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TIMES-TASTED

Weekend's dining guide is a selection of restaurants around Tampa Bay recommended by the Times' Chris Sherman and other staffers who have sampled the food and enjoyed the meals.

Categories vary weekly; each week's listings do not represent complete lists of restaurants in the category. Recommendations are solely editorial decisions and not related to advertising.

Price: Cost of a dinner for two with tax and tip is indicated by the number of dollar signs: $ _Inexpensive (less than $25); $$ _ Moderate ($25 to $50); $$$ _Expensive ($50 and up).

Hours: Because hours and days of operation change frequently, please call the restaurant to confirm them.

Reservations: Most restaurants welcome reservations. If you find you cannot keep a reservation, prompt cancellation is a courtesy both to the restaurant and other customers.

Credit cards: Unless the listing notes "cash only," restaurants accept credit cards.

Smoking: Florida law requires all restaurants that seat more than 50 people to set aside at least 35 percent of their seating areas for non-smokers.

Access for the disabled: Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which took full effect in 1993, requires that private entities that serve the public, including restaurants, be accessible to people with disabilities. Complaints are handled by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Complaints: The Florida Department of Business Regulation, 272-2200, regulates restaurants and investigates health and business complaints.

ASIAN

Mai's Cafe, 1100 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; 894-2427. Beer and wine. Light Vietnamese cooking is perfect for Florida: Crisp vegetables, fresh minty herbs, tropical flavors and touches of France. Refresh yourself with a bowl of bun and noodles on hot sayd, warm up with beefy pho in winter.

Sam Oh Jung, 602 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 871-3233. Beer and wine. You'll find pretty sushi here as well as similarities to China, but Korea's own tastes are distinct pleasures here. Bul gogi beef, stews and hot kim chee pickle give warmth and bite to your dinner; a variety of other condiments spice up any meal. Price: $

Siam Garden, 3125 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N, St. Petersburg; 822-0613. This has become a neighborhood standby for Thai food full of freshness and tang. Staff bottles its own vinegar, stocks a lot of seafood and serves everything with fragrant jasmine rice. Try chicken stir-fried with vegetables and peanuts in chili jam sauce or in bai ka po. Price: $.

Taj, 2734-B E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 971-8483. Beer and wine. A banquet of the best eating from North India with stylish presentation and smart service, too. Chicken and great breads come from the tandoor oven, curries from an infinity of ingredients and an endless spice cabinet. Don't pass up the ice cream. $$

Thai Palace, 2616 U.S. 19 N, Holiday; 938-1200. Beer and wine. Chili peppers, basil, garlic, mint and other exotic flavors of Thai cooking come together here with fire and spice. Try chicken with mint, shrimp in red curry or pad Thai, the national noodle dish. Fragrances are heavenly; super-hot dishes devilish. Price: $.

GREEK

Athenian Gardens, 6940 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg; 345-7040. Beer and wine. A neighborhood staple for Greek appetites, light and heavy. Greek salads come with everything from beets to potato salad, but biggest attraction is the sweet spectrum of phyllo, nuts, honey and cream, from kataifi to pudding. Price: $.

Paul's Shrimp House, 530 W Athens, Tarpon Springs, 937-1239. Full bar. Just a few steps from the dockside tourist zone, it feels much more like a Greek fishing village. Locals see their friends and swap fishing tales in several languages over beer, ouzo and very fresh seafood and Greek dishes. You can't beat the shrimp or smelt. Price: $.

Woody's of Tampa, Famous Salads and Gourmet Sandwiches. 1722 S Dale Mabry Highway; 254-2806. No credit cards. Little is Greek here except the salad, rescued from the old Riverboat Restaurant 25 years ago, but it's a staple on the midday menu of South Tampa society and can be ordered in sizes for two to 100. Shrimp and other salads, well-made sandwiches, quick service and pleasant

MEXICAN

Cactus Club, Olde Hyde Park Village, Snow and Swann avenues, Tampa; 251-4089. Full bar. Fern-bar Mexican is a staple of Hyde Park socializing _ and reliable for nourishment, too. The bar's one of the best around; the dining area's great for snacking or full-fledged fueling. Southwestern pizzas and vegetarian dinners are good light options. Price: $.

Caramba's, 1840 Drew St., Clearwater; 446-7469. Beer and wine. Clearwater's home away from Hidalgo has a full spectrum of sauces, salsas and moles and the authentic peppers that go into them: carne asada tastes of pasilla and adobos have vinegar punch. Great tamales and hot caldos. Price: $.

