Are tacos the new burgers? A slew of new taco-centric places in Tampa Bay make the case

Tacos are prepared at Mekenita Cantina in Tampa. There are six offerings that come in sets of three on a platter with a side salad and a big dab of guacamole.
Tacos are prepared at Mekenita Cantina in Tampa. There are six offerings that come in sets of three on a platter with a side salad and a big dab of guacamole.
Published Sept. 5, 2018

One thing has remained constant. Ketchup may give way to salsa as the dominant condiment, with sriracha nipping at its heels, but for decades the hamburger has been the No. 1 most-purchased menu item in food service. There it is, the hallowed beef patty between two buns, a passel of fries its ever-stalwart sidekick.

I have a hunch that this is changing.

Google "the rise of tacos," and pundits and food analysts have a lot to say. Menu mentions are up 16 percent in the past couple of years (Grubhub says taco delivery is up way more than that), Mexican cuisine rose to the second most popular menu type in the United States in 2017 — even tacos-as-fashion statement is a trend (bathing suits, T-shirts and handbags emblazoned with tacos). Something is going on.

I put in a call to major market research company NPD Group. They are not yet seeing a notable statistical shift, they said. For the year ending June 2018, menu importance of burgers was 14.2 percent, which means out of all restaurant orders burgers were ordered 14.2 percent of the time. Menu importance for tacos was 2.8 percent. But, heck, that's 1.7 billion tacos. Despite the stats, NPD analyst Kim McLynn thought my reasoning was sound.

Why do I predict the taco may unseat the burger? Demographics. I'm thinking about the role of millennials and Hispanics: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, millennials, those born from 1982 to 2000, total 83.1 million people, or 25 percent of the U.S. population . Meanwhile, almost one in five people in the United States, or 55 million, is Hispanic, the largest ethnic minority.

MORE TACOS: On Taco Tuesday, finding delicious Mexican food is always an adventure

MORE TACOS: On Taco Tuesday, finding delicious Mexican food is always an adventure

Hispanic and Latino Americans from a range of Spanish-speaking countries are chummy with the taco. And for millennials, it speaks to all the enthusiasms they've been identified with: Tacos are small in size and financial outlay ; they are customizable and can accommodate a range of dietary restrictions; they are handheld and sharable; they can skew to healthy ingredients and even leap out of the "Mex" or "Tex-Mex" category with Asian and other global twists; and they lend themselves to punchy saucing and accessories.

Tacos are popping up everywhere, non-Mex restaurants adding taco sections to their menus and instituting that alliterative Taco Tuesday enticement. Can we call it a taco typhoon? New taco trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants keep coming: Nick Cruz (Big Ray's Fish Camp) opens Teepee Taco on Interbay in the next couple of months not far from two other relative newcomers, Casa Mexicana and Taco Bus on Gandy. Tijuana Flats just opened at Crest Pointe Towne Center in Valrico (its 10th location in Hillsborough County); Loli's opened a few months back on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa; Nitally's just relocated its beloved St. Pete Mex-Thai mashup to a spot in South Pasadena. I could keep going.

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For now, though, let's take a look at a handful of the prominent newcomers and see what's going on.

Taco Dirty

I'm pretty sure this was originally slated to be called Taco Dirty To Me. (Ciccio Restaurant Group always has a little sauciness in its names.) In the space that was Soho Tavern and then slated to be Better Byrd (Ciccio's fried chicken-and-doughnuts concept), this is essentially Fresh Kitchen with a Mexican accent. It's small and appealing-looking (check the avocado-halves-as-raindrops mural, funky AstroTurf on the patio and wall of lips over the order counter), with a point-and-order customizable approach.

You can order an all-in bowl ($8.88), 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" (anyone uncomfortable with that term?), such as pickled jalapenos, pickled red onions, radish slices and more.

