Upscale Mex had a serious moment, with Besito, Bartaco, Miguelito's, O Cocina & Flights and others joining longtimers like Miguel's and Red Mesa. This was a couple of years ago. Then came a legitimate avalanche of cheap — but also good — taquerias. And I'm guessing $20 barbacoa plates started to seem a little steep.
O Cocina, owned by Disser Hospitality, the team behind Tampa Bay staples Soho Saloon and Bel Mar Tavern, has been put to bed, and in its place Guac Tequila and Tacos debuted in December under the same ownership. The team took a legitimately gorgeous restaurant (a cascading wall of succulents behind the bar, glamorous semicircle upholstered banquettes, clusters of gleaming Edison bulb pendants) and blew it up. For no good reason I can figure. It has a cavernous, bare-bones feel to it now, with cliched lucha libre mask murals and Day of the Dead-ish murals that seem derivative of what you see over at Red Mesa Cantina or the Vitale Brothers murals at Nueva Cantina in South Tampa. (And don't you think we're beyond needing every Mexican restaurant to sport sombreros and pinatas, every Chinese restaurant to strut red lanterns and dragon art?)
Not to belabor the point, but it must have been a darn expensive undertaking to take an upscale 4,000-square-foot restaurant and reposition it down-market. To what end? The goal is to signal "We're fun, casual and inexpensive now," waiter T-shirts sporting the assertion, "It's 5'O guac somewhere."
That would be fine, but the new menu is not inexpensive.
Yes, O Cocina had a gaucho steak for $35, a trio of ceviches that hovered around $12 and "platos Fuertes" in the neighborhood of $24. Guac is a step down from those prices, but in a densely competitive environment, it doesn't represent good value. Single tacos are largely $3.50 and $4, their fillings not nearly as vivacious and punchy as at simple taquerias like TacoSon ($2.50), Acapulco Mexican Grocery (roughly $1.99) or the very good Loli's Mexican Cravings (about $2.49).
I visited twice recently, the ambience fine, the service attentive but not polished. And I just couldn't find any dishes that rose above their counterparts at a dozen places within an easy drive. A PC West Steak bowl ($13) brought a minuscule amount of bias-cut steak, pico de gallo, queso fresco, refried beans, dribbles of sour cream and one under-grilled jalapeno, all of it set down atop gargantuan florets of under-roasted cauliflower. (You can choose a base of rice, lettuce or the cauli.) You are presented with a fork but no knife, so the still-hard cauliflower was a humdinger to try to break into bites.
I tried several tacos, from the fried shrimp with coleslaw (too much mayo and no discernible spice, as advertised; $4) to the al pastor ($4) and pork barbacoa ($3.50). Their doubled corn tortillas tasted like standard Mission brand you'd find in the grocery store, not heated nearly enough to be fully pliable. The meats were demure at best.
There are straightforward nachos and burritos, their fillings and toppings largely pedestrian. And then there is the titular item, the guacamole. There's a guac of the day ($7), a regular ($6) and a spicy version ($6). With the last two, this is a limited-ingredient dish — often just mashed avos, garlic, maybe onion or tomato, lime, jalapeno and seasonings. It can be smooth or chunky, but how memorable it is comes down to the ripeness of the avocados and the panache of the seasonings. Whoever is in the kitchen at Guac had best taste as they go; even salt seemed lacking.
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Okay, I've given them some serious tough love. I was a fan of O Cocina. There were some service bobbles, but I thought overall it brought something fresh to the South Tampa scene in a setting that was convivial. This reinvention needs focused attention to details in the kitchen, regardless of its new price point.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.
Guac Tequila and Tacos
4110 Henderson Blvd., Suite B, Tampa
Hours: 3 p.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday, until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; full bar; reservations accepted; takeout
Rating, out of four stars:
Food: * Service: **
Overall: * ½