After 20 years as a chef for the ever-corporate OSI Restaurant Partners — much of that time running the kitchen at Lee Roy Selmon’s outlets — and a recent stint as chef at the defunct Smoke Barbeque, Dave Del Rio has created his own restaurant, free of the trappings of chain dining. Take the location of Del Rio’s Cafe, on Armenia north of I-275, far from any upscale (or even midscale) dining districts. Walk into the place and you’ll find brightly painted walls, hand-painted murals and tables that feel reminiscent of an aged diner.
It’s a downscale feel, for decidedly home-style cooking, if your home were perfumed by cumin and bay, onions and garlic and all the other aromas that come from the Spanish culinary palette. Del Rio’s is a haven for old-school Tampa food, Spain via Cuba with a bit of French immigrant spice for good measure, all executed with little flair but a lot of flavor.
Gumbo is the right place to start, even though it’s one of a few dishes that have a more New Orleans than Tampa background. The stew is a deep, dark brown from the flavorful roux at its base, with hunks of pepper suspended amidst chicken and discs of rich Andouille sausage. It’s spiced right — heavy, but manageable — with a dollop of steaming rice balanced on top to cut each bite according to individual preference.
Shrimp and grits is another standout, with big plump shrimp atop a mountain of fluffy grits, all covered in a pale sauce that’s decidedly Spanish in influence, lighter and more classic than you’d expect. But it works wonders, even with the lily gilding of more sautéed sausage and bacon scattered on top. It’s a Sunday brunch special, along with tasty chicken and waffles and a dense Spanish tortilla.
The restraint shown in the sauce on the grits is a hallmark of Del Rio’s limited menu, showing up in a dish of lightly breaded fish, fried crisp and moist with a rich but simply seasoned butter sauce, or a hearty and basic beef stew.
Lunch, however, is where Del Rio’s shines. Po’ boys stream out of the place during midday, made on Cuban bread stuffed full of fried catfish, oysters or shrimp, as do Del Rio’s version of the MacIvey’s steak sandwich, a hefty but subdued mouthful of shaved rare beef, oily peppers and onions, and a splash of oregano.
All good, sure, but none can top Del Rio’s breaded steak sandwich, salty and crisp but tender enough to bite through, with a blast of sweet onions and peppers that turn the inside of the Cuban bread a welcome gooey mess.
There are also daily specials, from a straightforward plate of rice and beans (seriously seasoned black beans and two links of grilled Andouille) to the exquisite basa enchilao. The latter is a long and thin filet of fried fish topped by just enough spicy tomato sauce to give a burst of heat and acidity to every bite, easily one of the best things you can eat for lunch in Tampa for less than $10. Only on Fridays, however.
Chef Dave Del Rio also makes credible bollitos — the deep-fried black-eyed pea fritters that have all but disappeared from local menus — and his own version of the Pepe’s salad. More common side dishes like fries and cole slaw are decidedly second-rate compared to the rest of his cooking, but that’s a quibble.
And at these prices, nitpicking seems uncharitable, at best. Every single thing on Del Rio’s menu is well under $10, much of it closer to $5, and one plate of food will leave you more satisfied than meals that have you fearing for your credit card balance.
Dave Del Rio, along with partner George Tamargo, hoped to bring back the good old days of their childhood (Tamargo’s father owned a Cuban sandwich shop in the 1960s). They've done that, with the food Del Rio’s serves, the aura and location of the restaurant, and prices that make it approachable for anyone seeking a good meal. Hopefully, a new generation of kids will grow up on this food and keep the chain going, thanks to Del Rio’s.
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