Friday, May 13, 2011

El Puerto: Primo Latin Fare

Flying below the Tampa radar on Ybor City's 5th Avenue,  El Puerto Restaurant goes about its business serving up some of the finest Latin cuisine in town. 

The corner of 5th and 17th, now on my list of favorite places.
This spot is another example of a solid Tampa restaurant that gets lost in the foodie buzz created by new kids on the culinary block.  That is the only reason I can come up with to explain why I have missed it.  I should say missed out on it because this is one good restaurant - in all respects.

Shrimp guaranteed to make your taste buds tango.

On a recent lunch visit, I savored the best shrimp dish I have experienced in ages.  Picante de Camarones ($13, available for lunch but listed on the dinner menu) consisted of eight or nine perfectly sauteed colossal fresh shrimp swimming in a spicy orange-colored cream sauce.  I could have eaten eight more.  They were far superior in taste and size to the shrimp that I recently had in a shrimp and grits dish at the much-ballyhooed Datz  - and these were more plentiful and less expensive. 

Two sides are offered with each entree and I selected maduros (sweet plantains) and a house salad.  Other choices included white or yellow rice, black beans, tostones and fried cassava.  The soft, caramelized plantains were a sweet complement to the giant, peppery shrimp.  Although the house salad, which consisted of iceberg lettuce, fresh sliced tomato and wilted red onion, was fine, I hated to see that incredible creamy shrimp sauce go to waste.  I should have ordered rice or another starchy carb to sop it all up.  The warm, yeasty dinner rolls would have done the trick, but I resisted the temptation to scarf down a second.

True to her Brazilian roots, Blame It on Rio zeroed in on the meat. 

The juices were flowing as Rio dove into that Grilled Churrasco.

Her medium-rare skirt steak ($12) blanketed the plate.  The family-sized portion was tender and juicy, made even more flavorful by the condiments sitting on the table - a mustard-colored hot sauce and an herbaceous chimichurri.   The yellow aji sauce was thrillingly hot. I witnessed the guilty red pepper flakes but I suspect some other fiery culprits contributed heat, too.  The green chimichurri sauce, however, was our preference; it yielded an agreeable sweetness that partnered well with the beef. 

Rio's sides were fried cassava (yucca) and yellow rice.   This was my first foray into yucca territory.  It reminded me of potato and this preparation resembled french fries in both taste and texture. 

Due to the impressive lunch crowd - predominately business folks - we dined at the bar.   A muted flat-screen television flickered with CNN talking heads, while pleasant Latin music played in the background.  Enhancing the tropical Argentinean-Peruvian vibe were exotic hand-painted murals and abundant sunlight streaming through the eatery's many windows.  I loved the breezy Latin atmosphere and the smiling servers who happily translated menu items and stopped by numerous times to refill our tea. 

Set in an understated brick building that fuses with the rest of the neighborhood, this place is easy to overlook.  But with its white tablecloths, cool Ybor setting, cheerful service and excellent food, El Puerto is a sparkling diamond in a land rife with cubic zirconias.

Verdict:  Affordable gem.

Restaurant Info:
El Puerto Restaurant and Grill
1623 E. 5th Avenue

El Puerto Argentinean Grill on Urbanspoon


  1. Dear F&L, once again you're absolutely right!! The place is a gem and I'm very very happy that you invited me!! Thanks to you, I'm getting to know lots of other places around tampa bay and all-of-a-sudden (?!) I can finally say that it is good to be here!! Thank you!!!

  2. Aww shucks, Rio. That is nice to hear. Here's to more dining adventures!