Downtown Clearwater, the toughest restaurant territory in the Tampa Bay area. Is it the longtime construction that has made getting there tricky? Or maybe the lack of cultural amenities beyond the Capitol Theatre and the odd gallery or two? Or could it be the huge Scientology complex looming mysteriously at its center? For whatever reason, of the more than a dozen restaurants I've reviewed there in recent years, only a couple have made it past their one-year anniversary. It's a tough business, but that's pretty bad odds.
Take the space at 528 Cleveland St.: It has been Rio Grande, Tequila Blue, Top 40 Bar and Grill, Metro 528 Grille, and Mixx Bar and Grill in the past few years. Whew. And on May 2 it opened again as La Fondita de Leo, the first mainland U.S. project for Puerto Rican restaurateur Leo Caicedo.
Puerto Rican cuisine is something enormously underrepresented in much of this country. In what was known as the "Great Migration" in the 1950s, a huge wave of Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City, and because of this you'll find mofongos and stuffed tostones and rice with pigeon peas all over that city. The Tampa Bay area has almost none. Sure, Puerto Rican food bears a family resemblance to that of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other nearby Caribbean islands, but it has its own charms.
With a couple of caveats, La Fondita is an appealing place with which to familiarize yourself. It is a vast space with pretty pressed-tin ceilings and a long and opulent full bar next to the main dining room. Service is seriously amateurish at this point, although very friendly. Servers can overstay and then disappear — easy stuff to overlook, but with any reasonably novel cuisine it's helpful to have servers who function as ambassadors, explicating dishes. They aren't prepared to do that quite yet.
So consider me your virtual server for the evening. The place to start is with the stuffed tostones: Five warm, crunchy cups of fried mashed plantain get heaped with shredded chicken or savory-tangy churrasco beef ($9.50 chicken, $10.75 beef) for a finger food that hits all the right notes. In a similar vein, long cylinders of corn fritter ($4.75) come with a bracing mustard dipping sauce for a sweet-meets-spicy marriage, and ham croquettes ($5.25) have a tender, creamy, savory center and a crunchy golden casing. There are plenty more fried apps (fried cheese with guava sauce, moz sticks) but your arteries are urging you to move on.
Feeling extra peckish? A mofongo will vanquish even a powerful hunger: Fried green plantains are mashed together in a pilon (wooden mortar and pestle) and enlivened with garlic and bits of bacon, then shaped into a flattened dome (think the mashed potatoes in Close Encounters), at the center of which you'll find shrimp ($15.95), pork ($12.95), shredded chicken ($12.95) or skirt steak, either topped with mushrooms or with cilantro chimichurri sauce (both $15.95). It's a really different presentation, especially because long stalks of fried spaghetti stick out the top like antennae: "Take me to your leader."
At heart, though, this is comfort food, as are many of the other entrees and sides. A side of mamposteao, for example, could be described as Puerto Rican risotto, moist yellow rice studded with stewed pink beans for a dish that would make a sturdy meal on its own. And from stuffed chicken breast — the stuffing in question cream cheese and bacon ($13.95), Swiss cheese and shrimp ($19.95) or sauteed veggies ($14.95) — to cream cheese- and plantain-stuffed skirt steak ($14.95), this menu takes no prisoners, both in terms of portion size and caloric density.
On a couple of visits the only clunkers were a cheesecake-flan hybrid ($3.95) that left me wishing for the cheesiness of the former and the plush custardy-ness of the latter, and the super-sweet house red sangria ($6). Caicedo has a long road ahead of him to draw diners to what often seems perilously close to a ghost town, but the lure of a novel cuisine just might do it.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.