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Cha Cha steps out in the right direction

Now may not be the time to tell you this. Depending on your tolerance for tourists _ from their white shoes and red shins up to their sun visors and Tilley Endurables _ or your inclination to snicker at the accents from Fargo (while profiting from their presence), you might file this away:

In a couple of months, when we're left to swelter by ourselves, the view and bay breeze from the top of the St. Petersburg Pier will be just as refreshing and the munchies at Cha Cha Coconuts just as saucy, maybe even more tropical.

Like locals in any tourist destination, the Nibbler often takes our attractions for granted. Those out-of-towners may look funny, but they're not so dumb; there are good reasons they come here.

One of them is The Pier, which has been drawing them for decades although the modern building draws some chuckles for its resemblance to snowbird's mother ship. Take another look _ and another bite _ and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Sure, parking can be enough of a hassle that the $5 valet service is tempting, and the ground floor is a souvenir strip in mall's clothing, but try to rise above all that to the fifth floor. The fresh air alone can wipe the sneer off my face in a midday lunch or at a sunset with more colors than a tropical drink. And the view from skyline to skyline across the bay is a delight that quickly sets my fantasies adrift on a passing shrimpboat, aboard a luxury yacht, or with Brando on the Bounty.

Cha Cha Coconuts has always had the rum to create the right spirits, but a remake of the menu has put more and more interesting solid food on the patio tables up here. The kitchen still needs to liven up to compete with the New World cuisine cooking around Tampa Bay, but the new food is a creative notch above fernbar fare.

It's part of a major makeover in the Cha Cha chain, an unstuffy spinoff of the Columbia that started in 1988 but eventually became a tired theme bar. The most dramatic innovation has occurred in Ybor City next to the historic original restaurant. The new Cha Cha's there has a tropical stage-set complete with imitation rainstorm inside, while massive windows let in the sound of natives and wildlife from decidedly different tribes than those encamped on St. Petersburg's Pier (or lounging on St. Armand's Circle, for that matter).

The recipe for change is the same at all: seasoning the food with more authenticity and kick. Still too much jalapeno and melted cheese abound, but there's also a rainbow of sauces made with fiery peppers, sweet and sour fruits and spices of the island. The first I tasted was a molasses glaze on grilled shrimp, the next a hot sauce with sour tang for french fries, applebutter for sweet potato fries and a kicky mustard for surprisingly perfect conch fritters. Best was a Caribbean rose cream sauce that added needed color and kick to a well-intentioned Garden Burger. Even plantains had a fruit glaze and black bean chili had a special kick of cumin and cinnamon and a fiery afterburn.

Sauces and spices are small things, but a bit of imagination is a good start if matched with a good main ingredient. Grilled tuna was good fish, although too well-cooked for me, and the cooked salsa of black beans, corn and roasted tomatoes tasted fresh, not stewed.

Grouper in a sandwich may have been basted with lime, garlic and black pepper, but the fish was cooked to shreds and served on lifeless kaiser roll that put it far back in local grouper sandwich standings. (If you're a visitor, try again; it does get better than this ... almost anywhere). Likewise boneless chops in the pork boo noo noo, were strongly curried but had the life and juice cooked out of them.

On the side, congris of beans and rice is spiced right, fries are crisp and mango cheesecake moist; but house salads are weak stuff and so are the tomatoes that show up on sandwiches. In fact, there's room for a lot more vegetables.

Stylists have given the place Fiestaware china and bright paper cones for fires, but the kitchen needs to put more color than a few leaves of variegated kale on the plate. Everyday food of the Caribbean may run to humdrum yellows and browns, but the fashion (and wisdom) of the modern American diet calls for some brighter vegetables and fruits. A little fresh cilantro and other herbs, a slice of carambola or a tropical fruit salad would make a prettier picture _ and a more balanced meal.

And while you're at it, how about some juices or licuados? My server offered a virgin strawberry daiquiri, but the bar should have the technology, ingredients and sensitivity to give fresh fruit drinks their rightful place.

My service was friendly and hustling; only real flaw was absence of a host on one visit.

Menu at Ybor has expanded to include guava-basted ribs, "Caribbean pizzas" called tropadillas, and grouper with bananas. But a true cook-up from the islands could have much more, roti instead of tortillas, the Nibbler's beloved ceviche, empanadas and greens.

I'd like more tropical flavor in the taped music, too. Live bands, Buffett and reggae are fine, but lose the disco-y stuff for Latin jazz, steel drum, soca, salsa and meringue.

Still Cha Cha's is learning some new steps _ and I hope its parent decides to freshen up and join the party, too. The tourists may have reminded us of some of the pleasures of living here, but it is up to us to give them _ and ourselves _ a stronger taste of the Caribbean.

WEEKEND NIBBLER

Cha Cha Coconuts

The Pier

800 2nd Ave. NE, St. Petersburg

822-6655

(Other locations in Ybor City, Tampa and on St. Armand's Circle in Sarasota)

Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Firday, Saturday, noon to 10 p.m Sunday.

Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MV and V.

Features: Full bar, non-smoking area

Wheel chair access: Good.

Prices: $4.95 to $8.95.

Special features: Indoor, outdoor seating; live music.

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