TAMPA ― On a chilly Saturday afternoon, a woman in a leopard print sundress adjusted her rose-tinted sunglasses, tilted her head back and smiled, the petals of a bright fuchsia flower peeking out from behind her. Meanwhile, her friend crouched beneath her, carefully craning her iPhone for the perfect shot in front of a large tropical mural.
People really love to take photos of themselves at Luv Child, the new 1970s-themed Latin eatery from the Ciccio Restaurant Group, now open on Tampa’s South Howard Avenue.
And who can blame them: From the groovy mod-meets-Miami vibe to a dining room splashed with bright pink and teal accents, Gasparilla beads dangling from light fixtures and a giant disco ball swaying in the background, every corner of this place welcomes a snapshot. If there was ever a place to spot those #influencersinthewild, this is it.
This should come as no surprise, as the Ciccio Restaurant Group has built a strong following on restaurants outfitted with colorful, flashy designs and pithy quotes. Spots like Fresh Kitchen, Daily Eats and Taco Dirty boast an aesthetic that generally feels custom-made for the millennial set.
But now let’s talk about the food.
True to Ciccio form, the promise of healthy eating looms large, with plant-based taco platters and dishes labeled dairy friendly, plant based, gluten friendly and vegetarian.
Inspired by the favorite foods of longtime Ciccio executive chef and partner Luis Flores, the dishes draw inspiration from a wide swath of pan-Latin territory. Straight from the Tampa Bay Cuban culinary canon, thick-cut golden spears of fried yucca ($7) arrive with a garlicky green mojo and also a creamy, dark purple olive dip.
Appetizers run the gamut, from more traditional starters to whimsical creations, like the Latino nachos ($9), a towering mess of corn chips tucked under melted cheese, caramelized onions, crunchy jalapeno slivers and fried Brussels sprouts — maybe not the most elevated of snacks, but a cure for the late-night munchies, indeed. (Fittingly, the restaurant serves a late-night menu till 1 a.m. on weekends.)
Those delicious crispy-fried Brussels sprouts are also served on their own with a Cuban sriracha dipping sauce ($8) as well as tossed raw and shaved into a kale and Brussels salad ($9), a hefty dish coupled with plenty of Parmesan cheese, plantain croutons and a thick lime Caesar dressing. Tasty, if not the light kale-and-Brussels medley I was expecting.
The menu then wanders into classic Ciccio territory: the protein bowl. Here, they’re called “platos” or combos, but really, the concept is the same. Diners choose from a couple of proteins, which are served with a mix of different starches and sauces, from Peruvian green rice to maduros and a vegan guava aioli. The Basico ($12) is a solid choice, served with aromatic yellow rice, black beans, maduros and a protein. (I like the orange mojo shredded pork.)
A similar, if deconstructed, setup is present in the paratha taco platters, which consist of a make-your-own taco spread. Here I like the grilled steak tips and the plantain and pork ropa vieja, a sweet and tangy spin on the traditional Cuban dish. Now, I love a paratha as much as the next person, but these are too heavy and thick to work as an appropriate envelope for the filling. (Also, each order comes with just two parathas, which felt lacking in comparison to the hearty amount of fillings.) The restaurant serves corn tortillas, too, which are a better vehicle. Accoutrements include a limey avocado spread, a mild red salsa, pickled red onions for crunch and acid, and a refreshing onion-cilantro-jalapeno mix.
A selection of sandwiches includes a great shredded chicken ($9), in which soft, juicy chicken is tossed in an aji verde — a bright green Peruvian sauce punchy with garlic, cilantro and lime. The sandwich is topped with Swiss cheese, a creamy garlic aioli and fat slivers of jalapeno, which impart plenty of spice.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the lively SoHo setting, Luv Child also boasts a strong drink program. (Think less highbrow cocktail, more potent potions poised to turn the night up.)
The house margarita ($10) is one of the better ones I’ve had in recent memory, punchy with citrus that hits just the right balance between sweet and tart — and yeah, they’re really strong. Also great are the palomas ($10), which are fizzy, lightly sweet and heavy with grapefruit and tequila.
I wasn’t crazy about the lone dessert on the menu — a saccharine-sweet vanilla rice pudding with rice kernels that landed somewhere on the crunchy side of al dente, although the crispy fried churros that top the dessert were delicious.
Better to cap the night with another cocktail, and then get to taking some selfies. That’s what you came here for anyway, right?
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
516 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 213-0100; luvchildsoho.com
Hours: Lunch, brunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday
Prices: Shared plates and salads, $7 to $14; sandwiches and platos, $11 to $14
Recommended dishes: Aji verde chicken sandwich, Basico plato, Brussels sprouts