TAMPA — New Tampa used to be a restaurant-impoverished area, residents keeping Red Lobster and Chili's swinging in the absence of many interesting independents. Stonewood Grill was the longtime go-to place if you wanted something a little glammy; Ciccio & Tony's (later Ciccio Lodge) was the regular family destination. In recent years, the area has sprouted a surprising number of independent Asian restaurants (Sukhothai, Liang's Bistro, Thai Ruby, Sushi Tsu), places that compete ably with their brethren in South Tampa.
It was into this mix that Joy of Tokyo quietly opened last year at the site of Louis Pappas Market Café. It didn't have time to really make a name for itself before tragedy struck owner Lisa Tian. After her death, the restaurant space stood empty for a while until Mexico City native Miguel Espinosa and his wife, Dawn Boyer, took over last month. At the end of Oak Ramble Plaza, beyond the hubbub of Acropolis and Mr. Dunderbak's, the space has been renovated to become a clean, airy, family-friendly newcomer called Jalapeno Mexican Grill.
Ironically, Espinosa previously worked at a sushi restaurant in South Tampa and was scouting the New Tampa area for a sushi restaurant location. Realizing the market was fairly saturated, he switched gears.
Indeed, Jalapeno fills a niche. The area has a couple of grab-and-go Mexican places, chains for the most part, but none that offers more upscale, sit-down fare. On two visits, appetizers were impressive, a real boon to the area. Entrees and desserts fared less well, but the fundamentals are there.
At the top of the heap, tableside guacamole service ($4.95) is excellent. Our server assembled the dish expertly with an oversized mortar and pestle (the trolley they came on looked like something out of chemistry class, but just a quibble). She asked our preferences for heat and piquancy. The accompanying tortilla chips were fresh and greaseless. A little dish of housemade salsa was a nice foil for the lush green goo, each a good balance of spicy and tart.
Shrimp ceviche ($6.95) was another standout appetizer, lively and zingy, with cubes of red onion and avocado and tufts of cilantro enlivening the lime-cured (but not overcured) seafood. A light and healthful starter, we paired it with a small plate of Mexico City-style quesadillas ($6.95), thick corn masa turnovers enfolding chicken and then topped with lettuce, sour cream, queso fresco and a dollop of salsa — humble ingredients, very flavorful and homemade-tasting.
We were less smitten with a nopales salad ($6.95) the dark strands of sauteed cactus (like a bell pepper mated with okra) a little flavorless amongst tomato, red onion and cilantro.
That could hardly be said of the chili rellenos ($9.95), however, a duo of roasted poblanos, one dipped in an egg-white batter and fried, one served au naturel and both stuffed with chicken and mozzarella and topped with a chipotle-heavy salsa. The chilies gave the dish a nice fruity heat, the filling and batter provided satisfying textures and richness.
Espinosa's sister and brother-in-law are also involved in the business, everyone contributing their culinary skills. I'd like to see a little more care in the flavor profile of the house mole sauce (which I tried on a trio of enchiladas — a little heavy and "chocolatey") and a hotter fire to sear dishes like carne asada ($11.95), a pile of sliced skirt steak that ended up looking wan and gray. And for dessert? Great flavors in a fried bananas Foster ($6.95) were marred by a caramel sauce that seized up and granulated against the cold of vanilla ice cream. Easy enough to fix.
With a short and affordable wine list and servers who aim to please despite a little lack of experience, Jalapeno is like its namesake pepper — an unassuming ingredient that adds a little spicy sizzle to the local culinary stew.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.