By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
ST. PETE BEACH — In the Tampa Bay area, the South has risen again. Early adopters include the ambitious Wimauma in Tampa, and just last week I reviewed Southern Fresh, a new fried-chicken superstar in Safety Harbor.
There are good reasons Southern food has been the nation's biggest culinary trend in the past year or two. All over the country, and in wildly different dining spaces, restaurants have opened that serve food that is at once comforting and stylishly, idiosyncratically regional. This kind of cooking relies on seasonality for direction and looks to humbler cuts of meat for flavor and depth.
Six weeks ago a new outpost opened locally. Jaxson's debuted in a slightly tired space that has seen a number of tenants in rapid succession: Boulevard Grill for four months, Morgan's for six months. It can be rough taking over a Disaster Cafe location.
But Martha Craven is a pro. She owns Wheelers Cafe, the Last Chapter Coffee House and the Oak Park Inn, all in Arcadia. Before that she had restaurants in North Carolina.
She bought a condo in St. Pete Beach and decided there wasn't much Southern fare on offer, so she and son-in-law Wyvon Taylor and daughter Kelli Craven-Taylor, with the help of kitchen manager Beau Thronebury (he's Wyvon's brother — a family affair) set up shop.
It is modest, with simple tile floors, not much in the way of art or decor, and a ring of booths around the perimeter. Breakfasts thus far have been sparsely attended affairs, but lunch seems to have hit a groove. Burgers ($6.25-$8.25) are straightforward and sturdy — the more exciting options include tasty breaded catfish bites ($6.95, which comes with one choice of side) or a slab of savory meatloaf topped with gravy ($9.95, comes with two sides).
That gravy gets a serious workout, not doing much one night for the house pot roast ($9.95), which brought tough hunks of meat and a huge pile of waterlogged potato and carrot with no seasoning. There's a fine line between homey and amateurish, and this particular dish dipped toward the latter.
Better was the three-piece fried chicken ($10.95). Offered with the gravy, it's better without so that the thin, crisp breading remains crunchy. I chose a breast, thigh and wing, the breast laudably moist and greaseless, paired with a passel of fried okra bites and a scoop of unmemorable mashed potatoes.
The best dish on two visits brought a duet of crab cakes, nicely formed, without a ton of filler and crisp edged, served with a slow-burn remoulade that really showcased the sweet crab.
Now that high season is over at the beach, St. Pete Beach restaurants have to stay in fine fettle to compete for customers. With a small wine list, affordable prices and a friendly staff, Jaxson's has a number of points in its favor. If it stays focused on the details (one night's tasty sweet potato layer cake was marred by freezer-burned ice cream, a shame since the ice creams are homemade in their shop in Arcadia), and perhaps gussies up the interior of its new home, it may be a long-term purveyor of Southern comfort.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.