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.