There are spring rolls, bursting with mint and lettuce, served with peanut sauce. Crispy falafel rounds tucked into cushy bao. Nachos topped with hunks of lump crab and mango, and a pile of Korean-inspired bulgogi folded into a quesadilla.
Then, there are the $9 cashews.
The pricey nuts were the first sign of the roller coaster ahead. The cuisine at Caracara can prove somewhat of a head-scratcher. The restaurant, which opened in March on a stretch of Broadway in downtown Dunedin, advertises Asian “tapas + tacos,” which brings to mind fusion cuisine.
Tapas, however, these are not, and the menu feels more aligned with other small and shared plate concepts. These are appetizers, dishes that feel appropriate to share after a couple of drinks (and the proximity to Rosie’s Tavern doesn’t hurt).
The restaurant is the latest project from chef Traci Bryant Ferguson, whose family owns Dunedin Brewery, and Kurt Ferguson. The couple also run nearby Taco Baby, the jewel box-sized taco shop, and Coattails Kitchen, a European street food concept outside Woodwright Brewing Company. For their latest spot, the couple partnered with local restaurateur Shane Bittaker, and the menu is, in part, a nod to the trio’s personal travels to Southeast Asia.
A long bar anchors the attractive, cozy space, outfitted with plush teal banquette seating and light gray walls. Ornamental elephants are placed throughout – a hint at the Thai influence on the menu, and on cooler days, a petite outdoor patio allows for alfresco dining.
There are dishes that stay safely within the Asian-inspired lane, like the delicate sesame oil-laced shiitake and oyster mushroom dumplings ($11), tiny wonton pockets filled with the earthy, aromatic medley of mushrooms and submerged in a fiery mushroom stem consomme made with both fresh and dried Thai chiles. Also solid are the pork ribs ($15), marinated for two days prior to getting slow-roasted and tossed in a sweet and syrupy hoisin glaze which renders them sticky and almost candylike – with fatty edges that crisp and caramelize.
Elsewhere on the menu the Latin persuasion takes over. A fried chicken cemita ($12) features a milanesa-style breaded chicken cutlet that sidles avocado, Bibb lettuce, melted Oaxaca cheese and a smoky chipotle aioli on a brioche bun. It’s a killer sandwich that’s equal parts crispy, creamy and cheesy — and ultimately delicious.
Bryant clearly knows her way around a taco, and among the four listed here ($4 per taco), the Bangkok Boom is piled high with juicy slow-cooked lemongrass and coconut-tinged shredded chicken, a slaw made with pickled mustard greens and a chili crema. Tacos are all served on heirloom corn tortillas sturdy enough to hold up to the fillings, heavy with a toothsome, earthy quality. For those who like jackfruit or adhere to a meatless diet (not this critic), the Java the Hut taco features large chunks of the fruit stewed in a mild Javanese curry and topped with bright pink pickled onions, which help to liven up the ingredients.
The kitchen then ventures into combined territory between both cuisines, to varying degrees of success.
The colorful crab nachos ($16) are a decent snack, and with zero cheese the dish is much lighter than the genre usually implies. Homemade tortilla chips are golden and crispy, topped with morsels of lump crab, avocados, mango, pickled onions and plenty of fresh basil and cilantro. Tying the dish together are drizzles of a chili crema so that each bite is a combination of fruity, fresh and crunchy elements, although it leans a little bit on the sweet side.
That’s also the case with a Korean-style quesadilla ($14), where tender slices of sweet, gingery beef are seared, roasted and folded into a tortilla with Oaxaca cheese, mangoes and a creamy chili sauce.
Not everything is a hit, and some dishes, including a gritty peanut sauce served with lettuce-heavy fresh rolls ($9) and that bowl of roasted cashews, are sorely lacking salt. The Korean-fried chicken wings ($15) packed a good flavor, but the Shake 'n Bake-like exterior drizzled with a spicy gochujang honey glaze felt at odds with one another and had me wishing for more glaze.
The $9 price tag for the cashews is perhaps the most perplexing, especially when most other dishes on the menu are priced fairly modestly. The cashews are advertised with chili flakes and black lava salt, neither of which I could discern — that is, until I reached the bottom of the bowl, where hunks of the deliciously salty chips had landed.
Some of the best deals here are on the wine list, with jaw-dropping prices. Bottles start around $20, and though the list wanders all the way into Duckhorn Cabernet territory ($110), there are several decent selections hovering around the $20 to $35 range.
In keeping with the Southeast Asian theme, there is also imported Chang beer from Thailand, Laotian Beerlao and Saigon from Vietnam, as well as a long list of domestic and local brews. This is Dunedin, after all.
The menu is scattered, but there is creativity here. And while some dishes could use a little fine-tuning, the restaurant also feels like a cozy neighborhood spot, where popping in for a bite with friends over a bottle of wine is a perfect, casual evening.
Maybe skip the cashews, though.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for?
If you go
730 Broadway, Suite 4, Dunedin; (727) 221-5444
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday - Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Prices: Smaller snacks $6 to $9, larger shared plates and entrees $12 to $18
Recommended dishes: mushroom dumplings; pork ribs; fried chicken cemita