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With Hablo Taco, Channelside sees a tequila sunrise

Hey, I think we're finally past the dumb stereotyping of tequila as a spirit best paired with a regretful night of blacking out and waking up in an alley somewhere. People are finally appreciating tequila as one of the most diverse and delicious spirits out there.

Still, tequila is more of an afterthought at most bars and cocktail lounges, which means that the best tequila experiences are still at places that specialize almost exclusively in Mexico's native spirit. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a sign that tequila hasn't fully made its way into the mainstream.

The newly opened Hablo Taco is a great example of the kind of place where you're liable to find some quality tequilas. It's a big-budget Mexican restaurant and cantina that is especially noteworthy for being a major part of the hopeful revitalization of Tampa's distressed Channelside Bay Plaza. The Hablo Taco folks have tried to hit the ground running.

It's an attractive space, as large as it is colorful, with pastel reds and greens against a white backdrop, contrasting with dark wood furniture and bar tops. There's a wraparound bar outside, facing the Channelside courtyard, a small, café-style patio on the opposite corner, and a spacious, roomy interior that's divided into a dining area near an open kitchen, and a lounge area bordering a U-shaped bar.

Slick, modern Mexican restaurants like this are not uncommon, but Hablo Taco has a fresh look and vibe that sets it apart. The menu keeps its roots in traditional Mexican cuisine, but there's a little extra flair that stands out — stuff like cashew crema on the street corn, and sautéed kale in the Beans & Greens taco.

But the reason I came was to check out the tequila.

It's easy enough to toss a few bottles of Cuervo and Don Julio on the shelf and call it a day; it's another thing to buy every single bottle of tequila that your distributor carries and print up a list of 200 bottles (note: there's nothing wrong with that!). Hablo Taco, however, maintains a modest list of 17 brands of tequila and mezcal which nonetheless span much of the range of what's out there.

The drink menu explains the whats, whys and hows of blanco/plata, reposado and añejo tequilas, as well as their close cousin mezcal. A quick breakdown: The clear stuff is mostly unaged and represents the true essence of tequila. Reposado and añejo are age declarations, with añejo being longer-aged than reposado. These are sippin' tequilas.

Then there's mezcal, which is a common source of confusion — and no, it has nothing to do with the worm. Mezcal is a generic term for any distilled agave spirit, while tequila is mezcal that is made from blue agave in the Tequila region of Mexico. All tequila is mezcal; not all mezcal is tequila. Got it?

If you want to really learn the difference, order a MARS flight, which comes with a shot each of mezcal, añejo, reposado and silver, complete with your choice of a sangrita (spiced tomato-based chaser) or pickle back. At only $25, these flights are an outrageously good value, and you'll have a good grasp for the nuance between mezcal/tequila styles (as well as a solid buzz) once you're done.

Or take a look at the cocktail menu, which has some really solid options. The Strong & Smoky brings añejo tequila front and center in a martini-style drink, while the Diablo uses the smokiness of mezcal to round out a jalepeño-spiced margarita made with freshly-squeezed citrus. And, perhaps as a nod to long-running Channelside favorite Wet Willie's, Hablo Taco serves three frozen drinks, including the Wet Willie's-esque 190 Octane, a liver-punching frozen blend of orange-flavored grain alcohol.

We've all heard the dumb jokes, but tequila is a spirit that you should probably drink more often. The complexity of some añejos rivals that of many single-malts, and the smoky, spicy mezcal is something that needs to be in every discerning drinker's repertoire.

Hablo Taco is a fun and unpretentious place to learn about the various styles, and, based on first impressions, a very decent restaurant, too. Let's see if they can help bring back tequila and Channelside Bay Plaza — I'd be happy with both results.

— jg@saintbeat.com

Hablo Taco

615 Channelside Drive #127, Tampa. (813) 405-8226, hablotaco.com.

The vibe: A colorful Mexican restaurant and cantina specializing in tequila and mezcal.

Food: Appetizers and sides, $2-$10; entrées, $7-$12.

Booze: Beer, $3.95-$5.50; wine, $7-$11; liquor, $5-$15. Happy hour is 7 to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday featuring $3 18-oz. beers and $3 frozen margaritas.

Specialty: If you're already a tequila fan, grab a shot and chaser (your choice of sangrita or pickle back). If not, get a MARS flight. It comes with a shot each of mezcal, añejo tequila, reposado tequila, silver tequila and a chaser. At $25 (these are all premium drinks), it's a no-brainer. Also check out the cocktail list. My favorite is the Diablo, which combines sweet, tart, spicy, smoky and salty flavors together into one comically-oversized chalice. If you like the frozen stuff, maybe test out a frozen take on the Tequila Sunrise, layered with the frozen strawberry margarita, El 190 Octane, and the frozen silver margarita. It's very sweet, but it's also potent.

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon to midnight Saturday-Sunday. Closing hours vary (open late on busy night; closing early on slow nights), so call ahead.

With Hablo Taco, Channelside sees a tequila sunrise 02/25/15 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2015 3:57am]
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