Georg Hegel broke my brain in college. It was at least a serious philosophical sprain, but I did take away the idea of the zeitgeist, which comes in handy as a food critic. There's always a dominant set of ideals and beliefs in a particular moment of time, one that plays out, if you're observant, in how new restaurants look, what they serve, what the servers are wearing or the verbiage on the menu.
The zeitgeist right now has something to do with Edison bulbs and succulents, industrial-chic poured concrete floors and serious cocktail programs. But here's something kind of interesting: It also has to do with upscale forums for slightly fancified Mexican food. Besito opened in Tampa in April 2015, Bartaco in July, Miguelito's more recently on Kennedy Boulevard and O Cocina & Flights more recently still. (More proof: On a vacation in Sante Fe, N.M., last month our biggest mind-blow meal was at Sazón, an upscale regional Mex spot.)
I'm sure owner Bear Galavis wasn't angling to be smack-dab in the middle of a trend when he got things rolling in 2014. Formerly the owner of Firehouse Subs franchises in the Atlanta area, the Tampa native wanted to come home and start something new. He did commercial real estate development (the first 25 PDQs, some Crabby Bill's sub-concepts, etc.), so his own restaurant was a logical next step, eventually zeroing in on the space that briefly housed Anaar, the area's only Afghan restaurant, and DeLosa's New York Pizza before that.
The overhaul was a complete gut, architect Stephen Smith at Cooper Johnson Smith in Tampa utterly reimagining the building and Rob Bowen Design Group in St. Petersburg doing a bang-up job on interior design. (When my ship comes in I'm totally copying the cascading wall of succulents behind the bar.)
The biggest coup came when Pero Arreaza, one of Locale Market's original phalanx of chefs, signed on as executive chef. He was the charming guy frequently behind the pasta counter, with a big-league resume: Marc Vetri's Osteria in Philadelphia, Michael Symon's Roast in Detroit. This is the first executive chef role for the Venezuelan-born chef, but what comes out of the kitchen is assured and consistent already.
The biggest stumbling block for O Cocina is service: On a couple of visits a bevy of black-clad hostesses were neither warm nor helpful in the dining room. Spending all their time talking to each other, they seemed almost supernaturally able to ignore waving, neck-craning diners in need of a fork or more water. Several gentlemen in blazers also bustled back and forth without ever seeming to touch down at tables or register needs in the dining room. Easy stuff to fix, but management needs to see it as something crucial to success.
Tequila- and mezcal-centric drinks are smart and innovative (including, as the restaurant name implies, an array of flights of each). We're seeing more bar menus that explore mezcal (Red Mesa Cantina in St. Petersburg, and others), and it's worth taking the plunge. Like tequila, it's made from agave, but the pinas for mezcal are cooked in an underground, volcanic-rock-lined pit, a process that imparts really interesting smokiness. It makes a great foil, actually, to O Cocina's excellent tableside guacamole ($9.50). The guy rigorously teaching avocados a lesson with two wooden spoons eventually produces a little tasting spoon for himself, adjusting the salt, lime, chiles, etc., until it's just right. The guac and chips, in turn, are nicely counterbalanced with one of the three house ceviches, whether the slightly sweet, coconut ahi tuna version ($13) or the more traditional gulf snapper one ($11) with just a little heat and limey punch.
I wouldn't fill up on apps. I can't remember the last restaurant I went to where the entrees outstripped the appetizers in terms of razzle-dazzle, but O Cocina is one of them.
The range of tacos (two for $12, three for $18 — not cheap when compared with someplace like Acapulco in Tampa, but you're paying for ambience and presentation) is quite good and exactingly plated, with pinto beans and a scoop of red rice that aren't in any way perfunctory. I worked my way through the Yucatán-style barbecued pork called cochinita pibil, the flavorful strings of slow-cooked meat accented by kicky pickled red onion; braised beef short rib with little fluffs of queso cotija and a lively pico de gallo; a solid carne asada with a come-hither smoky chipotle tinge; and a just slightly less fascinating chicken al pastor. The tortillas are fresh, pliable and tasty, the fillings generally balanced and exciting without dipping into smoldering territory. Of the platos fuertes, the chicken mole ($20) was nuanced and rich, its sauce not the cloying Bosco-goes-South-of-the-Border one so frequently encountered. The gaucho steak ($35), on the other hand, seemed like a pleasant but unremarkable entree for tablemates who have stomped their foot and said petulantly, "But I don't like Mexican food!"
Even with all the other upscale Mex options these days, O Cocina has seemed to find its people and its groove. It's tapped into Hegel's zeitgeist, for sure, and with just a few adjustments could have South Tampa diners saying, "O, my."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.