St. Petersburg seems suddenly awash in chips and salsa. While we're waiting on Red Mesa Mercado to open in the increasingly restaurant-rich area west of downtown, Casita Taqueria moved into its new location there, vacating its former location on Fourth Street N that will soon be home to Trader Joe's. It joins established restaurants Red Mesa Cantina, Burrito Boarder and Taco Bus, while a few blocks south, El Gallo Grande has just put down roots on Fourth Street S where Basta's once was.
What seems serendipitous, or perhaps just plain smart, is that each of these options fits a slightly different niche. Yes, all are Mexican, but Casita is quick soft tacos and a beer from the cooler at a sun-warmed picnic table. El Gallo Grande is where to get a little doofy with the signature margaritas (remember that designated driver) and peer around the hip room at the stunning Day of the Dead-inspired murals.
• • •
According to co-owner Phil Farley, El Gallo Grande's cuisine is "Authexican," which he says is authentic Mexican, but not really. He and co-owners Javier and Carlina Sarabia hired John and Paul Vitale to do the murals: a huge rooster (thus the name), a sultry María Félix, lots of intricate skull vixens, one with raven hair over the bar and another festooned lavishly with flowers. The rest of the design came together organically, with cool fiesta patio lights that shift colors, chairs saved from the defunct Pepin's and tables made of salvaged doors from the original Dalí Museum.
For now, the menu is short, a single page executed by chef Miguel Espinoza, who recently had his own restaurant called Jalapeno in New Tampa. There's an appealing Mexican Caesar salad ($3.79 small, $6.99 large) topped with grilled corn niblets, crunchy strips of tortilla and fluffs of Cotija cheese, and a generous plate of nachos ($6.99) topped with either black or refried beans (but the gooey cheese is mozzarella — see, Authexican). The free house chips are warm and tasty, their accompanying salsa a fairly smooth puree with a little bit of fruity heat.
On a couple of visits, my favorite dish was the Tampiqueña steak ($11.49), a length of tender marinated skirt steak (advertised as flank) set alongside a tangle of roasted poblanos and a richly flavored housemade corn tortilla, accompanied by a boat of black beans and yellow rice. A bit of this, a dab of that and it was a satisfying, savory meal. My least favorite dish was the carnitas ($10.99), the slow-roasted pork just a little bland and lacking those crunchy edge bits that often make this such a sinfully indulgent dish.
But if I'm being truthful, the most memorable thing at the Big Rooster are the 'ritas. They do not scrimp on the booze and are unafraid of bold flavor. The Desperado ($9.50) with habanero syrup was a kick in the pants (chastened, I asked for extra sour mix), and hibiscus margarita was lively with muddled orange, grated ginger and a pretty pink salt rim ($8.50).
• • •
When Casita Taqueria opened in 2011, it was an obvious labor of love. Newlywed owners Don and Gwen Arvin had never been in the biz before, but missed the good tacos of their travels. They overhauled a little bungalow and hired Rita Arug to make fresh tortillas and California Culinary Academy graduate Andy Hobbs to pull together the rest of the menu.
When it was announced that Trader Joe's would come to St. Petersburg, some folks were conflicted: Yeah, finally, the triple ginger cookies will be ours! But, wait, what about my Casita Taqueria fix? (Several other buildings were razed to make way, including Ringside Cafe, which moved downtown.)
Not to worry. They found a charming space in the lively Grand Central District and set to work transforming it visually. It doesn't have the lovely back patio of the last location, but the front porch, studded with picnic tables, is a fine alternative.
The menu seems identical, with nine kinds of fillings for tacos, which can also form the protein action in a sandwich (torta), rice bowl or salad. I hate to say it, but on a couple of recent visits, the fillings didn't seem like they had quite the vim or panache of the old location, and the fresh, housemade corn tortillas were a bit dry.
This may just reflect the wobbles associated with changing locations, but let's hope the old standards are adhered to.
Order at the counter and grab a seat; your paper bag of chips and plastic ramekins of salsa and guac ($5.99 all together) will find you, along with your plastic tray crowded with taco baskets. Three tacos is a hefty meal, the barbacoa (braised, shredded beef with pico de gallo, queso fresco and cilantro; $2.99), camarones (chili-tinged shrimp with shredded cabbage and a dab of pineapple salsa and crema; $3.50) and pollo verde (chicken with tomatillo salsa; $2.99) making a nice juxtaposition of flavors.
The vibe here is more Southern California-style than most of downtown's other Mexican offerings. But like I said, with all these different styles of Mexican, there seems to be room under the roof for one more little casita.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.