Centro Ybor has been rough stuff when looking for something good to eat over the years. Samurai Blue has always held down the fort, as has Tampa Bay Brewing Co., and certainly Hamburger Mary's gets some points on the board for providing a rollicking good time.
More recently, Carne Chop House has elevated the options, but otherwise things have come and gone, never cementing the complex as a notable dining destination.
I looked away for a moment and things have heated up. Hyppo has an ice pop outpost in the old Joffrey's Coffee & Tea Co. spot (seriously, their pistachio rosewater pop keeps me up at night), a distillery called Fish Hawk Spirits has set up shop, and Asiatic Street Food & Noodle Bar debuted in December in the space that once housed Fresh Mouth.
Matthew Ong, who is also the managing partner of the restaurant's sibling, Thai Thani in Channelside, is focused this time on quick and affordable Thai street food, just about everything $11 and under. Most of it is hold-your-own noodle bowls (and because the transliteration is flexible, they are calling dishes "phat" instead of "pad," which is kind of hip, although the word really sounds more like "putt" when a Thai person says it), with an appealing short lineup of appetizers.
The dining room is attractive, with two seating areas on either side of a central semicircular bar. For the most part servers seem very new to Thai food and squeamish about volunteering any real guidance or definitive knowledge about the menu.
You're on your own, but it's not tricky.
The best place to start is with the house Asiatic wings ($6.50), a passel of crunchy-battered nibbles, very moist, paired with a sweet chili dipping sauce. The house gyoza ($5.95) and pot stickers ($5.95) are nothing you haven't seen before, fairly pedestrian, but roti are a slightly less common offering, an unleavened griddle-cooked chapati served in wedges with a thin but appealing curry sauce ($3.95). For something light and refreshing, a small bowl of tom yum goong ($4.50) brings a tangy-spicy lemongrass broth (no coconut milk) crowded with shrimp, mushrooms and diced tomato.
From there, it's time for serious carbo-loading. There are traditional green and panang curries, offered with your choice of protein, but the less common dishes are worth exploring. Guay tieow loth shrimp ($10.95) pairs pan-tossed wide, flat noodles with ground pork, tofu and shrimp in a soy sauce with a fairly notable five-spice flavor, the whole thing topped with cilantro and bean sprouts. Another one I'd revisit is the knom jhean ($11.50), a deep white bowl of rice noodles in a coconut-y green curry sauce with eggplant, bamboo, chicken and basil — a nice balance of flavors and veggies that seemed fresh.
The menu has a number of Sharpie revisions, dishes inked out, so you do a little sleuthing trying to decode what is no longer on offer. The beverage list is small (decent Thai tea, but it comes with a surprising floof of whipped cream), and there don't seem to be any desserts on offer (fine, you can go to Hyppo and get that ice pop). To me, the biggest head scratcher is the name, the word Asiatic deemed long ago mildly offensive when describing a people, cuisine or culture, although it's still used to describe flora and fauna from Asia. Evidently it's a nod to an open-air mall in Bangkok.
I'm just happy to see Centro Ybor burgeoning with new dinner and date-night options.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.