In the Tampa Bay area we've had a fairly hefty influx of upscale, ambitious Mexican restaurants — O Cocina, Besito, Bartaco, Miguelito's, Red Mesa's growing empire. But it was some months back when I heard Boston celebrity chef Todd Hall was teaming up with City Fish Grill owners Craig and Matt Vario to do an upscale Mexican restaurant in that location that this trend seemed en fuego.
In fact, Mexican cuisine is having a moment. Perhaps some of this is because internationally famous chef Rene Redzepi has just concluded his seven-week performance of Noma Mexico. The whole run, 7,000 spots for diners, sold out in two hours in December and a who's who of the globe's food writers have hightailed it to Tulum in recent weeks to wax rhapsodic and Instagram the heck out of things.
But I don't think it's just that. Cookbook author Diana Kennedy worked tirelessly for decades to help Americans understand that Mexican food is not Tex Mex, globbed with cheese and sour cream. There are dramatic regional differences, a breadth of ingredients, rich indigenous beverages and food traditions. A lot of us weren't ready to hear. Mexican meant inexpensive, it meant free chips and salsa.
Suegra Tequila Cantina, which opened at the beginning of May, was positioned to teach us. It is quite lovely, in many ways resembling Temazcal Tequila Cantina, Hall's brainchild in Massachusetts. City Fish, which was an attractive, sprawling restaurant in its own right, has been reimagined with a generous circular marble bar from the center of which radiate rustic wooden boughs so the whole thing looks like the interior of an historic hut. One room has an entire wall of flickering pillar candles (similar to Besito, actually) and there are loads of tufted leather booths overhung with glamorous candelabra and lots of appealing artwork (great cactus photo).
The bar features one of the area's most extensive tequila lists, blancos, reposados and anejos arrayed alphabetically, with enough major heavy-hitters and small-production obscure labels that everyone will find something. Add to this a very respectable menu of signature cocktails — not all margaritas, not all tequila based, but still all cuisine-appropriate — and the bar program measures up to just about any in the area.
It's with the food where things get a little trickier. Hall was brought in as a consultant to envision and execute the concept. It was always part of his plan to hit the road once the Suegra team was running at full speed. Unfortunately, he and the Vario brothers had a disagreement and their collaboration was cut short at the end of the first week of service.
If you compare the menu at Temazcal Tequila Cantina, it is uncannily similar to Suegra. And if you scrutinize Yelp photos of the food, even the presentations are extremely similar. Nothing wrong with that, but if you're going to charge $24 for carne asada or $28 for red snapper Veracruz, it better be head and shoulders above what you might find at your neighborhood taco joint. And it's not.
The two salsas that come with the bean dip and complimentary tortilla chips are both too sweet and with no heat, the chips themselves too assertively limey. A molcajete of lobster guacamole ($16) is sumptuously studded with lobster meat, but the guac itself lacks oomph and doesn't taste freshly made. The corn niblets under a salad of avocado and beet ($8) tasted off.
There are plenty of good ideas here. I just wonder if whoever is in the kitchen is tasting as they go. And servers aggressively pitch the restaurant as "farm to table" with no effort on their part or the menu's to identify where food is from. If they're saying things are sourced locally, they should say where.
Top dishes included a chorizo-stuffed whole quail ($16), the quail itself nicely cooked and the stuffing stylish, but it comes nuzzling up against a corn masa cake that is swamped with a brown gravy, the cake getting sludgy fast. An appetizer of charred octopus ($11) was a fun one, the chewy (but not overly) lengths of meat laid across a soft corn pudding for a nice textural juxtaposition, with a little Peruvian green chile sauce for a pop of acid.
Problem is, too many other dishes, from the green chicken enchiladas ($15, doomed by too much of the overly sweet tomatillo salsa we encountered at the start) to the battered black grouper tacos ($16), are just ho-hum, flavors muddy or out of balance.
Hall was enthusiastic about the Oldsmar area because he felt it was underserved by upscale concepts. His evidence: a huge number of cars flows by that spot every day, median household income in Westchase is $124,000 per year, and restaurants like Flamestone regularly rock 45-minute wait times. That all might be true, but in order to give Suegra staying power, it's got to provide perceived value at its price point. It's got good looks and a come-hither bar program, but the food, as of now, lags behind.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.