There's a palpable push and pull in downtown St. Petersburg. On the one hand, the economy is stinking it up. On the other, residents and business owners want to see their downtown as a destination, with a density of restaurants and bars that rivals that in bigger urban areas, where one might, if so inclined, eat a drippy gyro on a crowded sidewalk at 2 a.m. after a night of dancing and carousing.
The upshot of these battling forces is a dizzying state of flux. Restaurants are closing (Banbu, the Table, the Kitchen, De Santo Latin American Bistro, Hammerhead Island Grill) while others are opening (Burrito Boarder, Five Guys, Chappy's and lots more on the horizon). Still others are tinkering with their concepts, adding and subtracting to keep market share in these difficult times.
Zachary Gross is the poster child for some of this push and pull. At the end of October he will open his new restaurant, to be called Z Grille, in the northwest corner of the new Signature Place condo complex. There, in a stylish and edgy dining room, he will serve some of the more gastronomically ambitious, Mexican-inspired dishes that he has been dishing up since he opened his first tiny Z Grille location in 2005.
Meanwhile, his original Central Avenue location has been rethought and renamed. Welcome, Zurritos. Which rhymes with burritos.
The concept is more focused, more casual, with nothing over $10. He has gotten rid of the expensive wines on his list, paring it back to affordable house wines, sangria and a big handful of good beers. Gross aims to launch a late-night walk-up window soon to capture the post-concert crowd from Jannus Landing.
While the menu here has always been short, the new Zurritos menu reads like haiku. It's basic building blocks — shredded pork or beef, grilled shrimp or lengths of grilled chicken breast, battered and fried fish — in the guise of tacos, burritos, enchiladas or just on their own in a bowl with other accoutrements like marinated cabbage, yellow rice and shreds of jack cheese.
Simple, filling and affordable seems to be the new imperative, freeing up Gross to concentrate more on his new venture, but also a sign of the times. At lunchtime, downtown workers can zip into the red and black painted storefront and sit down with a big pile of salted tortilla chips, a little ramekin of punchy salsa and a soft taco for $3.50. Of the ones I tried, the shredded pork was my favorite, flavorful and moist, the meat complemented by a heap of crunchy cabbage and a few dabs of intense cilantro oil.
The enchiladas are new, and my small quibble is that, technically, these seem like wet burritos, not enchiladas. Enchiladas tend to be corn tortillas, filled, rolled and then baked and sauced. These are a pair of rolled flour tortillas cradling the aforementioned filling options, then ladled with a pale queso sauce and paired with pinto beans and yellow rice. All $9.95, the shredded beef version was easier to eat than the chicken, which comes with very large slices of chicken, the cutting of which snapped the tines off my feeble plastic fork. No matter, both tasty.
Desserts have been jettisoned, as have all the more extensive entrees (rib eye, stuffed chicken, fish of the day), and everything has been dialed down in price (old price for beef tacos $9.95; new price $3.50 for one, $6.95 for two). The addition of a queso and chips basket ($5.95) and a black bean dip and chips basket ($4.95) says something about the audience Zurritos seeks. These are foods made to accompany a Dos XX or Modelo Especial (both $4.50), best eaten at a sidewalk table with friends on a cooling fall St. Petersburg evening. In trying times, the simple pleasures like these seem ever more appealing.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.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.