At the heart of Besa Grill's massive menu is a clever concept that seems like the logical endgame of several different trends — from Latin flavors to small plates to retro food — tucked into one convenient package and wrapped in all the trappings of chain dining. How could it not succeed?
If the packed dining room is any indication, its crowd-pleasing formula is having the impact you might expect. And I'm just as excited as the rest of the diners in this new Clearwater restaurant from the owners of Flamestone American Grill in Oldsmar.
There's a half-dozen different guacamoles to choose from, except you don't have to pick one — for just under $11 you get a reasonable scoop of three different flavors. There are also tacos, ceviche served inside halved avocados, whoopie pies and churros. You might feel like you were at a food truck rally, if it weren't for the elegant light fixtures dangling above a variety of high-end textured surfaces, the minimalist decor, and carpeting that looks like a cross between a zebra and an oscilloscope reading.
Though the first page or so of the menu is chock full of tidy portions of fun food at reasonable prices, the second delves into the kind of steak and seafood you usually don't get from a truck, at prices that try to do justice to the surroundings. Besa is a complete package, which is likely another to key to its drawing power.
At first it seems to justify the crowds. I wouldn't put cheese, even a farmer's cheese like cotija, in my guacamole, but it doesn't fuss up Besa's tart and rich traditional version too much. Even more surprising is the silly but satisfying guac laced with creamy goat and blue cheeses. The goat cheese adds a little more brightness to the mix, while the blue is powerful enough to shine through the absurdly decadent mess. We keep dipping into it just to see if we were wrong the first two, three, or 10 tastes. Nope, it's still tasty.
Besa's ceviches are less successful. Instead of a basic option utilizing fish, there's a lump crab version that's less a ceviche and more a dressed crab salad, and another that's a kind of tartare in a cup, with minced beef, olive oil, onion, capers and olives. Even the most classic of the bunch — scallops marinated in lime with cilantro, onion and peppers — is sweet and bland, without the tart and herbaceous bite ceviche needs.
The flatbreads — translate as "non-Italian pizzas" — continue that bland and oddly sweet trend. But Besa's tacos manage to raise the bar a bit, especially the straightforward grilled steak version — packed with onions, smoky poblanos and cilantro — and the grilled fish. Even those, however, had little additions that ended up detracting from the whole, like unneccesary grated Manchego cheese on the steak or a drizzle of secret sauce (avocado crema, apparently) on the fish.
And it gets worse when it comes to entrees. Besa always feels the need to gild the lily with a little more, usually in the form of more ingredients that end up cluttering and deadening the flavors on the plate, or by introducing a sprinkling or drizzle of something innocuous over the top that never seems to add anything to the dish.
Steaks are inevitably "crusted" with something or another that comes across more as a slick of sauce than any sort of crust you're used to, made worse by beef cooked well past ordered temperature. The fish doesn't escape similar treatment, from gooey and sweet mango glaze to a relish of black olives and capers that would devastate the flavor of even the most pungent fish, let alone mild Gulf grouper. Besa does, at least, seem to cook fish right, if you can find it under the toppings.
But wait; here comes dessert. The churros are fabulous, crunchy and sweet and just oily enough to provide a counterpoint to the blast of cinnamon infused into the dough. The caramel sauce on the side is too much of a good thing, but the sweet agave butter is exactly the kind of lily-gilding that works. The whoopie pies are hit or miss, from dry red velvet with ice cream to moist carrot cake stuffed with cream cheese frosting that's not too sweet. And forget coffee — the Mexican hot chocolate here is a must.
In the end, after all the little missteps, gratuitous garnishing and iffy ingredient combinations, Besa Grill actually does what it sets out to do, fusing not-so-traditional Latin cuisine with familiar chain dining tropes.
Kudos for that, but instead of craving a return visit, I find myself looking up Mexican hot chocolate recipes and planning a visit to my favorite taqueria.
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