A veggie bowl is $7.94. Individual tacos are $2.57 each; a three-taco platter is $7.71; Mexican sandwiches are $6.30; nachos $7.94. There are a range of sauces that get squiggled over the top of whatever you've chosen, but think through your flavors — creamy lime sriracha or sweet charcoal-infused jalapeno sauce may not go with everything. (Ciccio Group seems really into the activated-charcoal-as-detoxifier trend. They offer it in a frozen treat over at Sweet Soul. I think the jury is still out on whether it's good for us.)

Taco Dirty opened at the beginning of August and still feels like a work in progress (alcohol was still just a couple of beers last time I visited), the counter service folks a little green when it comes to explicating what's on offer. That said, I think this is going to be a major hit, with lots of folks taking food to go or to be delivered . It seems like something we might see replicated effectively in several places around Tampa Bay.

2221 W Platt St., Tampa; (813) 314-7900

Mekenita Cantina

Rand Packer was once executive chef at glammy Roy's on Boy Scout Boulevard, but he and his wife, Tiffani, clearly dreamed of having their own place. They opened Mekenita Mexican Grille in 2007 in an unlikely shopping center in Lutz, an area that was not at the time awash in smart Oaxacan dishes and salsas in a lively grab-and-go atmosphere. They pulled up stakes not long ago, and in June debuted Mekenita Cantina in a central location in Seminole Heights. Based on a couple of recent visits, it's a hit.

I'm still trying to figure out the approach. The wine, beer and cocktail lists are interesting but oddball, with a raft of popular liquor brands absent and some downright wacky cocktail combos: The Seminole Outlaw pairs a double oak bourbon infused with cacao, Muddy Buck coffee beans from Colorado, ancho pepper, cinnamon, star anise, allspice, walnut bitters and an orange twist, the overall effect more sweet spice than a pumpkin spice latte ever aspired to. And on one of my visits there were only two of the six grande platos available (tender and savory braised honey-chipotle short ribs, $23; and a pleasant but unremarkable grilled salmon with cilantro pesto, citrus quinoa and black bean puree, $24).

The tacos may be the best section of the menu, six offerings ($11 to $13) that come in sets of three on a platter with a little side salad topped with corn niblets and pickled onion, as well as a big dab of guacamole. They are fairly minimalist (in a good way), the protein of choice confettied with shredded lime cabbage, red onions and a bit of shredded cheese, their tortillas toothsome and blistery from the griddle. Meat flavors are simple but punchy from the grill, ranging from citrusy mahi mahi to garlicky chile-rubbed shredded pork. They do takeout, but no delivery.

6707 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 232-8226

FIND MORE TACOS: Search our database for taco places around Tampa Bay

FIND MORE TACOS: Search our database for taco places around Tampa Bay

Capital Tacos

I was superstitious when I heard Bobby and Kristel Heskett were adding another taco spot in July to their growing empire. Oh man, that 5226 Fourth St. N location in St. Petersburg has been so many things, cycling through Uncle Maddio's, Pietopia, Social, World of Beer and a couple of other spots just in my tenure. A disaster cafe location, maybe? I shouldn't have worried. With other locations in Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel, New Port Richey, Brandon and more on the way, the Hesketts have got the details down. This outpost has a funky jail cell for photos ops (with a sign overhead that says something about "If loving Capital Tacos is a crime …"), a huge bottlecap mosaic of the logo (a flying taco that looks a bit like a Viking helmet), chalkboards for little kids, a U.S. map that folks can meticulously push straight pins in to signal their city of origin. It has a TV screen overhead on which you can watch workers rolling out fresh tortillas, and a soundtrack of guilty-pleasure classic rock.

And all of that is not even the main draw. You can crane your neck and look at the menu overhead, or they have large printed ones you can refer to as you order at the counter. All items can be served as a taco ($3.75), burrito, rice bowl, salad or nachos (all $9.75), some of the fillings falling into the classic category (the Peacemaker, Catawampus, Ace High carnitas, Simon Pure with grilled portobellos) and "specialties" (for which the tacos are $1 more, everything else $2 more) that include the West Coast Special with tiger shrimp, Johnny Reb with smoked sausage, corn and jack cheese, and the Longrider with seared tuna. They fry their chips every few minutes in batches and make a luxurious queso sauce and four heat levels of salsa (but if you get takeout, you won't have access to the phalanx of hot sauces near the soda fountain). They also do delivery and have an app and a rewards program.

