Taco Belles: Mexican eateries in Florida
Mexican offerings capitalize on the cuisine's variety and adaptability
These days, Florida's dining scene reflects a broad array of new-generation Mexican eateries, run by chains, hipsters and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
Along with chains like Chipotle, Moe's, Lime Fresh Mexican and a raft of street taco purveyors, local chefs around the state are offering new expressions of south-of-the-border cuisine — from traditional esquites corn on the cob with chili pepper and cotija cheese to new-wave avocado fries, chop salads and other borrowings for the craft beer crowd.
The appeal of the cooking comes from its regional varieties, its adaptability and lots of bar-friendly finger food: Tortillas wrapped and folded every which way, along with a pantry full of beans, corn, rice and peppers that can easily satisfy vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-free. By Chris Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The ingredients are earthy and fresh, the techniques artisanal and the flavors bold. The trend is national. It's "a little late coming here," says Peter Veytia III, whose ahead-of-the-curve family has just opened its third restaurant in St. Petersburg. But Veytia has plenty of company in welcoming the growth and changing tastes.
» When Peter and Shawn Veytia's Red Mesa opened 20 years ago, diners turned down duck quesadillas and mole sauces. Now duck tacos are the biggest seller, and Red Mesa cooks Mexican at three locations. In addition to the original location on Fourth Street in St. Pete, which sticks to alta cocina of a finer style, there's Red Mesa Cantina in a festive downtown spot with seven ceviches, a weekend brunch featuring casseroles of eggs and goat cheese and the Lucha bar, which serves fine tequilas up to $90 in snifters and delights in campy Mexican wrestler gear. Veytia's third location, the just-added Mercado in the Edge district, has walk-up service for tamales, burritos and tacos borrowed from urban California and Texas. Mercado also encompasses a market for imported and house-made pickles, vegetables, meats, cheeses, tortillas, spices and sauces. That includes the rich seasonal moles that chef Chris Fernandez grew up with in Oaxaca.
» A few blocks down Central Avenue from Mercado is another outdoor taco stand, Casita Taqueria, with tacos, hefty torta sandwiches, bean and rice bowls, Mexican beer and Jarrito sodas. The menu is short, yet it's already led to a second location.
» Two upscale Mexican chains from the Northeast are targeting Tampa malls. The sixth location of Besito, backed by Chris Sullivan, has invigorated a location that once housed a Palm steakhouse with a contemporary interior and a glittering patio. The menu includes atole sauces, shrimp/crab tortilla pie, squash blossoms (overcooked on my visit) and an endess tequila list.
» The eighth location of BarTaco — its first in Florida — will be in Tampa's Hyde Park Village. The bar is lively and rough-hewn and the tacos equally millennial, with pork belly, falafel, cauliflower, fried oysters and wild boar.
Winter Park's modern take on Mexican comes at Cocina 214, named for the Dallas area code of the owners' former home and their hunger for what they missed in Florida. Their Tex-Mex is updated with sharp design, bright abstracts and a menu of traditional entrees plus truffled quesdadillas, sashimi tuna and baby kale salad.
» Palm Beach, which brought five Rocco's Tacos to south Florida and one to Brooklyn, now also has rapidly expanding Cabo Flats with three locations and three more in the works. On the menu: Lots of tequila and cilantro and new tricks like salmon with gazpacho and a serious Saturday-Sunday brunch, stuffed French toast, carnitas hash and jalapeño cornbread.
» Miami has a full range of style, including Rosa Mexicano, which first mixed glossy decor and service with hand-made tortillas and table-side guacamole in New York 30 years ago. It has one location in Brickell Village aglow with gold, blue and signature pink and a glittery post on a glam corner of Lincoln Road.
» Viva Mexico Tacos y Mas in Little Havana has frugal foodies raving about $2 tacos from Andres Tovar. He cooks full-pig pork, head to chitterlings low and slow in the style of Michoacan.