Sunday, May 27, 2018
Features and More

Review: Urban Cantina gives SoHo noshers fresh Mex in a colorful atmosphere

TAMPA

When the first Urban Cantina opened in downtown Tampa in 2010 there was a dearth of affordable Mexican in that part of town, and the newcomer seemed like a potential boon to downtown workers and those prowling around town later in the evening.

I wasn't impressed on my first visit. None of the food was distinguished, just basic Tex and Baja Mex standards executed without a lot of imagination. And the decor was weird, cold and industrial.

So I didn't review it, figuring it would soon succumb in that fairly competitive market. Well, owner Chris Rivas, a restaurant rookie, stuck with it. He refined things, he tweaked the decor. And now he has opened a second restaurant on S Howard Avenue in one of those locations that has been a revolving door over the years (Infusions Tea, Hooker Tea Company, Bric, Strings n Rings).

In previous incarnations there were two glaring problems: Zoning precluded late-night hours, and parking was limited. The parking is still tricky, especially given that a hookah lounge is moving in next door and will be sharing the lot. But Rivas has a license to serve until 1 a.m. — an ideal hour for luring revelers farther north on S Howard from MacDinton's and all that beer.

What's the lure? Tacos. Very competent, on handmade soft corn tortillas without an overload of toppers beyond the requested protein (or veggies, but warning: there's broccoli in there!). Pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, a swirl of sour cream or a dab of queso fresco, those kinds of things. It's two tacos for $7.49 (for two of the same kind), three for $9.99, served with Mexican rice and very demurely flavored refried beans.

In general, I'd say "demure" is an accurate flavor descriptor. I'd like some more fire across the board, although they do have a hotter salsa if you ask for some heat. The chipotle chicken "tinga" was the most bland of the meats we sampled, the carnitas the most flavorful. Battered shrimp and fish are both nicely done, greaseless and crispy, but again, I'd like a big squeeze of lime, a flurry of white onion or something spicy to compete with the best Baja fish tacos.

Branching out from tacos in the intimate, lucha libre themed dining room (lots of Mexican wrestler masks), you'll find nachos ($7.99) under an avalanche of white queso, beans, guacamole (solid, but not exceptional), chicken and pico de gallo. It's a triple-napkin shared appetizer, a napkin tally matched only by the XXL Gordito Burrito Mojado ($9.99), dachshund-sized and packed with rice, beans, onions, peppers and your choice of protein.

Because Urban Cantina has only a beer and wine license, margaritas are agave wine only, but fairly plucky nonetheless. Sangria was a little Hawaiian Punch-ish, and the wine and beer selections aren't going to raise any goose bumps.

What Rivas and his friendly young staff have managed to do, though, is to provide another place to nosh after a long SoHo night. Yes, the Lime is doing similar food several blocks away at a similar price point, but when you've got your going-out pumps on, close tacos are good tacos. With his downtown location, Rivas has proven he's able to tinker with details to stay competitive. On S Howard the competition may be even fiercer — but with the high-flying masked luchador as mascot, maybe Urban Cantina is just tough enough.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.

 
Comments
With makeover, ZooTampa at Lowry Park takes a page from the theme parks

With makeover, ZooTampa at Lowry Park takes a page from the theme parks

TAMPA — Behind the construction walls near the carousel at ZooTampa at Lowry Park, hammers, saws and power drills made a racket in the blazing Friday heat. A raft full of 100-pound water jugs took test trips on the new Roaring Springs ride set ...
Published: 05/25/18
Rare red wolf pups born at ZooTampa

Rare red wolf pups born at ZooTampa

The pups are an important addition to the populations of this rare Florida species, and the first red wolf births at the zoo since 1993.
Published: 05/25/18
Veterans get in free at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and more with Memorial Day deals

Veterans get in free at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld and more with Memorial Day deals

Memorial Day is a time to say "thank you" to our veterans. The following is a list of free offers for them to enjoy. Some even last all summer.• Busch Gardens and SeaWorld are offering U.S. veterans and up to three guests get free admission to the th...
Published: 05/25/18
Denis Phillips, hurricane season guru, talks his signature beer, suspenders and Rule #7

Denis Phillips, hurricane season guru, talks his signature beer, suspenders and Rule #7

SAFETY HARBOR — Denis Phillips cracks a pop-top and pulls a can that looks a lot like him to his lips."It’s got that citrusy feel to it," he says. "Which is a Florida thing. That’s not bad." Indeed, there’s a grapefruit finish to Rule #7 Hurricane Sa...
Published: 05/25/18
Hooper: More than a restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon’s was a meeting place

Hooper: More than a restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon’s was a meeting place

It’s where former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williams had lunch with current Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston.It’s where University of South Florida fans often gathered to watch the program’s biggest road games.It’s where folks showed up in...
Published: 05/24/18
Eight women accuse Morgan Freeman of sexual misconduct in CNN report

Eight women accuse Morgan Freeman of sexual misconduct in CNN report

Eight women have accused actor Morgan Freeman of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior on-set, at his production company, and during press junkets, according to a report.CNN reports that 16 people have spoken out against Freeman’s alleged misco...
Published: 05/24/18
Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

Ballet Nacional de Cuba stuns with a spectacular ‘Giselle’

TAMPA — The Ballet Nacional de Cuba performed Giselle, its signature ballet, on Wednesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Fifty-four dancers charmed a packed house, culminating in about two hours an effort that took more tha...
Published: 05/24/18
Bar review: Things are hopping at new Swan Brewing in Lakeland

Bar review: Things are hopping at new Swan Brewing in Lakeland

Lakeland’s a little out of the way, but I’m always eager to check out the bar scene there when passing through or attending an event. Every place I’ve visited just seems so pleasant.I regret missing the boat on the city’s first brewery, Lakeland Brew...
Published: 05/24/18
tbt* local craft beer of the week: Dark Harbor Mocha Stout, Sea Drift Ales & Lagers

tbt* local craft beer of the week: Dark Harbor Mocha Stout, Sea Drift Ales & Lagers

The saga of Barley Mow Brewing Company and its eventual offshoot/successor Sea Drift Ales & Lagers is a complicated one. The most interesting part is how the latter came to be as a result of brewery-distributor tensions, in which Barley Mow pulled an...
Published: 05/24/18
Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Caladesi Island’s "crystalline quartz" sand and "sparkling clear" water left an impression on Dr. Beach, who ranked it in his annual list of the country’s top 10 beaches.Dr. Beach, or Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, is a professor and director for the Lab...
Published: 05/24/18