicken chains in the Tampa Bay area. And we have a few chains that do grilled chicken in the Latin American style. Pollo Campero, a company founded in Guatemala that has about 60 locations in the United States, does fried chicken in the Latin American style.
What that means is the chicken goes through a citrus marinade before being lightly battered and fried. It is familiar enough, yet different enough to be interesting. They also grill chicken, but the fried version is better.
The company's origins also play a role in the side dishes. They offer the sides you might expect to find at a fast-food chicken joint (fries and coleslaw), but it's worth trying the fried yucca or the plantains. Beans are black or sausage-flecked red. The Latin drinks — tamarind, jamaica and horchata — are a tasty diversion.
When you might think of going: If you are in the neighborhood on a weeknight and prefer beans and rice with your fried chicken.