BRANDON — Julio Pagán Jr. caught his culinary bug as a youth watching his father operate restaurants and night clubs in Newark, N.J.
It wasn't long before he started cooking Latin dishes for his family at dinnertime. Now a Brandon resident, Pagán infuses the flavors of his Latin background at Julio's Gourmet Bistro in the spot formerly occupied by the Neighborhood Bistro at 905 E Brandon Blvd.
Pagán gained experience at a number of restaurants, including 5 ½ years as a chef at Tampa's famed Mise en Place.
After leaving Mise en Place in 2008, he went into consulting before opening Julio's Latin Grill at 1202 W Brandon Blvd. in 2011 in the spot that has had many restaurants, including pizza, chicken, Indian fare and currently houses Pho Viet.
The chicken, beef and shrimp empanadas are a big draw at Julio's, and Pagán prides himself on never using fillers and always including marinated meats. Diners can try five in a basket for $6.85.
But Pagán really wants locals to discover his mofongo, made with fried plantains mashed with garlic and pork rinds and a meat of your choice such as chicken or pork for $10.99 or lobster tail for $16.99.
"We started really good, and now people are back (after the holidays)," said Pagán, who also spent time as the sous chef at the Vine Restaurant & Wine Bar in Lutz and chef at Jonny Primo's Italian Grille in Palm Harbor. "We want to give people a fine dining experience with a casual feel."
As he has done for years, Pagán continues to shop at the Tampa farmer's market for local produce to include in his meals.
Lunch platters, including drink and dessert, go for $6.99 and dinner platters are $9.99.
Julio's also offers a meal plan in which customers pay a weekly rate when they pick up their premade meals. The entire restaurant can be rented out for private parties, and Pagán caters weddings.
Kids eat free on Tuesdays, and Julio's, which also offers beer and wine, hosts live music Friday and Saturday nights. Check them out at www.juliosgourmetbistro.com.
Dos Manos adds to area's options
Want more Latin food earlier in the day? Brothers Rick and Ryan Franco opened Dos Manos Latin Diner across from Brandon Regional Hospital at 401 S Parsons Ave., Suite D.
It's a Cuban breakfast and lunch alternative. Dos Manos, named for Rick's two hands that prepare all the meals, has established a strong following around its breakfast burritos, served all day.
After four months of operating in the spot formerly known as the Copper Bell Café, which still has a Riverview location, the brothers have decided to introduce a new menu by the end of January. More sandwich options will replace the large platters, and items such as guava-filled French toast, mofongo and boliche hash, featuring an eye round roast stuffed with chorizo, will be the focus.
"I want to go away from the traditional stuff," said Rick, 33. "I want to take American staple diner food and do it with a Latin flavor."
"What we have here, you can't get anywhere else," added Ryan, 25.
Delivery is available from Dos Manos. Visit www.eatdosmanos.com.
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