TAMPA — Ernie Locke and Melissa Deming moved to Seminole Heights in 2001, working at Viva La Frida and other restaurants while looking for the perfect spot of their own. They found it three years ago, but Tampa's zoning and permitting department "wouldn't have anything to do with" the funky little house's sagging structure, Locke says.
Deming's parents own a construction company, so they set to work knocking down the house and building an architecturally ambitious new building, with the Seminole Heights neighborhood association rooting them on all the way.
It's a tight-knit area, residents happy to patronize the growing list of charming restaurants (Bungalow Bistro, Front Porch, Cappy's Pizza, the Independent and on the horizon, Tampa Gastropub). So it's not surprising that Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe has been busy since opening in September. But Ella's is novel enough to draw patrons from all over Tampa Bay.
I eat the same food all the time. I don't mean that I have an unflagging penchant for bologna sandwiches or something. I mean that, in the course of reviewing restaurants, I quite literally eat the same thing in different venues. I have sampled the same lobster bisque, chocolate layer cake and New York cheesecake in restaurants all over town.
That's partly why newcomers like Ella's are a breath of fresh air. It's gutsy and not afraid to take some risks. For dessert: There's a deeply chocolatey tart ($5) paired with a sambuca drizzle (fiddlesticks to licorice haters!) — such an unusual combo, perfectly executed. There are also fresh-from-the-fryer peach fritters ($4), blistering hot, not too sweet with just a faint graininess of cornmeal. And get this, a seasonally changing vegan fruit tart ($4).
So Ella's gets the vegan vote. And also nods from local music scenesters (Locke is the singer in Nervous Turkey), and those who are wild about American outsider and visionary art (Deming has decorated the space with a tremendous collection, each artist's work getting a thoughtful page of explication on the menu). Oh, and little kids are treated like royalty, so the toddler vote is assured.
But what makes Ella's one of the most resoundingly hopeful openings of the year is the bright, clean flavors of dishes with an eye to healthfulness and visual appeal. For example, tempura-battered shrimp and yams come with a pile of long romaine leaves and a tangle of mint, cilantro and basil ($9). Roll it all, Vietnamese-style, and dip it in an updated fish sauce flavored with apricot. Try the house bruschetta ($8), really a salad of tomato, cucumber, basil and fresh mozzarella, which you spoon onto garlicky toasts. It reads like healthy but sophisticated home cooking.
I wasn't wild about the house veggie burger ($8), too squishy, but I applaud that they are making their own pinto bean-dominant patty, then topping it with spinach, tomato, avocado and crispy onions before dabbing it with a fragrant curry aioli. Again, great flavor range.
And I'd like to see a little more color on the pizza crusts, but I was very pleased one night with a "Sophia" pie ($9), which came topped with a sprinkling of rosemary, tangy marinara, shaved red onion, black olive and artichoke hearts, then a snow of feta and mozzarella. A generous size, good tooth resistance and nice cheese-to-crust ratio.
Pull up on Sunday and you start to smell barbecue from the parking lot. Beef brisket ($10) and pulled pork sandwiches ($9) are both delicious — not too hot, not too sweet, with just the right amount of smoke — rendered even more memorable with a side of deep-fried pickle rounds or a tangle of pickled green beans.
It's Americana, all right, further emphasized by the folk art decor and live music on the weekends. But there's nothing crude or naive about it. Ella's has a smart wine and beer list, an eagle-eyed wait staff and enough moxie in the kitchen to assure Seminole Heights' spot on the local culinary map.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at 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.