Thursday, April 26, 2018
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Road through Wimauma paved with tacos

WIMAUMA

From the "Welcome to Wimauma" sign on the west edge of town to its mate on the east side, the odometer logs just 1.8 miles. Within that straight stretch of State Road 674, there are several grocers, a gas station and auto repair shop, a post office, a couple of places to envío de dinero (wire money) and one extremely fatigued pay phone. The Strawberry Market failed to open this year, and just a couple of weeks ago a gourmet market and produce stand called Mabry's closed. • But there's one thing the unincorporated Hillsborough County enclave, founded in 1902, has in reckless abundance: excellent tacos. For the 4,000 or so residents, as well as visitors who make their way east off the Sun City Center exit on Interstate 75, the delicious options approach double digits.

On a lovely spring day, we set out with big hunger and small bills to go sampling. Parking at 10:30 a.m. at the east side of town, we hopped out on foot, heading first along the south side of State Road 674 to El Sol Restaurant, where we met fellow it's-never-too-early-for-tacos enthusiast Manny Negron, a Super Shuttle driver on a long detour.

Although Negron swears by the tostadas, we opted for a ground beef soft taco ($1.50), packed with queso fresco, cilantro and cooked onion, and a duo of shredded beef tamales ($1). That's right, a total of $2.50. A ramekin of tangy tomatillo salsa married well with both, which we dispatched quickly at one of the colorful picnic tables out front before sneaking into the kitchen to watch Elvira Maria roll out some of the more than 500 flour and corn tortillas she makes each day. Like many Wimauma restaurant workers, she is Guatemalan but spends her days making Mexican food.

Ana Magallon's Ana's (formerly called Sanchez Restaurant) is one of the fancier spots in town, with brightly painted walls and chili pepper tablecloths. Magallon, who is Mexican, serves thick, house-fried tortilla chips and super-spicy salsa puree, which we scooped up along with an order of chiles rellenos ($7.95) filled with a mix of beef and beans, which came with lush and obviously homemade refried beans and a spoon of tomato-tinged rice. All good chased with a refreshing but sweet pineapple soda ($1.50).

A bit farther down the road, a squat building with a metal overhang and a concrete slab patio houses Taqueria Los Angeles, known locally as La Casa del Huarache. Perplexed, we arrived looking for woven leather sandals, only to have Anwar Santamaria, originally from Mexico City, explain that a huarache is a 14-inch, fried masa bread with different toppings that bears a resemblance to the Mexican shoe of the same name. Huarache it is then (although we were drawn to the pambasos, which Santamaria explained were tortas, or sandwiches, with a spicy sauce infused in the bread). Crunchy and a little hard to cut, it was easiest to break off a hunk of the warm, oily masa and enfold the savory sliced steak, fluffs of queso fresco and sly salsa verde ($6). On the weekends Taqueria Los Angeles fires up a big smoker outside, so we may need a repeat visit.

Trudging farther westward, we stopped to watch locals ordering at Coco Frio Coctel de Fruta, a tiny painted white trailer in the shade of a glorious old live oak. Fresh fruit perched on a crate outside, this is serious fruit salad ($3 per big cup), featuring jicama and exotic tropicals nestled with melon chunks and then flecked with chili powder and salt and a big squeeze of key lime.

Onward past a charming yellow house with its front yard given over to hundreds of rose bushes in full bloom, we hit what may have been our favorite find of the day, Taqueria Guanajuato. Long before all the recent food truck furor, this little trailer sat, enlivened with a whimsical mural by Tampa artist Juan Luis Colon, a corrugated metal overhang providing shade for the assembled supplicants. Gorditas seem to be the order of the day, with a group of Sun City Center nurses strongly recommending the nopales (prickly pear cactus pads). Regardless of filling, thick corn masa rounds are fried, split open and packed with juicy tomato, onion, cilantro, white cheese and the protein or veggies of choice, all fresh and vibrant tasting, with a perfect spicy/sweet/salty salsa on top. To accompany our gordita ($1.50), we chose a milky, cinnamon-spiked horchata ($1.50) — huge, quenching and packed with ice — from a colorful lineup of aguas fresca. Oh man, $3 seldom tastes so good.

At the last census, 70 percent of Wimauma residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, which is why Rachel's Country Kitchen, on the north side of 674, is a head-scratcher. Breakfast and lunch only, it seems to be where Sun City Center women get together for chicken salad, complete with a big sale of Avon products. No tacos? We just used the restroom.

At Taqueria Guanajuato, we met owner Hortencia Rocha. At Taqueria Don Julio's, next to Rachel's, we met her husband, Francisco. The way it was explained to us, Guanajuato is more for the locals, while Don Julio's, a little fancier, is for visitors (read: non-Latinos). Two things are clear: Don Julio's air-conditioning (one of few restaurants in town to have it) is delicious, and its shrimp cockteles (cocktail) even more so. Served in a generous snifter, the sweet shrimp swim in a tomato broth evocative of a Bloody Mary, swaths of ripe avocado adding richness and texture. At $9, the most expensive thing we ate all day, it was refreshing and delicate scooped up with house-fried tortilla chips. We chased it with a selection of surtido cristalizado (candied fruit), passing over figs and papaya in order to try a wedge of candied chile coyote, a watermelon-looking squash that tasted a bit like zucchini.

Continuing on the north side of the street back toward our parked car, we realized we'd made a tactical error. We were full and we still had Restaurant Matamoros to go, a place known for big portions. We hadn't hewed strictly to our taco mandate, branching out to sample gorditas, huaraches and other delectables. We'd try a chimichanga ($7.76) — how big could it be? Briefcase big, dense as gold brick. We picked at it, cracking the delicately fried flour tortilla to reveal the beany-meaty-cheesy goo within, a squeeze of lime and swirl of sour cream perfect high notes.

The median income and median home price in Wimauma are far below much of Florida, with many residents working in nearby tomato and strawberry fields. But as the "Welcome to Wimauma" sign faded in our rearview mirror, it was hard to conjure another small town with such a density of delicious things to eat. Total expenditure? $40 plus gas.

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

     
   
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