Friday, September 9, 2011

Red Mesa on Fourth: One Fine Table

Finally finished all my NYC posts and I am back on Tampa turf.  Shortly after my trip, Sister Foodie came to town.  Well, you know we've had some disappointing meals in the ol' Bay area.  On a mission to break this losing streak, I took her across the Howard Frankland to Red Mesa in St. Pete. 

I had never been to this Fourth Street Mexican eatery but had heard good things.  A little background check revealed this restaurant has two locations.  Although the newer downtown St. Pete cantina looks more colorful, with its lively outdoor courtyard and spiffy Latin-influenced interior, I heard the food is solid at the original.  It was.

We ordered a couple of Dos Equis and asked the waitress if the calamari was fresh.  After the Irish calamari calamity in New York, I wasn't taking any chances on freezer squid.  She said it wasn't frozen, so we ventured in that direction. 

Calamari Frito

Coated in a light, tasty batter, the Calamari Frito was tender and tasted fresh.  The two dipping sauces that came with it -- one a habanero and the other a chipotle chili aioli --  provided a welcome Mexican spin and a break from the usual squirt of lemon. The habanero mixture was a sinus-draining concoction that Sister F. and I loved.  The smokey aioli was good, too.

For the lunch mains, Sister selected a burrito and I stuck with the seafood theme with Shrimp Salteado.  This Mexican plate was a mouthwatering preparation of sauteed shrimp with rajas (a saute of chiles and onions), Spanish chorizo, tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes, all cooked with a splash of sherry and finished with pasilla chile sauce.  Thanks to the diverse population living in the Tampa area, I count my lucky stars for having the good fortune to discover this type of authentic Mexican cuisine.  I doubt whether I'll ever be able to stomach Tex-Mex again.  Chock-full of spicy sausage flavor, mild chile heat, a fresh collaboration of vegetables and succulent shrimp, this dish was fantastic.  The saute was accompanied by a satisfying helping of black beans and rice.

As she devoured an enormous, flavor-packed burrito (also plated with black beans and rice), Sister Foodie forgot our poor history of Bay-area dining.  Mission accomplished.

Red Mesa would be a welcome addition to any neighborhood; I wish it would cross the bay to mine.  This location features a comfortable, casual atmosphere.  Two connected dining rooms offer booth or table seating and a small bar is available, too.  The prices are totally affordable and the weighty lunch and dinner menus would keep me coming back for eons.  Due to my New Tampa location, I won't be visiting as often as I'd like, but this restaurant's dizzying selection of soups, salads, appetizers, Mexican plates, burritos, enchiladas, tacos, wraps, sandwiches and house specialties will definitely lure me across the HF more often.  I can't wait to try the dinner menu, which is equally tempting and more refined than burritos and enchiladas. 

Verdict:  Ole!

Red Mesa Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Big Apple Bites: Leftovers

Tir Na Nog

So Frommer's said Tir Na Nog was among the best Irish pubs in New York City.  Just so happened this Midtown watering hole was a few blocks from our hotel, so off we went to hoist a few pints and grab some grub.

The place certainly captures the friendly feel of a well-worn European pub but on a much grander scale.  There's a bar, of course, but there are also three distinct dining rooms decorated with vintage furniture and other antiquated treasures that the owners extracted from Irish churches and castles and then shipped to New York.  Warmed by rich woods and earthy colors, the dimly lit rooms are teeming with Celtic charm. 

We were seated in the Cathedral room, named for the long pew of regal seats abutting the wall.  This room views the bar, which is where I actually longed to be perched due to the extremely uncomfortable church seating.  No slouching allowed in church!  My back was forced into a stick-straight position, propped against a hard, albeit beautifully carved, wooden chair back that was surely perfect for a bishop doing penance. The motto here should be Drink Up and Sin No More!  After a long day of travel and schlepping around the city, I wanted comfort -- and beer. 

Oh happy day, that beer was good!  We decided to get some snacks to go with them and our friendly Irish server obliged with a bar menu.  I often ask servers if there's a standout menu item, which I did here, and was told that many patrons enjoy the sausage rolls.  We shared an order of those and a plate of calamari. 

Calamari is a downfall of mine and I obviously was delirious when I ordered it at an Irish pub.  It was supposedly lightly dusted in panko and fried.  Come on, the description should have read:  Straight out of a freezer bag, compliments of our restaurant's generic-food supplier.  Every ringlet was exactly the same size, which was the width and circumference of a ring you'd put on your finger.  That was some emaciated squid!  And absolutely no spidery pieces, which are my favorite parts, were anywhere on the plate. This dish earns the dubious distinction of the worst calamari I have ever ordered.  (That award once belonged to a Peachtree City, Ga., Carrabba's and a rubbery batch that could have been used to make tires.)

The sausage rolls were cocktail weinies, pure and simple, but in sausage form, not the hot dog variety.  Sure, they were good.  Who doesn't like a juicy, salty pork-fat product dipped into mustard to enhance their beer-drinking experience?  I know I do, but not enough to trust the dinner menu.

Although this Old-Worldy establishment is lovely to behold and an interesting place to throw back a Guinness or three, the bar food (and those seats) sent us packing on a journey to find another restaurant for dinner.

Tir Na Nog on Urbanspoon

Heartland Brewery

That's how we ended up at Heartland Brewery near Times Square.  We were in beer-drinking mode now, and after wandering aimlessly looking for a non-touristy place to eat, we landed in a booth at just such a place:  a touristy, chain-reeking microbrewery.  More good beer, mediocre food.  One review I read after eating there said it is a step above T.G.I. Friday's and that's exactly how I would describe it, which is why I stuck with a burger and fries.  They were fine but forgettable.  That pretty much sums it up. 

This is a reasonable spot to grab a burger and a decent beer, but don't expect anything more than chain fare.  You get what you pay for.  With six locations throughout the city, this American pub appears popular with the 20-something set. 

This day's restaurant outings -- the museum, the bar and the brew chain -- prompted a speedy purchase the following day of Zagat's New York City Restaurants 2011.  No more stumbling into random places for me.  By the way, Petrie Court Cafe at the museum and Tir Na Nog didn't make the book, and Heartland Brewery got a 14 for food, which lands them in the "fair to good" range.  As a point of reference, Zagat's top score is 30.

Heartland Brewery on Urbanspoon