It's a homecoming of sorts for Estanislao "Lao" Roman. He and his family lived in Clearwater 25 years ago but have spent the last 18 years running the Santa Fe Mexican Grill in Greenwood, S.C. In January, he left his son David and daughter-in-law Sandra in charge of things up north while he opened a second location of Santa Fe Mexican Grill in Largo at the site of the defunct Lulu's Pizza Buffet. And in a few weeks, barring any unforeseen permitting issues, he will open a third location in Pinellas Park.
Why is the Roman empire growing? It's the kind of Mexican menu — vast, inexpensive and loaded with big margaritas and baskets of free chips — we seem to crave. Twenty-five different lunch combos can make for wavering and indecision, but with a price tag that hovers around $5.50 you're unlikely to have any buyer's remorse. Having been in Santa Fe, N.M., earlier this year, I'm a little confused by the restaurant's name. This seems like straight-up Tex-Mex, with soft scoops of refried beans topped with mantles of molten cheese so you're fending off chin stalactites, not in a bad way. It's about little pitchers of mild salsa so you can fill up your own small plastic bowl into which you dip a half-trillion warm chips from a paper-lined basket.
In a couple of visits, two things impressed me. The food is extremely consistent, and there are servers who can stack dishes five and six deep along their arms. It's a subtle circus act to watch platters of saucy enchiladas, sizzling fajitas and monster burritos deftly dis-armed and placed before you.
This is not a place for appetizers (guac is small and nothing special, chicken wings seem beside the point), largely because entrees are so generously portioned that starters could throw off any satiety calibrations. You're in for a big feed. And despite the fact that the very long menu has a full page devoted to house specialties like the classic footed molcajete volcanic-rock bowl filled with a smorgasbord of meats, the thumping heart of Santa Fe seems to be the combination platters, all $8.
With simple tile floors, yellow walls and matching yellow ceramic plates, it's casual and family friendly (and for those wishing to embarrass a birthday boy or girl, servers make a suitable ruckus). There are happy hour specials daily 4 to 7 p.m. ($1 off margaritas, $2 domestic bottled beer, $6 domestic pitchers and $6.50 imported pitchers) and employees are generally friendly and efficient.
On my first visit, I went fancy and ordered the chicken mole Mexicano ($10), too heavy and without the deftness and nuance of a memorable mole. I spent the meal pecking off of others' plates (they were all at my own table, don't worry), bites of enchilada and chile relleno combo ($8), a bite of crunchy beef taco swiped through chile con queso ($8) and a few incursions on a chalupa/taco/tostada combo ($8) — nothing that will shift the earth on its axis, but all very solid and appealing, with good balance of flavors and textures.
With a full bar and a range of specialty cocktails, the best option seemed the skinny margarita ($8), not because it represented fewer calories but because the building blocks were more real: tequila, agave nectar and fresh lime as opposed to luridly green or blue margarita mix. And with decades in Mexican kitchens in Atlanta before going into business for himself, Lao Roman knows his way around a flan or fried cinnamon honey sopapillas (both $3). Largo, and soon Pinellas Park, are the beneficiaries of this longtime restaurateur's coming home.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.