The Ciccio Restaurant Group has done it again. They’ve taken the customizable, healthy-oriented, point-and-choose, “I-don’t-do-gluten-carbs-or-meat-what-do-you-have-for-me” approach they honed at Fresh Kitchen and brought it to bear on tacos and quick Mex. They were originally slated to do a chicken-and-doughnuts Better Byrd in this space that once housed Soho Tavern, but based on numbers alone, South Tampa seems thrilled to have Taco Dirty (plus, good name). With a funky, appealing design, it’s an order-at-the-counter affair: You can concoct an all-in bowl, which comes with two bases (things like red quinoa or avocado citrus rice), two veggies (crispy eggplant, Mexican sweet potato hash), two proteins (chicken tinga, grilled lime and sour orange chicken, fried chicken, a couple of eggs on the weekend) and two “Mexi things” such as pickled jalapenos, pickled red onions, radish slices and more. There are individual tacos, three-taco platters, Mexican sandwiches and nachos, all serviced by a range of sauces that get squiggled over the top (creamy lime sriracha, sweet charcoal-infused jalapeno). If I were a betting man, my money would be on additional Taco Dirtys popping up around Tampa Bay. cicciorestaurantgroup.com
Address: 2221 W Platt St., Tampa
Phone: (813) 314-7900
It was among the splashier openings of 2018. Or, more accurately, the gas station had the largest signs of any newcomer: MEXICAN FOOD: BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER emblazoned on one side of the repurposed pump awning, TACOS, QUESADILLAS, BURRITOS, TORTAS on another. The inside still looks a lot like a gas station minimart, two huge plastic Clydesdales incongruously standing guard outside the entrance. It was a fast and furious year for new taco places in St. Petersburg, but Chile Verde rose to the top because it is the holy triumvirate: cheap, fast and delicious.
Its wheelhouse is Mexican tacos, $1.99 each, a warm doubled corn tortilla topped with a meat (beef barbacoa, long-simmered pork carnitas, al pastor, simple steak; fancier meats like tripe and tongue are $2.99) and a flurry of cilantro and white onion. They offer tacos American-style for $2.49, a puffy warm flour tortilla packed with your meat choice and lettuce, tomato, avocado, sour cream and shredded cheese. There’s also a small buffet of steam trays, rice and greens and soupy chicken curries and shrimp fajitas for a hot lunch rapido. Both hot sauces are good, the green one delicious and mild, the other one nice and face-melty.
Address: 2801 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 800-2679
Acapulco Mexican Grocery
I like the bodega taco. It’s its own category. There’s Mexico Lindo in Pinellas Park and Clearwater, La Fiesta Mexican Store and El Rancho in Tampa, but my fave is Acapulco Mexican Grocery. Buy some pork rinds, canned goods and lottery tickets, grab a Jarritos soda from the case and sit down in the back room for a fragrant bowl of beef tripe menudo on the weekends or tacos the rest of the time. Taco prices have crept up to $2.25 each (25 cents more for lengua and chorizo), but you’re still going to eat yourself silly for under $10. Two other things you should know: There’s a reach-in full of excellent individual house-made desserts, from flan to rice pudding and tres leches, and most days there’s a Coleman cooler padded with dish towels at the front of the store in which you will find still-warm handmade corn tortillas to take home.
Address: 1001 N MacDill Ave., Tampa
Phone: (813) 873-3665
Red Mesa Cantina
Before I launch into this one, I’d like to give a shout-out to Rene’s Mexican Kitchen. Taco Bus founder Rene Valenzuela, who suffered horrific injuries from a food truck fire in 2018, started a new venture in Seminole Heights, then the city made him move and he was fleetingly on Dale Mabry Highway. Look for him in a new location in 2019 doing regional south-central Mexican cuisine. Chris Fernandez, the executive chef of the Red Mesa group, hails from a similar part of the world, heading back to his home state of Oaxaca, Mexico, each year for inspiration and relaxation. In 2017, the Cantina expanded vertically, adding the Cantinita Bar and the DeSanto Rooftop Bar above that, with an additional banquet space. Red Mesa Cantina has the most extensive tequila and mezcal lineup around, and mixologists wield it well. It’s also where the Tampa Bay Times tends to hold goodbye parties for departing journalists, so I’ve had some sad times there, but that’s no knock against their duck confit taco with grilled pineapple, or the simple grilled shrimp taco with Mexican slaw and a wisp of habanero aioli. On a nice day, a barstool in the open-air Lucha Bar or a table in the courtyard patio with its tinkling waterfall is mighty hard to beat. redmesacantina.com
Address: 128 Third St., S, St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 896-8226