In the bar area is a row of saddles — tooled leather fenders, fleece-lined cantles, fringy horse tails behind and tall pommels in front — that serves as a metaphor. Although cool-looking, they go largely unused as bar stools because they are too far from the bar for easy beverage consumption. So close, but yet so far, which about sums up Pericos Restaurant, a new entry in the Gateway area of Fourth Street N.
Owner Enrique Rebolledo has had a sprawling, popular Mexican restaurant for more than 37 years in Cancun, Mexico, with a second expansive party spot in Cabo San Lucas for several years. He decided to come stateside when tourism in Cancun took a nosedive, settling on the long-vacant space that never quite opened as Hip Hop Soda Shop.
Rebolledo hauled an enormous amount of Day of the Dead-obilia from Mexico, decorating the place lavishly with skeletons playing piano and lounging in hammocks, lamps sporting hefty sombreros, horse-drawn carriages and loads of hammered metal suns and such.
It was poised to open nearly a year ago. But then it didn't open. And didn't open some more. Then it opened but would often, infuriatingly, be closed during posted business hours.
It seems to have settled into a more regular schedule, but it will have to button down a number of other details before it stands a fighting chance in this densely competitive market.
The price point is much higher than some of St. Pete's recent Mexican entries (Casita Taqueria, California Tacos, El Gallo Grande). Its prices are more in line with the Red Mesa flagship or Agave on St. Pete Beach, but without the nuance of the former or the consistency of the latter.
Servers, some strung with bandolier sashes of bullets (sort of beauty queen-meets-guerilla), are friendly and bustling, but have very little sense for timing (appetizers and entrees come together; empty plates aren't cleared before dessert is brought) and haven't been given a lot of tools for menu explication or wine fundamentals (seriously, even basic varietals were mysterious). Training seems imperative.
But then there are good things: skilled mariachi guys stroll and sing, the house chips and red salsa (lively, bracing acidity, not a lot of heat; although the accompanying verde version is just bland) require a second basket; and the fresh guacamole ($7), served chunky in an attractive cylinder, is up there with some of the better local versions. Oh, and the premium house margaritas ($11) possess a perfect limey tart-caramelly tequila balance.
On a couple of visits I tried a scattershot approach with the menu. Enchiladas ($14) brought four small corn tortillas rolled around shredded beef (decent), chicken (bland) or cheese (meh), which could be topped with either a rojo or verde sauce or the more interesting mole poblano with sesame seeds, all of it accompanied with pasty and overly thick refried black beans and a dome of workhorse yellow rice. Those same uninspired sides come with the roasted poblano chile rellenos ($13) stuffed with cheese, deep-fried and puffy and with a homey flavor.
A combination appetizer plate — three tostadas, wedges of a basic cheese quesadilla, three deep-fried taquitos with a dry chicken filling, and three tacos — made for pleasant grazing, but without enough pizzazz to elicit much conversation. And therein lies the central problem at Pericos. The decor is far more interesting than the food — nothing was actively bad, but it was the kind of tourist-friendly fare you would expect in a restaurant on Punta Nizuc in Cancun just down the way from Senor Frogs. Flurries of iceberg lettuce, slathers of sour cream, ho-hum seasoned ground beef: This isn't bringing anything new to the table. And in a restaurant environment that's exploding (see the Taste cover story) that's a risky move.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.