Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Dining

Restaurant review: Vuelo Mexican Grill brings fresh Mexican fare to New Tampa, but is it worth the cost?

TAMPA

With just a few weeks left in 2016, thoughts naturally turn to making sense of the year we've just enjoyed or endured, depending on perspective. One thing that is clear looking at my list of restaurant reviews: It was a year of celebrating the taco.

Attribute this to the rise of "hand-helds," millennials' affection for customizable grab-and-gos, or even a mounting batten-the-hatches frugality, but Taco Tuesdays proliferated. American casual restaurants appended short, loosely Mexican taco lineups. And new Mexican restaurants opened at a brisk clip.

Last year's debut of Besito Mexican in Westshore Plaza and Bartaco in Hyde Park Village set the stage for upscale, slightly glamorous cocktail-centric Mexican (still, lots of tacos). That continued this year with Miguelito's and O Cocina & Flights, both in Tampa, and several weeks ago Vuelo Mexican Grill in New Tampa.

In a way, this newcomer is a rebranding. Owner Tom Reynolds had Señor T's at the same sprawling site that once housed Romano's Macaroni Grill. Mr. T had a short life, opening in November 2015 and closing in August, its shortcomings including a somewhat humdrum Mexican menu and (the bane of New Tampa) an infuriatingly limited curb cut to get into the parking lot.

That is still a problem with Vuelo (drive into the Home Depot and find a funny little road off to the left, which dumps you into the restaurant's parking lot), but the menu has been entirely overhauled by a hired gun named Mark Estee. A James Beard semifinalist and restaurateur in Reno, Nev., and Truckee, Calif., he's familiar from stints on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Guy's Grocery Games (he won). A consultant on this project, he has fashioned a menu that hits some traditional notes (enchiladas and taquitos) but focuses on fresh, contemporary ingredients.

New Tampa is tricky. Residents are comfortable with the familiar — within a mile of Vuelo you'll find a Ruby Tuesday, TGI Fridays, Chili's, Olive Garden and Red Lobster. So an independent has to distinguish itself and fill a recognizable niche.

Vuelo does this. The building has been substantially overhauled, with an extended bar area and more open dining room. Tiled drop ceilings create intimacy and discrete dining areas (and they probably cut down on noise). There's a lovely fireplace and a new salsa bar against one wall.

The freshly fried chips and blended salsa are top-notch, as are an array of sophisticated margaritas and other cocktails. What may be a harder sell in the current climate are the prices: Asada platters top out at $28, the house burger is a hefty $15 and trios of double-tortilla street tacos are $12. Onsite chef Travis Donmoyer, most recently of Bonefish, has a light touch and an eye for punchy flavors and presentations.

Wood-oven blistered shishito peppers get a flurry of salt, a squeeze of lime and a dipper of chipotle ranchero sauce ($8), every tenth pepper a sinus-clearer. A cast-iron skillet of roasted cauliflower is elevated by a green chili salsa, but didn't gain much from strewn tortilla chip shards and Cotija cheese ($10). Pare those away, maybe give the salsa a little more oomph, and it's a knockout dish.

The proteins that appear in the tacos, bowls, burritos and enchiladas (carnitas, achiote chicken, barbacoa beef) are solidly executed and nicely seasoned, in each case pulled into juicy threads. The tortillas don't compare to some of the way-down-market options in the town of Wimauma, say, where tacos top out at a buck or two. Then add a miss like the Vuelo caesar ($10), whole lengths of romaine translucent and floppy from what likely is a too-cold walk-in, underdressed and again deluged with chip shards and queso fresco, and value begins to be a big question mark.

