ST. PETERSBURG AND ST. PETE BEACH
The great burger wars have waged furiously on the Tampa side of the bay. That's not to say that Pinellas County doesn't have its share of premium beef on buns, just that the playing field isn't quite as dense or the angling for pre-eminence quite as intense. That said, a couple of newcomers have managed to find interesting niches.
Dan Soronen started off in the business at the Belleview Biltmore, then went off on his own and opened the Old Northeast Tavern and then Shackleton's Folly. In January he launched Brewburgers on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg, and will open a second franchised location this month at 3681 S West Shore Blvd. in Tampa. The concept is a very limited menu (burgers, wings, salads) with a focus on beer (30 choices), which is also an ingredient in the signature Guinness-infused BrewBurger.
Willy's Burgers & Booze, opened by Mike Anderson, Steve Phalor and Bill Forbes last year, has been a runaway success on Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach. Some of its appeal may be the full bar (a rarity for a burger joint), but some may be attributable to its paging-Jimmy-Buffett good-times vibe and kooky menu items. I won't lie, it's a funny place. Anderson all but forbade me to write a review, and service ranges from surly to possibly chemically assisted. The funniest stuff, though, is on the menu.
There are "turkey kahunas" ($3.95), deep-fried stuffing balls served with turkey gravy and cranberry sauce. They're hard not to like, as can be said of the "spingers" ($5.50), battered and fried fingers of Spam served with a kicky remoulade. It's a ridiculous food, one your conscience, clergyman and cardiologist would have you steer clear of. Yet your hand keeps dipping into the basket.
Willy's is intrepid with the deep fryer, giving mac-and-cheese ($4.75) and even breaded chicken livers ($5.25) the hot-oil treatment. Life can be sustained on these foods; remember, humans are adaptable and can subsist entirely on whale blubber when necessary. Turn your attentions instead to the Willy's Big One ($5.95), a respectable 10-ounce Angus burger, or its cousins the straight-up cheeseburger or bleu/Swiss/mushroom rendition (both $6.95), or even the salaciously named "Mrs. Willy's Favorite," a half-pound, 14-inch, silly-big Nathan's dog.
Willy's is the kind of sprawling, indoor-outdoor bar where sunburns and flip-flops are practically a uniform, where the only thing "craft" about the beer is managing not to spill, and where drinks are cheap and talk even cheaper. Oh, and on Tuesday nights a remarkable number of people come for the $4.95 chicken Parmesan, a generous breaded, fried chicken breast on spaghetti, topped with simple marinara and molten cheese. You'd be hard-pressed to make it cheaper at home.
Willy's is a Tater Tots kind of place, but so is Brewburgers, which goes one better with this: sweet potato tots. I made a special trip for these. Okay, Brewburgers doesn't make them in house, and they might be better with some kind of spicy/sweet sauce, but this has all the hallmarks of a major fetish food. House onion rings are also rock solid ($5), but the fried green tomatoes ($5) didn't have much flavor beyond their spicy remoulade dip.
Soronen has done something smart by offering sophisticated salads ($5, more topped with a protein), from a nice Santa Fe with tortilla strips and chipotle ranch to an Asian version with Chinese noodles and a peanut-soy dressing. He's not going to lose the female vote in the ever-fractious "where should we go to dinner?" wars.
And the burgers themselves? I'd say there's still a lot of variation. One day's signature burger ($8) had no discernible Guinness flavor, or much flavor at all beyond its portobello and roasted red pepper. But then another day the BLT burger ($7) topped with bacon, lettuce, fried green tomato and a swipe of spicy mayo demanded full attention and lots of napkins.
Brewburgers, set in a tidy space that recently housed Wild Wings, looks like the prototype for a franchise concept. It's got a slick logo and upbeat, TV-intensive decor. And on Tuesday nights it will give Willy's a run for its money: $2 build-your-own-burger night after 6 p.m.
Tuesday nights in Pinellas County are getting tricky to schedule.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.