Chris Fragale has a lot of energy. Growing up in restaurants, at one point he owned five Ballyhoo Grills. He ditched all but one in Gainesville and concentrated on his Palm Harbor project, Ozona Blue, as well as City Fish in Oldsmar, only to reopen the original Ballyhoo Grill location last year. And then he kept going. • At the end of July he launched Burrito Bus Stop and Cantina in what was once Vallarta's Mexican Restaurant. There's a red school bus at the front from which you can order (shades of Taco Bus?), but for sit-down service you order the traditional way at the table. And thus far, therein lie some problems.
Over the years I've reviewed Fragale's restaurants mostly favorably, with my greatest enthusiasm for the professionalism of the Ballyhoo Grill staff. Burrito Bus has a long way to go before it's firing on as many cylinders. So far there are service lags and stutters, with servers going missing when you most need that fork.
Depending on your proclivities, service bobbles may fade in importance when you get a gander at the menu: The whole back side is devoted to margaritas, scores of them all made with Margaritaville tequila and ringing in at a clean $5 for 22 ounces, $7 for 32. There are skinny ones, bright blue ones, edgy ones (one with cilantro, another with avocado and agave nectar), kooky ones (sake and cherry syrup, anyone?) and sensible traditional ones that don't deviate from tequila, Grand Marnier, lime, salt, rocks. And if tequila isn't your poison, a long list of mojitos (all $5.50), beers and sangria round out the offerings.
Now flip the menu over and start reading about the food. Huh. Big props for all the vegetarian options, with fillings like seasoned tempeh, tofu and eggplant, or (the best of them) grilled butternut squash tinged with red peppers, poblanos, onion and tomato. But then there are oddities like this: a gator taco (alliteratively but confusingly called the croco taco, $5.99) and the hot dog taco ($4.89), an unholy matrimony of beef dog, pulled pork, refried beans, queso fresco and pepper strips on housemade flour tortillas. It's not bad, actually, a mash-up thought to have been invented on New York's Lower East Side a few years back.
Scoop up chunky, limey housemade guac ($3.89 small) with warm fried chips while you decide on your strategy: pick taco ($2.99), burrito ($6.99), burrito supremo ($6.99), torta ($6.79), tostada ($3.49) or platter ($7.99); then choose your filling and toppings. Of the dozen fillings, the most successful are the butternut squash, the deeply savory shredded Venezuelan beef mechada and the slow-roasted pork carnitas.
In order to compete effectively with Pinellas County's top Mexican restaurants, the kitchen is going to have to focus in a bit: On many dishes the cabbage is so wet, and shredded so finely, that it reads like cole slaw — not a welcome accompaniment to a taco or a trio of seriously hot jalapeno poppers. And house chile rellenos ($7.99) didn't taste like poblano or hatch peppers, their cheese filling more like a liquid cheese dip, and their coating a straight-up bread crumb as opposed to an egg batter.
Still, the price point is competitive and the portion sizes are generous at Burrito Bus (especially those 32-ounce margaritas, phew). And while the chocolate peanut butter taco ($3.89) brought a somewhat mystifying pliable chocolate cookie enfolding cold peanut butter fudge, the housemade churros ($1.89) make a successful ending — sweet, crunchy warm, with a little ramekin of chocolate sauce — at Fragale's latest Tampa Bay venture.
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.