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A SIGN OF Z TIMES

There's a palpable push and pull in downtown St. Petersburg. On the one hand, the economy is stinking it up. On the other, residents and business owners want to see their downtown as a destination, with a density of restaurants and bars that rivals that in bigger cities, where one might, if so inclined, eat a drippy gyro on a crowded sidewalk at 2 a.m. after a night of dancing and carousing.

The upshot of these battling forces is a dizzying state of flux. Restaurants are closing (Banbu, the Table, the Kitchen, De Santo Latin American Bistro, Hammerhead Island Grill) while others are opening (Burrito Boarder, Five Guys, Chappy's and lots more on the horizon). Still others are tinkering with their concepts to keep market share in these difficult times.

Zachary Gross is the poster child for some of this push and pull. At the end of this month he will open his new restaurant, to be called Z Grille, in the new Signature Place condo complex. There, in a stylish dining room, he will serve some of the more ambitious, Mexican-inspired dishes that he has been serving since he opened his first tiny Z Grille location in 2005.

Meanwhile, his original Central Avenue location has been rethought and renamed. Welcome, Zurritos.

The concept is more focused, more casual, with nothing over $10. He has gotten rid of the expensive wines on his list, paring it back to affordable house wines, sangria and a big handful of good beers. Gross aims to launch a late-night walk-up window soon.

The Zurritos menu reads like haiku. It's basic building blocks - shredded pork or beef, grilled shrimp or lengths of grilled chicken breast, battered and fried fish - in the guise of tacos, burritos, enchiladas or just in a bowl with other accoutrements like marinated cabbage, yellow rice and jack cheese.

Simple, filling and affordable seems to be the new imperative, freeing up Gross to concentrate more on his new venture, but also a sign of the times. At lunchtime, downtown workers can zip into the red-and-black painted storefront and sit down with a big pile of salted tortilla chips, a little ramekin of punchy salsa and a soft taco for $3.50. The shredded pork was my favorite, flavorful and moist, the meat complemented by crunchy cabbage and a few dabs of intense cilantro oil.

The enchiladas are new, and my small quibble is that, technically, these seem like wet burritos, not enchiladas. These are a pair of rolled flour tortillas cradling the aforementioned filling options, then ladled with a pale queso sauce and paired with pinto beans and yellow rice. All $9.95, the shredded beef version was easier to eat than the chicken. No matter, both tasty.

The addition of a queso and chips basket ($5.95) and a black bean dip and chips basket ($4.95) says something about the audience Zurritos seeks. These are foods made to accompany a Dos XX or Modelo Especial (both $4.50), best eaten at a sidewalk table with friends on a cooling fall St. Petersburg evening.

lreiley@tampabay.com

Zurritos

269 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 896-3101

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, but later weekend hours will be instituted soon

Prices: $3.50 to $9.95

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