What do we know about El Chapo, a.k.a. Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán? He ran the Sinaloa Cartel, even from prison, and first appeared on Forbes’ billionaires list in 2009. He’s 5 feet 6. He’s the father of 12 or 13 children. He has a talent for tunneling. He’s got a buddy named Sean Penn.
Does he like tacos? This we do not know.
Angelique Everett’s husband, Josh Dowd, came up with the name. At first it was a taco stand at the Bends, a St. Petersburg bar owned by some friends. Everett says there was some backlash about the name, but they had no intent to offend.
Because, really, it was something most of us could get behind: a lineup of affordable tacos, some authentic Mexican street style, some gringo style, no judgment, augmented with nachos, burritos, enchiladas and such.
Everett and Dowd live in Gulfport; Everett worked at a little restaurant called Fish, which took over the spot of long-standing Peg’s Cantina. Peg’s worked because it was a convivial indoor-outdoor Mexican-ish restaurant that didn’t take itself too seriously but had good beer. I’m not sure why Fish didn’t have a long run (other than, in a digital world, that’s a heck of a name to try to Google), but the space became available and the couple jumped on it.
Truth was, Peg’s departure left an empty slot in that niche. Gulfport has beloved standbys like O’Maddy’s and Backfin Blue, Italian and diners (Pia’s and Stella’s), pizza and hot dogs (Siri’s and Yummy’s) and tea (T and Me). But not affordable Mex.
El Chapo Taco is homespun. The menus are handwritten, the decor is simple (lots of patio furniture in the front yard, a covered deck from which to ride out summer rains), the service is friendly and down to earth. Bartender Nick Mahoney, who moved here from New York City, is working with a broad list of tequilas and mezcals but is essentially doing approachable, easy-drinking margaritas. This is not an amaro and tinctures kind of bar, more of a "do you want a salt rim" sort.
The anchor of the menu is a lineup of seven different taco fillings: braised pork, chipotle pulled chicken, braised beef, black beans and corn, grilled chicken, ground beef (served Old El Paso style, with cheddar and sour cream) and Baja-style battered cod. Many of these can feature in a burrito or as nacho toppers. As you’re mulling over your choice, begin with a basket of chips with a trio of dippers ($10.50): a smooth and mild salsa, a chunky-style guac and a lush queso dotted with mild roasted jalapenos. If you’ve got a little extra room, add in an order of fried shishito peppers with a sprinkling of salt and a squeeze of lime ($7.95). I kept waiting to get a fiery one — on average, every 10th shishito will blow your wig back.
The single best thing on the El Chapo menu isn’t a taco at all. It’s elote, or Mexican street corn ($3 on its own, but it comes with a full dinner), a cheesy, blistery, delicious dental nightmare. Tacos are served individually (most $3.50) or as a duo with black beans, herb-flecked rice and a short ear of the corn. Both the braised pork and the chipotle chicken are sumptuous and flavorful (but not hot), and the beer-battered cod, jazzed up with crunchy jicama and cabbage and a drizzle of chipotle crema, is a winner.
Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties’ cups runneth over with tacos right now. (I’m hearing great things about Chile Verde at the corner of 28th Street and 22nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg in an old gas station; will check it out soon.) El Chapo is not likely to rise to the pantheon of Tampa Bay tacos, but it’s a fun, friendly and affordable newcomer that suits Gulfport’s character and needs.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.