There comes a point during a Tampa Bay summer — the air is hot breath on the back of the neck, car seats feel like the surface of the sun, thunderstorms scuttle all afternoon plans — where you don't feel smart for living here. We are not yet at that point. In fact, we've got a number of weeks of "ah, summer" left. And this is why you should go to Engine Rose immediately.
Engine No. 9 opened at the corner of Ninth Street and First Avenue N toward the end of 2012, back when that part of St. Petersburg was still a little scuzzy. Immediately it established itself as a go-to place for serious burgers. Serious in the sense of fancy bells and whistles, but also in the sense of sheer size. In addition, as we've seen in the past couple of Stanley Cup-crazy weeks, it quickly became a sports bar with a special zeal for hockey. (Owner Jason Esposito's father and uncle, Tony and Phil, are both in the Hockey Hall of Fame and founders of the Tampa Bay Lightning.)
No. 9 has competed ably in local burger competitions, is a draw for craft beer zealots (65 kinds in bottle and a bunch on tap) and has televisions at every table. In short, it has been a hit, Esposito building on that success with a second project debuted in the burgeoning Grand Central district in December.
Engine Rose is more outdoors than in. Inheriting its space from the short-lived La Creperia Cafe, there is a tiny indoor dining room (mostly what you walk through to get to the restrooms), a shiny silver Airstream that houses the kitchen, a lovely covered bar with a phalanx of flat-screen televisions above it, and then a bunch of umbrella-covered tables on an outdoor deck surrounded by wooden planters bristling with a profusion of native Florida plants.
Take a seat out there and start ordering: Definitely going to want the tater tots ($2.95) and the skillet of fresh corn mixed with roasted red peppers and jalapenos, not too hot and topped with chipotle cream ($5.95), rendered extra obsession-worthy with andouille added in ($2). I also found myself in a race to decimate a basket of fried green beans ($6), their cucumber wasabi dipper perhaps the best part. The Sriracha-amped chicken wings seemed a little pricey at $12.95 — I might suggest instead an order of the fried pickle spears ($8) with jalapeno ranch, but only if you're a diehard pickle enthusiast (they are very, well, pickly).
But really, you're here for the burgers. It's Angus beef, not overworked or super tight and with a nice coarse-ish grind so there's some meaty tooth resistance to the chew. In a couple of visits: medium, medium rare; they nailed it. The Demi-God was my favorite ($12.95), the juxtaposition of Swiss and cheddar with caramelized onion and sauteed mushrooms satisfying, then given extra verve by a swipe of horseradish mayo. These are big burgers for which you choose a side: fries and chips are good, but the cuke/tomato/onion salad is actually a lighter foil for some of the heavy-duty burger options.
Now I'm going to complicate matters. They also serve good hot dogs. They are 9-inch Viennas, nothing you haven't seen before, but toppings are good, especially the one with the hot mustard and warm kimchi blanket ($8.25). And if, by chance, you didn't double up on the deep-fried appetizers, I will direct your attention to the tender, doughy-centered-but-crunchy-edged funnel cake fries ($4), served with dippers of chocolate sauce and berry coulis.
Add craft beer, a game on the television and a warm (but not miserably so) evening, and Engine Rose is in full bloom.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.