Friday, November 17, 2017
Restaurant News

Restaurant review: This Tampa shop is rated No. 4 in the nation on Yelp, and lives up to the hype

RECOMMENDED READING


TAMPA — AJ's Press is a tiny freestanding shack around the corner from the side entrance of Steinbrenner Field, its handful of tables made of repurposed doors and the counter constructed of packing pallet slats. It also happens to be the No. 4 highest-ranked restaurant on Yelp.

In.

The.

Country.

How does this happen? Rhapsodic over-the-moon five-star reviews get avid Yelpers curious enough to hop in the car. When those folks' expectations are met or exceeded, you get more five-star reviews. And so on. AJ's Press' Yelp listing has 201 photos, many of them blurrily enthusiastic closeups of pressed Cubans and beer-braised brisket sandwiches, and 207 reviews. Nearly all of them five stars.

I toyed with writing this review in the style of Yelp's most annoying reviewers. There's the utterly unhelpful and vague language: "The jalapeno bacon hush puppies are on point." The unreasonable expectations: "Were there chopsticks with which to eat my Cuban? No, there were not." The over-sharer: "On the crunchy chicken I asked for no Jack cheese, because you don't want to know what happens when I eat cheese." The fancy-pantser: "The unctuous pork redolent of mojo was authentic, as I know from my many years of travel in Cuba." And then the rage-filled posters who take umbrage at everything: "Owners Greg and Jill Lynn are just too friendly. It's creepy with all the smiling."

RELATED: Food critic Laura Reiley's 'Farm to Fable' series is finalist for Pulitzer Prize

But that wouldn't be fair to Greg and Jill Lynn. AJ's opened in November 2015, although the owners are not restaurant rookies. Greg was with Outback for years, helping to launch concepts like Fleming's and Cheeseburger in Paradise. A few years back he bought the California Tacos group (the original on Bearss Avenue, another in South Tampa and a third in St. Petersburg), but sold those and looked around for what to do next. Jill found a listing for a Detroit-style hotdog stand on Craigslist, a humble spot in a weird location, but they thought it might work.

Here's why. People in certain professions — mechanics, electricians, car dealers — tend to go out to lunch every day. They tend to like sandwiches. They tend to like hot, pressed sandwiches. Bingo. AJ's is near where a lot of lunch-eaters work, car dealerships and business parks, and they deliver.

Still, that's not enough to make a restaurant successful. Despite what the angry Yelper might say, AJ's charm stems in part from a surfeit of friendliness, from Heidi Stecki at the counter to Chris Nelson in the kitchen. And the other part is the quality of the sandwiches.

The bread is interesting: Greg fell in love with Mexican tortas during his time with California Tacos, but didn't think enough people knew what tortas were to build a whole restaurant concept around them. Made by a small bakery in Clearwater, there are little bolillo rolls and somewhat larger telera, both reading like squatty little French baguettes with a crisp crust and moist crumb. These are split open, filled, brushed with butter and pressed vigorously.

The best options are the Cuban ($7.49 regular, $8.99 large), AJ's version with smokehouse-style ham, smoldery Spanish chorizo, roasted pork, Jack cheese, mustard, mayo and pickle; and the crunchy fried chicken sandwich, which comes with a zingy chili sauce, tomato, arugula and melty Jack ($7.49, $8.99). (And no, I don't have any weird cheese issue.) Vegetarians have good options, the best of which is a sauteed mushroom jumble of shiitakes, portobellos and buttons paired up with smoky-hot poblano strips, chipotle, a drizzle of garlicky mojo, goat cheese, Jack and arugula ($7.49, $8.99).

Sandwiches come with house-fried lattice chips, quite solid. I meandered through much of the rest of the menu, from the German potato salad (no mayo, not as tangy or bacony as Ted Peters in St. Petersburg; $1.99) to the workhorse no-bean, ground beef chili with its cap of gooey cheddar strings and flurry of onion ($3 cup, $4 bowl). Another big section of the menu is devoted to "bowls," the AJ's version with a bed of flavorful black beans and a topping of arugula and fried tortilla strips — what you choose for the middle ranges from excellent beer-braised brisket shreds ($8.99) to equally flavorful mojo pork, the pork accessorized with Jack, dill pickle and a swirl of smoky mojo oil ($6.99). Essentially, these bowls mirror the sandwich lineup, sans bread.

