ST. PETERSBURG — It always had good bones. Opened in January 2008, the reinvented McNulty Station had so much going for it. There was a great courtyard patio, a cool nightclub upstairs and the most drool-worthy exhibition kitchen in St. Petersburg. Still, De Santo Latin American Bistro wasn't a hit for long. By March, chef Jeannie Pierola was hired to revamp the menu, a fix that didn't entirely restore the patient to health. In less than a year, De Santo had folded, leaving Push Ultra Lounge alone upstairs with its pumping late-night beats.
Peter Veytia and much of the Red Mesa crew have just moved in, launching Red Mesa Cantina. Local roots run deep for Veytia and his brother, Shawn, their Red Mesa on Fourth Street N dating to 1996, their Seabar at the same site for 15 years before that (plus Adobo Grill at BayWalk for a few years). Having looked for a next new project for a while, their latest venture seems to have propagated more like one of the local red mangroves, a seed tubule of an idea bobbing along until it shored up in a fertile spot.
About a year ago Peter Veytia was considering a catering business called Taco Man. "An individual taco man comes to your party with his grill and his condiments and different kinds of soft tacos are cooked right on site," he said at the time.
For the revelers at Push, the new Red Mesa Cantina is like their own personal Taco Man. Dance a little, drink a little, then head down for a roast duck soft taco ($4), fluffs of goat cheese and dabs of red chili jelly moistening while grilled pineapple offers a perfect fruity counterpoint for the confit-like duck meat, little leaves of cilantro another contrapuntal note. It's a provocative dish.
You can see how downtown St. Petersburg workers could use a little Taco Man love at lunch. The menu is divided into ceviches — mostly shared appetizer ideas, priced $9 to $13, a raft of soft tacos (all cheap and on housemade corn tortillas), soups and salads, a few sandwiches, a pile of miscellaneous appetizers and a short list of mid-priced entrees. These last compete directly with Red Mesa in terms of sophistication and aesthetic, but the rest of the menu covers new ground.
Chicken pibil you can have as an entree ($13), but give it a nibble as a taco: guajillo chilies (moderate heat, thick-skinned dry peppers) and lime flavor chicken breast, which is paired with lovely pickled onions and a slather of guac. That's $3, but it will take you three to be full. Don't do that, though.
Mofongo, perhaps perplexing for the uninitiated, is a Puerto Rican dish pairing slow-simmered pork carnitas with soft plantain and yucca, three softballs of the stuff ($6, like mashed potatoes, only better) given a citrus-spicy chimichurri kick. (Push devotees, this is anti-hangover food.)
The cantina's menu seems ideal for sharing — a stylish margarita, some snacks over loud music and snatched conversation. But if you're not in the mood to share little plates, the grilled swordfish ($18), bathed in a mild, creamy Peruvian yellow pepper sauce, topped with sauteed shrimp and calamari and paired with rice and tender-crisp sauteed zucchini, is very nuanced.
As with any new restaurant, not all is divine. Waiters are still finding their way; the ahi tuna taco seemed bland; there appears to be a cocktail list but no wine list presented; the Mexican chocolate brownie ($6) has none of the cinnamon-y Mexican chocolate flavor of Ibarra or other brands. On the other hand, its chocolate chipotle gelato, studded with raspberries, was memorable (and smoldering), as was the caramel gelato on a luscious apple empanada ($5), drizzled with more caramel.
Decor has changed very little from De Santo days, which seems appropriate — the hanging orchids are gone, the oversized canvasses have been changed out and the front door moved to Third Street S — but essentially Red Mesa Cantina seems to be fulfilling the promise that De Santo intimated at during its brief life.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.