Monday, February 19, 2018
Bars & Spirits

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.

[email protected]

Comments
Review: Platt Street Borough is casual Tampa dining with high standards

Review: Platt Street Borough is casual Tampa dining with high standards

TAMPAIt wasn’t that long ago that Platt Street was a bit of a conundrum for restaurateurs: Not exactly downtown, without the dense auto traffic of Kennedy, and far enough off the South Howard main drag that it didn’t entirely qualify as part of SoHo....
Published: 02/19/18
The Reading Room’s Lauren Macellaro and Columbia’s Richard Gonzmart are James Beard semifinalists

The Reading Room’s Lauren Macellaro and Columbia’s Richard Gonzmart are James Beard semifinalists

It’s almost a sick joke. On the morning after Valentine’s Day, the second-busiest restaurant day of the year, chefs all over the country are hauling themselves out of bed early to find out: Did I make it onto this year’s James Beard Foundation list o...
Published: 02/15/18
Put Alaskan king crab leg shells to work in a creamy, dreamy bisque

Put Alaskan king crab leg shells to work in a creamy, dreamy bisque

Nothing says indulgence like noshing on some seriously giant Alaskan king crab legs. They’re not just tasty, they’re a low-fat source of protein: One leg has about 25 grams of protein and a host of vitamins and minerals (including sodium, incidentall...
Published: 02/15/18
Avocado toast gets a persimmon twist

Avocado toast gets a persimmon twist

You’ve likely seen persimmon in the grocery store and then shied away from it, not quite sure what to do with it. The most common variety in the United States is the fuyu persimmon, also called Japanese persimmon, and it looks similar to a slightly f...
Published: 02/15/18
Bar review: Valenty’s Lounge, part of Pasadena Liquors in St. Pete — who knew?

Bar review: Valenty’s Lounge, part of Pasadena Liquors in St. Pete — who knew?

Once, if I’d received a recommendation to check out a lounge attached to a liquor store near the beach, I wouldn’t have been in much of a hurry to check it out. But I’ve learned that there’s frequently magic in these places. ...
Published: 02/15/18
Local craft beer of the week: Process IPA, Calusa Brewing

Local craft beer of the week: Process IPA, Calusa Brewing

Not long ago, it was all about the West Coast IPA. California breweries like Stone, Russian River and Bear Republic built empires on the style, favoring a dry IPA base and mountains of resiny, intensely bitter hops to craft aggressive brews that laug...
Published: 02/15/18
New CoffeeHouse and Eatery comes to South Tampa

New CoffeeHouse and Eatery comes to South Tampa

Daily Dose Coffeehouse & Eatery opened earlier this month and offers South Tampa unique smoked coffee and a number of fresh, homemade breakfast items.Located in Fair Oaks Plaza at 3324 W Gandy Blvd., Daily Dose serves a different chef special everyda...
Published: 02/15/18
Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar has opened at International Plaza

Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar has opened at International Plaza

INTERNATIONAL PLAZA—After a long wait, the highly anticipated Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila bar is finally open for business at International Plaza’s Bay Street on Monday (Feb 12).Originally expected to open last September, owner Rocco Mangel said they g...
Published: 02/15/18
Blind Tiger Coffee Roasters opens in South Tampa, plus learn how to roll sushi at Kelp

Blind Tiger Coffee Roasters opens in South Tampa, plus learn how to roll sushi at Kelp

LOVE STUNT: SUSHI ROLLSIf you dropped the ball Wednesday and did bubkes for your sweetie, here’s a tip: Through Sunday at Kelp in South Tampa, couples can dive into a reservations-only chef-led art of sushi rolling class that comes with bottomless sa...
Published: 02/14/18
Global flavors: Celebrate the Olympics with creative nacho recipes

Global flavors: Celebrate the Olympics with creative nacho recipes

The global experience that is the Olympics has returned, and that gives us a fun opportunity to learn about different countries and parts of the world while watching the triple axels and halfpipes.Food is one way to bring far-off places a little clos...
Published: 02/14/18