At this point Vuelo has that new-restaurant service strategy — there's lots of hustle and lots of check-backs, but they may load you up with your appetizers and entrees at the same time or bring a dessert before dishes have been cleared away. That will shake out because the management is clearly motivated. And I think New Tampa is ripe for a more ambitious independent Mexican hotspot, one that focuses on lighter preparations and that makes all its own sauces in-house. But what may determine whether Vuelo takes flight (that's what the Spanish word means) is whether the price point feels right as diners look out to what the future holds in 2017.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
   
Comments
Wine dinners, beer projects and more will wet your whistle this summer

Wine dinners, beer projects and more will wet your whistle this summer

FILIPINO FOOD: WELCOME CHISMISHave you been to the Heights Public Market at the 73,000-square-foot Armature Works yet? It’s the buzzy food market in Tampa Heights with more than a dozen vendors offering up everything from rolled ice cream to Cuban sa...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

ST. PETERSBURGThere are a lot of decommissioned gas stations across the country. Some have been reinvented, cleverly made over as upscale restaurants. There’s Big Star in Chicago, Elaia & Olio in St. Louis, Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, Va., even Bi...
Published: 06/18/18
From soft serve to ice pops, 12 places to get frozen treats

From soft serve to ice pops, 12 places to get frozen treats

I know we have three more months or so of hot-as-dog-breath Tampa Bay summer, but let’s start things off on the right foot with some frozen treats. Ice cream is on my mind after a recent visit to Disney Springs, when I found love in a perfect scoop o...
Published: 06/13/18
Five restaurants worth checking out at Disney Springs in Orlando (w/video)

Five restaurants worth checking out at Disney Springs in Orlando (w/video)

LAKE BUENA VISTA Disney Springs has swiftly become a playground or trial balloon for the country?s celebrity chefs. Art Smith, Masaharu Morimoto, Rick Bayless, Guy Fieri, Tony Mantuano, Wolfgang Puck and others are already on board, with names like ...
Published: 06/13/18
A hook-to-table food experience in Tampa Bay

A hook-to-table food experience in Tampa Bay

Going fishing is like doing your taxes. If it’s something you dive into just once a year you end up relearning the whole thing every time. Jake Whitfield eyed me, no judgment, and decided to cast for me the first time, my little wriggling greenback z...
Published: 06/11/18
Ceviche closing in South Tampa

Ceviche closing in South Tampa

TAMPA – The Ceviche restaurant at 2500 W Azeele St. is closing.Caledon Concepts, which operates Ceviche restaurants in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg, said the restaurant’s last day at that location will be June 16."The expiration of the lease for...
Published: 06/08/18
Deal alert: Hard Rock Cafe has 71 cent burgers for its birthday

Deal alert: Hard Rock Cafe has 71 cent burgers for its birthday

SAVE THE DATE: HARD ROCK B-DAYOn June 14, 1971, the founders opened their own American-style diner in an old Rolls-Royce dealership and called it Hard Rock Cafe. They had a vision to combine music, memorabilia and all-American fare. Here’s a tip: To ...
Published: 06/06/18
Restaurant review: El Chapo Taco fills a need with fun, friendly Mexican spot in Gulfport

Restaurant review: El Chapo Taco fills a need with fun, friendly Mexican spot in Gulfport

GULFPORTWhat do we know about El Chapo, a.k.a. Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán? He ran the Sinaloa Cartel, even from prison, and first appeared on Forbes’ billionaires list in 2009. He’s 5 feet 6. He’s the father of 12 or 13 children. He has a talen...
Published: 06/04/18
Updated: 06/07/18
National Doughnut Day is back. Where to get free doughnuts, doughnut beers and more

National Doughnut Day is back. Where to get free doughnuts, doughnut beers and more

Believe it or not, Friday is already June 1, which means National Doughnut Day is back with sweet deals.The day was created to celebrate the Salvation Army’s "Doughnut Lassies," who served the treats to American soldiers on the front lines during Wor...
Updated one month ago
A look at how Tampa steakhouse Ocean Prime keeps its menu fresh

A look at how Tampa steakhouse Ocean Prime keeps its menu fresh

TAMPAThe executive chefs all fly into Columbus, Ohio. Before they step into the kitchen, before they sharpen a knife, they sit down and have a meeting, an open dialogue. They examine the whole menu: What’s working? What needs fixing? And then they ge...
Updated one month ago