TAMPA — It’s been a busy couple of weeks at Water Street.
Hot on the heels of big-name openings like Boulon Brasserie, Small Giant and Wine on Water comes Wagamama, the only chain of the bunch and arguably the most casual of the lot.
The pan-Asian restaurant first launched in London in 1992 and has since expanded globally, boasting more than 200 locations. Tampa’s Water Street addition marks the seventh U.S. location for the chain, which appears to be ramping up its efforts stateside. There are Wagamama locations slated to open in Arlington, Virginia, and Dallas later this spring.
The spot’s name translates loosely from Japanese to “naughty child,” and the menu features modern interpretations of a variety of Asian cuisines, from Japanese ramen bowls to Thai noodle dishes.
Wagamama isn’t a fast-casual restaurant in the most common sense of the term — diners don’t order in an assembly-line format at a register, and there’s swift table service from the ample waitstaff clad in the spot’s signature red T-shirts. But Wagamama’s “wok to table” approach is undeniably casual and the food sure does come fast. Plus, this is an international chain — service is extremely polished and there’s not likely to be much (if any) variation in a succession of meals. Consistency is key, after all.
Dishes are identified by red numbers on the menu (107, 91, 11) — a slightly odd system, but one that’s utilized throughout the entire company. Dishes are also listed as vegan or vegetarian, where applicable, and include up to three tiny chili pepper icons to demarcate how spicy a dish is.
I popped by on a breezy Thursday with a co-worker, a couple of days past the restaurant’s grand opening on Feb. 11. It was lunchtime, and the place was packed with diners.
There was a steady hum throughout the dining room, with folks crowding the restaurant’s long bar counter and communal seating areas as well as a selection of high-tops. The whole thing had a buzzy, upscale cafeteria vibe, which felt pretty appropriate, given the setting.
We started with a couple of fresh-squeezed juices, including a bright marigold-hued ginger and turmeric immunity booster ($4) and the Super Green ($6.50), a refreshing blend of apple, mint, celery and lime. There’s a whole list of Asian-inspired cocktails, too, from a Thai chili margarita ($11) to a Japanese Highball ($11), but this being lunch, we decided to stick with the softer stuff.
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For starters, we opted for the sticky and delicious Bang Bang Cauliflower ($9), a fiery jumble of crispy-fried cauliflower florets draped in a sweet and spicy firecracker sauce, tossed with red onions, scallions, ginger and cilantro. Other “shareable” appetizers suggested by our server included the edamame ($8), which comes tossed in a chili garlic salt, and the Chili Calamari ($12), which features squid dredged in cornstarch and fried until crispy, served with a chili and cilantro dipping sauce.
From there, the menu expands to include salads, sandwiches, including a beef brisket banh mi ($14), curries, noodles, like a ginger chicken udon bowl ($16), rice dishes including a chicken teriyaki donburi ($17.50) and a selection of ramen bowls.
We opted for the chicken pad Thai ($16), a solid take on the classic dish, with tender hunks of marinated chicken, rice noodles, egg, chili, ginger, scallions, red onions, leeks, bean sprouts and peanuts. The miso cod served with soba noodles ($20) could have used a bit more seasoning but was saved by the super flavorful green tea soba noodles and paired with bok choy, snow peas, red bell peppers, scallions, ginger, chili and cilantro.
If there’s still room for dessert (there wasn’t for us, this time around), the menu sports a few Asian-inspired sweet treats, including a panko-breaded banana katsu ($9.50) topped with caramel sauce and served with a salted caramel ice cream; a matcha cheesecake served with ginger ice cream ($9.50); and a lemon tart served with a berry compote ($9.50).
All in all, Wagamama’s approach isn’t too daring and there aren’t a lot of dishes that stray too far from the familiar Asian-fusion territory, though a few really dial up the heat. But the restaurant does offer a consistent, speedy and tasty selection of pan-Asian dishes in an enjoyable, modern setting. I look forward to returning and checking out the dinner scene and a few of those tasty-sounding cocktails.
Wagamama is open for lunch and dinner daily, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
If you go
1050 Water St., Tampa. 813-429-9242. wagamama.us/restaurants/tampa.