BY LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
All the soothsayers and prognosticators have weighed in. What will be the buzzword for the restaurant industry in 2010? Value. But, hey, wasn't that buzzing furiously in 2009, too? Restaurant patrons have sought, and evidently will continue to seek, good value when dining out.
Three newcomers in St. Petersburg took this message to heart. They may have been overshadowed by higher-profile openings in 2009, but each was launched with the mantra of giving customers wholesome food at fair-minded prices.
Dan and Cyndi Montgomery owned the Brown Dog Cafe for 12 years. In 2008, they gave up their longtime space on Fourth Street N, making way for Bowled Restaurant. Instead, they continued up Fourth and settled into a former barbershop. It opened as L'Moe's during the summer, with Dan's particularly eclectic palate of health-conscious soups, salads, quiches, frittatas and sandwiches, with some interesting flights of fancy at dinner (pates and lots of duck options, but even the fancy stuff doesn't head above $12).
The space itself is quirky and inviting, with tabletop chalkboards and a soundtrack of great acoustic singer-songwriter tunes. All the white wooden Windsor chairs seem to be settled by regulars, mostly asking Cyndi for more coffee or if there's any of Dan's orange cake left ($4.59, delicious, with buttercream and orange slices separating the moist layers).
In keeping with the homey atmosphere, L'Moe's (Dan says it's pronounced "Elmo's" or in the French way, depending on your whim) is where to indulge in New Orleans-style creamed chicken over fluffy biscuits ($8.95) or a messy blackened burger kicked up with Tabasco and blue cheese ($4.99), served with nicely greaseless fries and a cup of creamy-crunchy coleslaw. Portions are ample and the aesthetic is like good home cooking.
Point your car farther up Fourth and you'll hit another newcomer. Pipo's Cuban Cafe, a 3-decade-old standby begun in Town 'N Country by the Hernandez family, opened its doors in St. Petersburg on Aug. 31. They've slowly built a clientele from the legion of devotees at their four other locations (south Tampa, west Tampa, north Tampa and Lakeland) who come for their roast pork, black beans and Spanish rice and Cuban espresso.
There's not much room to dine in, but takeout and delivery are great options for the kind of slow-braised pork dishes and simmered beans that make the area's Cuban food so beloved. From steam trays and refrigerator cases emanate dishes that are family-friendly and crowd-pleasing.
Pipo's signature slow-roasted pork ($7.95) comes with two choices from the soups (cumin-touched black bean, rib-sticking Spanish bean or soupy red beans), yellow or white rice, veggies like slowly caramelized plantains or green beans dotted with bits of ham, or Cuban bread and butter.
Dishes like this, or the shredded flank ropa vieja ($8.95) or mojo roasted chicken ($6.95), are all at the ready — you might have to sip a cafe con leche ($1.59) and wait a few minutes while the kitchen presses your Cubano ($5.50) or La Media Noche ($5.50, the same as the Cuban, just on a softer sweet egg bread). All of it, even the wobbly flan ($1.95), is packed up with aplomb to reach home without incident.
The Pizza Place, next to St. Petersburg's wonderful Globe Coffee Lounge, is hardly old enough to be on a second owner. But Jim and Karen Archer took over the nearly year-old pizzeria on Dec. 15. The couple, originally from Minnesota, owns a parasailing business on Anna Maria Island, but fell in love with downtown St. Petersburg recently.
They're doing delivery in the city for a meager $1.75 delivery fee, their pizzas offered at lunch in a personal size and the rest of the day in a 14-inch and 18-inch pie. The sauce has a sweet tomato tang and the crust is thin but not cracker-thin, with good tooth-resistance and a pillowy outside edge. Our favorite was a white version ($8.75, $17, $20) with roasted garlic, ricotta, spinach and a bit of white alfredo-ish sauce. Karen aims to add soups and more desserts on down the pike, and Jim is hoping to launch a breakfast pizza at the Saturday Morning Market. But for now the rest of the menu is heaped-high hoagies on Amoroso rolls ($7.25-$8.75) — extra points for using flavorful Ugly Ripe tomatoes — and a handful of hearty salads. In all, another affordable newcomer to sweeten things in 2010.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] 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.