Friday, January 19, 2018
Restaurants

Salt Rock Tavern, Hot Tuna: a cool, neighborly combo platter in Oldsmar

OLDSMAR

In both cases, they are so new, and so popular already, that their websites say "coming soon," as if the virtual world can't quite keep pace with what's going on in brick-and-mortar Oldsmar right now. In a city that has had several waves of new restaurants in recent years, something big is going on. On a Friday night, head along Tampa Road and keep your windows down — you'll hear it before you see it. Rumba was the anchor in the strip mall, but in May two newcomers opened shop to make this one of the area's most happening spots.

It helps that Rumba, one of Baystar Restaurant Group's (Frank Chivas and Tom Pritchard) growing number of restaurants, is a magnetic draw for the karaoke-inclined. It's a fun-loving place with island-inspired seafood and lots of good beers. The same team set its sights on the adjacent property, launching Salt Rock Tavern with even more good beers and a complementary menu of more straight-up American fare. And at just about the same time, Hanh Ho and Dung Luu took over two spaces that used to be a Smoothie King and Submarina sandwich shop, launching Hot Tuna on May 24.

Ho and Luu are new to the restaurant business, but family members have opened similar concepts, Sushi Alive in Tampa and Grille One Nine in New Port Richey. In short, it's a greatest-hits approach to Japanese cooked dishes and sushi, served in a lively, hip environment. Not a bad foil for its next-door neighbor. In fact, on two visits I split my time, eating appetizers at Hot Tuna and entrees at Salt Rock Tavern, and then reversing the order.

At both places servers are getting in the groove, still a little shaky on the menu details but willing to suss out answers to your questions. Salt Rock Tavern has an appealing patio right across from Rumba, so it's almost like ringside seats for karaoke (a boon when it's good; when it's bad, not so much). Hot Tuna is powered by a jazzier soundtrack that suits its slightly more sedate dining room.

At Hot Tuna, you'll find attractively arrayed chicken lettuce cups ($9) and greaseless tempura shrimp and veggies ($9), traditional sirloin-wrapped, teriyaki-glazed asparagus negimaki ($10) and less traditional fresh rolls ($8) with a little bit of strawberry and mango enlivening the shrimp, fake crab, rice noodle assembly.

What I like about the sushi at Hot Tuna is its restraint. Rolls aren't oversauced, oversquiggled and overwrought. Yes, there is a short list of signature rolls, but this isn't a kitchen-sink approach. On our visits we sampled classic rolls with the clean, briny flavor of fresh yellowtail, salmon or roe shining through. And for the sushi-phobe, there are attractively turned out tempura and teriyaki (with a range of steak options) dinners.

Over at Salt Rock Tavern, you'll want to focus on the beer list, a jubilant paean to Tampa Bay's thriving suds scene with Cigar City, Tampa Bay Brewing and most of the other big names represented. A short list of house cocktails precludes any easy choices, with one night's blackberry bourbon lemonade ($7.50) a real charmer with its slight cardamom infusion. For summer months, a short list of shandies and beer cocktails promises serious refreshment.

The menu hits some contemporary notes: a kale salad ($5) is a great idea but too heavy on the sweet peanut butter flavor; and French onion soup dumplings ($5.90), a dish borrowed from Baystar's Marlin Darlin, is like a richly flavored soupless soup.

Still, for my money, I'd head for the less fancy stuff, a brined, smoked rotisserie chicken ($12.50) with buttery garlic mashed potatoes, or a hot, open-faced filet mignon sandwich ($9.90) smothered in peppers and onions and given a luscious drizzle of Maytag blue aioli.

Neither Hot Tuna nor Salt Rock Tavern run out of gas, each offering a laudably extensive array of housemade desserts. At the former, think fried banana split sundae ($8) shared with the table, and at the latter the top pick may be what they call the Mounds jar ($5.90), which packs light and dark mousse into a mason jar with Oreo crumbles, toasted coconut and whipped cream. Either way, it's a sweet ending to what has been a promising beginning in Oldsmar.

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.

     
         
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