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Review: Margaritas Mexican Restaurant fills niche on Davis Islands

Caroline Gilhool, left, and Rex Ryan dine at Margaritas on Davis Islands.
Caroline Gilhool, left, and Rex Ryan dine at Margaritas on Davis Islands.
Published May 13, 2014

TAMPA

Davis Islands is its own little ecosystem. On a couple of blocks of E Davis Boulevard crowd longtime watering holes like the Anchor Bar or Yeoman's Road Pub. There are breakfast go-to's, such as Grecian Island, and dinner stalwarts, such as 220 East. But all is not static. There are newcomers on the scene, such as Molly Malone's Irish Pub and, sadly, institutions that fade away like the recently departed Rick's. And then there are hybrids that are something old and something new.

Estela's was a landmark Davis Islands Mexican spot for years. Last summer, the restaurant was purchased by Monica Veliz, who renamed it Margaritas Mexican Restaurant. The menu has been dramatically expanded and a fairly substantial remodel undertaken. Still, it feels a lot like Estela's. It's the kind of place to kick back with a margarita (best one: the spicy version made with Sauza Hornitos tequila; $10.50), crunch your way through a basket of warm chips and watch the Islanders and their dogs amble by.

On a recent lovely evening, we started out with a happy hour cocktail on the patio of Fountain Square (what used to be Bailey's and Chez Bryce before that), then walked across the street to continue the festivities at Margaritas. Servers are friendly; chips and beverages come swiftly; and the patio is much more convivial than the fairly bare-bones inside dining rooms.

Margaritas are uniformly well made and spunky, but I'd love to taste a little more heat in the house salsa (and really, in a lot of dishes). The fresh guac ($4.25), on the other hand, features big chunks of fresh avo along with chopped onion and tomato, very homemade tasting. A long list of dinner combos will require a substantial perusal and some cogitation ("hmm, do I want ONE relleno, and one enchilada, and then a chalupa to round it out?"). These are mostly things you've seen before in workhorse combinations, with gooey pools of refried beans and scoops of neon-yellow rice.

The rellenos ($13.59 on their own and different prices as part of a combo) are traditional, two long poblanos stuffed with cheese and then dipped in egg batter and fried to puffiness, the chiles themselves with a slow smoulder of fruity heat that is complemented by the crisp batter and molten cheese center. A burrito "diablo" ($9.99) of slow-simmered pork was disappointingly devil-free, a wet-style burrito packed with onions, peppers and pork and topped with an innocuous cheese sauce.

A trio of tacos carne asada ($13.95) is offered in the a la Mexicana style, meaning without a big pile of stuff on them on doubled warm corn tortillas: just chopped onion, cilantro, avo and chopped beef (a little tough and overcooked). A big squeeze of lime improved things, but because of the current "limeageddon" lime shortage, I had to ask sweetly for a couple of wedges.

Margaritas offers plenty for the vegetarian, as well as a number of cheese- and gluten-free options, so dietary restrictions are ably accommodated. And for dessert? I must admit, the flan, sopapillas and "choco taco" weren't enough to ignore the frozen yogurt calling us from across the street. We continued our little Davis Islands dine-around by walking back over to sleek Soobak for a shared bowl of taro fro-yo self-served from the industrial-chic frozen-yogurt wall, which we topped with spongy mochi and lychee popping boba. Delicious, but certainly not a traditional post-Mexican-meal confection. And then, to muddy things further, we finished the evening with a nightcap at the Anchor Bar, a final dip into the diverse Davis Islands ecosystem.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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