5226 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 914-4689

Nueva Cantina

Nueva Cantina in St. Petersburg, in the spot that briefly was known as El Gallo Grande, has made a name for itself with its straightforward Tex-Mex, generous margaritas, fun atmosphere and memorable Vitale Brothers' murals. Earlier this year, the same folks (Louie Spetrini and co-owners Erin and Rocco Rinaldi) took over the space of the defunct Love's Artifact Bar and Grille in South Tampa and got to work, debuting another Nueva Cantina location in July. The dining room, bright blues and oranges, is vivacious and colorful with murals, one of a sultry Latina riding a bomb that looks like a shark, guitar-playing cacti, some major Day of the Dead heads, etc. A generous patio is overhung with a color wheel of sun shades, a cool old car parked in the corner and painted with the restaurant's name. In short, it maintains a lot of what made Love's Artifact such a charming South Tampa institution, but with a strong Mexican idiom. It's a big space that gets loud and a little warm, and they won't seat you until your whole party is present.

You're paying for chips and salsa here ($4.95). Get over it; they are solid chips and good for scooping the house ceviche (shrimp, scallops and very fresh fish, a little undermarinated but good flavors; $10.95). One of the better dishes is a simple salad of avocado slices, tomato and red onion in a kicky lime-cilantro vinaigrette, the whole thing topped with fluffs of queso fresco ($11.95). There are eight taco options, each coming with three tacos (choice of flour tortilla or hard or soft corn), rice, choice of refried or black beans; no mix-and-matching on the tacos. The Baja-style fried shrimp with their shredded cabbage, pico and chipotle aioli ($14.95) were quite good, as were slow-braised shredded plush short rib tacos topped with an unusual horseradish habanero sauce and nice grilled onions ($14.95). The house mole sauce is quite good, and you can add it to a number of dishes to make them "wet." Takeout and delivery are available.

4918 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-1101

Grand Hacienda

This one has a bit of a backstory. North Ward Secondary School building, on 11th Avenue North at Fourth Street in St. Petersburg, was slated to be something big. In 2014, real estate developer Jonathan Daou bought it and started renovating with the idea of a mixed-use space anchored by a California/Mexican-themed, fast-casual place. Daou also bought the derelict Monticello motel several blocks north on Fourth Street with the aim of debuting Pinellas County's first food hall, but the city shot it down, mostly over parking. Anyway, Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill signed on, it didn't work out, and the mission-style structure built in 1914 got a different tenant.

This summer, Grand Hacienda debuted on Fourth Street. It's actually the second location; the first on St. Pete Beach opened a couple of years ago under the name Monarca. The space itself is lovely, with hand-carved wooden booths and elaborate painted tile work. There's an appealing outdoor patio, a full liquor license and the kind of something-for-everyone menu that requires a good long time for decisionmaking.

The margaritas alone will require some serious parsing and page-turning, chips and salsa (gratis) and maybe even a mariachi band sustaining you in the search. This is a menu you've seen before, big jumbles of nachos ($10, $15.95 for a pleasant but unremarkable seafood version with shrimp and calamari), cast-iron platters of fajitas with their come-hither sizzle, enchiladas under gooey mantles of cheese. The taco portion of the program is extensive, with a dozen choices offered in sets of three, a handful offered as mix-and-match. They come with rice and choice of three kinds of beans (the best is the charro), tacos topped simply with cilantro and pickled onion, ranging from $11.85 to $13. I'm not going to lie, though, the single most remarkable thing about Grand Hacienda is the ice cream party dessert ($12.95), which essentially brings a mini ice cream cart to your table from which you scoop ice cream, sprinkles, chocolate syrup and cookie crumbles into waffle cones while the rest of the dining room looks over to see why you're having so much fun.

399 11th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 256-9770