Google Amigos Tortilla Bar in Key West, go to TripAdvisor and scroll down to the review that says, “Keep away if you can.” One of the owners of the restaurant executed the verbal equivalent of a jackknife powerbomb on this naysayer, eviscerating his half-baked critique of the restaurant point by point, every TripAdvisor reader thrilled to sit ringside at the Thunderdome. Online review sites can be the Wild West, but at least temporarily there was a new sheriff in town and he was sick of all the balderdash.
Amigos Tortilla Bar opened in Key West in 2010, a small, lively, crowded place for tacos, quesadillas and such. What was its calling card? Tortillas are square!!! Not round!!!! A different shape!!!! I know my punctuation marks seem a little snarky, but I will concede that in hefting a folded square versus a folded circle, there is less room for filling to escape. It’s kind of the magical opposite of the fitted versus the flat sheet.
Opened in the 600 block of Central Avenue in November, this second outpost of Amigos has an uphill battle. St. Petersburg, it seems, has become positively overrun with solid taco options in the past couple of years. I won’t list them here, but between dedicated Mexican restaurants and taco shops and all the places that offer a short taco lineup or Taco Tuesday deals, we are swimming in corn masa, drowning in carne asada. How sweet it is.
So what new thing does Amigos bring to the table? Absolutely nothing. Except a little geometric razzle-dazzle. My first visit I went with a largish group and essentially ordered all the filling options (there are 10) in taco form. Chicken, beef, chorizo and potatoes, beans, al pastor, carnitas, fried avocado and veggies are $3.20 each, $12 for three with rice and beans; carne asada and Key West-style or Baja-style fish or shrimp are $4.20 each, $15 for three with rice and beans. There was not one filling about which I couldn’t say, “I’ve had better at [Casita, Red Mesa Mercado, Capital, fill in the blank].”
That seems problematic in an extremely dense scrum of new downtown restaurants with more on the horizon. The space itself has a lot of charm, industrial ducting and concrete floors softened with whimsical murals and pretty butcherblock tables, rollup garage doors turning the sidewalk tables into an extension of the room. But there are service problems, too. On one visit our server seemed unschooled in the menu and, worse, uninterested. On another day I was thwarted in eating lunch altogether because the restaurant had an emergency closure due to “technical difficulties.” (The tortillas were turning out as rhombuses or heptagons?)
The best of the offerings are the al pastor tacos, the sweet-tangy grilled pork shavings paired with bits of pineapple, white onion and cilantro. Simple, but nice flavors. The house chopped salad, with its radish, pickled red onion, pumpkin seeds and cotija, was a charmer ($9) easily made into a meal with the addition of one of the above fillings ($2 or $4 more, depending). I was less wowed by the mild and hot salsas (you call that hot?), the guac and the truly lackluster elote corn ($4), no amount of cotija or aioli squiggles or chile sauce disguising the mealy, flavorless kernels on the cob. That’s less a cooking problem than a purchasing problem, but if you can’t find corn that’s worth some assiduous dental flossing, then maybe you should pass.
The 2,000-square-foot space has a prime location and an appealing look. But if Amigos aims to be among the dozens of successful independents that have put down roots in St. Pete’s downtown, it will have to bring much more focus to the menu’s components. Let’s call it thinking outside the square.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.
Amigos Tortilla Bar
681 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
(727) 258-8529, amigosstpete.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; no reservations; beer and wine for now; takeout but no delivery
Rating, out of four stars:
Food: * Service: **