Casa Tina, 369 Main St., Dunedin; 734-9226. Beer and wine. Seafood and vegetarian entrees are staples, not an afterthought, on this Mexican menu. Tortillas can be filled with squash, spinach or wild mushrooms, and fish may be garnished Veracruzana, with tomatillo mole or maybe papayas.

Price: $.

Ramon's Fresh Mexican Grill, 27 E Bloomingdale, Brandon; 689-7337.

4538 W Village Drive, Carrollwood; 265-3775. 3413 S Manhattan Ave., Tampa; 835-8225. No credit cards. Ramon's adds grilled chicken, steak, lots of vegetables and fresh everything to grab-and-go Mexican eating. Monster burritos, spicy picadillo, cheese enchiladas, daily specials, and bean-corn salsas make good quickie dinners to eat-in or take home. Sparkling clean with no frills (and no plastic). Price: $

Red Mesa, 4912 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; 527-8728. Beer and wine. Kitchen uses Mexican cheeses, chipotle peppers and pine nuts to create traditional items like pozole hominy soup and contemporary Southwestern fusions. Even staples are good; salads and hearty churrasco steaks, cedar-planked salmon and grilled quail are even better. Price: $ to $$.

NEW AMERICAN

The Blue Heron, 3285 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor; 789-5176. Full bar. A fusion of Asian, Italian and Jamaican flavors that are subtle and elegant in an intimate, sophisticated setting with smart service. Food ranges from clever combinations to classic chops and seafood. Price: $$.

Bobby's Bistro & Wine Bar, 447 Mandalay Ave.; Clearwater; 446-9463. Full bar. Younger, hip spinoff of the landmark Heilman's Beachcomber serves contemporary food and a world-class wine list in cozy, user-friendly style. Steaks and chops, seafood, raclette potatoes, plus gourmet pizzas and burgers taste richly of an Americanized brasserie. Price: $$.

Kelly's For Just About Anything, 19 Main St., Dunedin; 736-5284. Beer, wine. "Anything" from Floribbean to Middle Eastern, is served with fun and style in a downtown cafe that makes a weekday meal a party and any holiday an extra treat. Price: $ to $$.

Mise En Place, 442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; 254-5373. Full bar. Market, delicatessen and wine store, 2616 MacDill Ave. S, Tampa; 839-3939. Routinely the region's best modern restaurant with super-slick cocktail lounge, it keeps improving; latest addition is a market for uptown take-home food and wine. Price: $$ to $$$.

Next City Grill, 2902 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; 879-1990. Beer and wine. Cutting edge doesn't get much sharper than this. Hard-to-predict flavor combinations beyond wow, but meals always rich with fresh seafood, great sauces, terrific lavash bread. Price: $$ to $$$.

STEAKS

Bern's Steak House, 1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; 251-2421. Full bar. Owner Bern Laxer's idiosyncratic passion for quality still brings world wines and the wine world's connoisseurs to his legendary steakhouse and cellars. Steak-haters can have fish fresh from the tank, tour the kitchen, sample the caviar list, marvel at the phonebook-size wine list and luxuriate in the dessert room. Price: $$ to $$$.

Keystone Club, 320 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; 822-6600. Full bar. This kind of red meat and gentlemen's-club green is a classic combination as tasteful as Talbot's. Steaks, chops and seafood are simple but rich fare, perfect for dining with polish _ and the brass. Price: $$ to $$$.

Outback Steakhouses, 3403 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, 875-4329; other locations around Tampa Bay. Full bar. Birthplace of the chain that put steak back on the yupscale menu and wowed Wall Street is worth a visit by carnivores and stockholders alike. Steaks, lamb, chicken and shrimp "on the barbie." Price: $ to $$.

Sam Seltzer's Steak House, 4744 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 873-7267 and 18409 U.S. 19, Clearwater; 519-7267). Full bar. Beef, pure beef, tender and flavorful, is the centerpiece of the first Seltzer's outside Canada. Plates and crowds are huge but prices are small: a 20-ounce bone-in slab of prime rib for $10. Price: $ to $$.

Shula's Steak House, Sheraton Grand Hotel, 4860 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; 286-4366. Full bar. Eat (and spend) like a winner here, a big winner. Most beef comes in 1{-pound slabs and lobsters are much bigger. Price: $$$.

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