The short menu features one item, boxed and bolded, mentioned three times. It's the jalapeno bacon hush puppies, four for $3.29 and six for $3.99, something of a house invention and served with a slightly spicy remoulade-style sauce. The orbs are golden and crisp, fluffy interiored, with just enough jalapeno kick and bacon smokiness, their cornmeal sweetness the real emphasis. For a restaurant that is largely breakfast and lunch takeout, these are the things you might snarf first once you get back in the car. They are, as a Yelper might say, on point.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

   
Comments
No Thanksgiving plan? Head to one of these Tampa Bay restaurants for traditional feasts and more

No Thanksgiving plan? Head to one of these Tampa Bay restaurants for traditional feasts and more

You realize Thanksgiving is just a week away, right? No pressure. If you don’t have a holiday game plan for Nov. 23, let’s do this thing. There are still a bunch of options, many traditional Thanksgiving repasts and some a little less conventional. C...
Published: 11/16/17
A St. Petersburg artist created the labels for this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wine release

A St. Petersburg artist created the labels for this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wine release

Every year, there are bad things we can count on: taxes and death. And good things: Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November and on the Thursday before, the Beaujolais nouveau arrives. What is less predictable is just how this vin de l’ann...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Oak & Stone with self-serve beer coming to St. Pete, South Tampa’s Byblos to reopen

Oak & Stone with self-serve beer coming to St. Pete, South Tampa’s Byblos to reopen

COMING SOON: OAK & STONEBeen to Oak & Stone in Sarasota? In early 2018 we’ll get one in St. Petersburg at 199 Central Ave., next to the newly constructed Hyatt Place. The concept is wood-fired pizzas mated with a self-serve beer wall highlighting cr...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17
Restaurant review: NuMex needs to tell its story better to stand out among St. Petersburg’s taco scene

Restaurant review: NuMex needs to tell its story better to stand out among St. Petersburg’s taco scene

ST. PETERSBURGI seldom have been so perplexed about a new restaurant. The prospect of NuMex’s opening in the Grand Central District swirled more than a year ago and I watched the hip little building come together. The spelling of the name itself was ...
Published: 11/13/17
Proper in downtown St. Pete to close as Park & Rec takes over its space

Proper in downtown St. Pete to close as Park & Rec takes over its space

ST. PETERSBURG — Next week, something almost unprecedented is happening in St. Petersburg’s restaurant scene.Park & Rec, the game-oriented concept from Stephen Schrutt’s Hunger + Thirst Restaurant Group, will expand Nov. 17 into a second building. It...
Published: 11/10/17
Don’t want to cook on Thanksgiving? Where to pick up every part of the meal in Tampa Bay

Don’t want to cook on Thanksgiving? Where to pick up every part of the meal in Tampa Bay

Some years you’re feeling it. The peeling of the pearl onions, the procuring of the chestnuts, that one creepy moment when you’re nearly elbow-deep trying to locate the bag of giblets. Thanksgiving is the most important cooking holiday of the year, t...
Published: 11/08/17
Made Coffee’s cold brew creation is brewed and canned right here in Tampa Bay

Made Coffee’s cold brew creation is brewed and canned right here in Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURGLet’s start with the actual can itself, a turquoise-tan-orange vessel emblazoned with text and illustrations: "Ingredients: coffee, water, time"; an image of a simple coffee brewing process under "How we made it." The colors pop, the fo...
Published: 11/07/17
Updated: 11/10/17
New Indian restaurant Rasoi now open in Ybor City

New Indian restaurant Rasoi now open in Ybor City

Rasoi Indian Cuisine, launched its grand opening Saturday (Nov. 4) as the only Indian restaurant in Ybor City. Located at 1701 E Eighth Ave., the traditional restaurant cooks authentic Indian food with the finest spices and ingredients imported from...
Published: 11/07/17
Naples is a dining destination worth visiting, rich with newcomers and long-standing favorites

Naples is a dining destination worth visiting, rich with newcomers and long-standing favorites

NAPLES Naples Restaurant Week is a semiannual promotion celebrating the region’s best dining at an affordable price, with lunch and dinner prix fixe meals available for either $25 or $35, depending on the location. This year it’s slated ...
Published: 11/06/17
Calling food fans: This weekend has food festivals in Dunedin, Indian Rocks Beach and more

Calling food fans: This weekend has food festivals in Dunedin, Indian Rocks Beach and more

Let’s hope you’ve been in an abstemious mode, maybe even fasting this past week, because things are about to get real for Tampa Bay foodies. TAMPA GREEK FESTIVAL One of the biggest events this weekend is the Tampa Greek Festival at St....
Published: 11/03/17
Updated: 11/10/17