I messed up. The first time I visited Mangroves was on a Thursday night at a normal dinner time. Not early-bird, but 6:30 or 7 p.m. Nobody. My husband and I found ourselves leaning in and whispering in that way one does in yawning empty spaces. ¶ It wasn't a good test of what has kept Mangroves going for more than 15 years on S Howard Avenue while dozens of other businesses have come and gone.
A Friday girls' night provided a better opportunity. We hit it at 11 p.m., the sweet spot evidently. It was full tilt, a well-dressed crowd lubricated but not bent, the valet park attendant hustling to accommodate a stampede of cars. Ah, it's a nightclub that serves food, I thought.
But that's not the whole story, either.
Not long ago, Sunday brunch was added. This is where Mangroves' allures are best observed. Just a stone's throw from MacDinton's and other young SoHo haunts, Mangroves is a place for grownups. Yes, there are some concessions to being in Tampa's revelry zone (okay, a place with valet parking probably shouldn't serve Bloody Marys in plastic party cups, and servers ought not all be chewing gum), but on Sunday at noon, it's a sophisticated place to sit out on the patio, listen to live acoustic singer/songwriter stuff and study the perfection that is a good eggs Benedict.
Mangroves' version ($13) comes perched on two thick, buttery disks of brioche — crunchy even under softly runny yolk and pale, butter-lush Hollandaise. A scoop of sweet potato and red bell pepper hash browns give the dish a little surprise (sweet potatoes crop up a lot lately — is this a nod to their lower glycemic index?). Even more charming is a dish that pairs two bacon-flecked waffles with a half dozen crunchy, white-meat chicken tenders ($14), a drizzle of spicy maple syrup giving the finished dish an Asian-inflected heat and dynamism.
And for a good example of Sunday brunch's sheer restorative power, Mangroves' huevos rancheros ($13) gets the nod. The base is a corn tortilla quesadilla, its molten cheese mixing with a spicy-sweet tomato broth dotted with onion, red peppers and bites of chorizo. Now add a pair of expertly poached eggs on top, and maybe a side order of extra-crispy bacon ($3) to gild the lily, and it's a pretty good reason to get out of bed on Sunday morning.
Dinners are well executed, too, but if nobody was eating at 7 p.m. and no one seemed to be ordering food at 11 p.m. (there's a bar menu available nightly after 10 p.m.), the stylish two-level space may function in a narrow window as a restaurant. Nonetheless, servers are competent and well-versed in the short menu of steaks, seafood and contemporary appetizers. A Caesar ($8) gets an updating with a cilantro-tinged dressing and punchy/nutty manchego cheese; a disk of diced tuna tartare ($12) comes nicely accessorized with a swirl of avocado puree and a stack of fried wonton chips.
The house hamburger ($14) ranks high among South Tampa's burgers, its meat a rich mix of filet and short rib, the finished patty topped with fluffs of goat cheese, and a hangar steak dish with cheese grits and sauteed spinach, the rustic beef cut getting a gentle bacon assist, is a winner at a very reasonable $19. These dishes, and those that preceded it, coupled with a smart, well-priced wine list, should stand Mangroves in good stead in the stiff competition for South Tampa diners.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.