Tilapia is a humble fish, at best. It's farmed, feeds on things that should go unmentioned and has a mass-produced blandness that makes it the fish equivalent of engineered vegetable protein. Forgettable.
Except at Shrimp & Co., a small restaurant a block or two away from the core of Ybor. Order the tilapia blackened and you'll receive a slab of fish that will knock your taste buds for a loop, each bite a fiery blend of herb and spice that not only adds flavor to the dish but actually manages to enhance the subtle flavor of the fish. Here, tilapia is gifted with a newfound richness and depth that belies its low-end beginnings. I won't forget this tilapia. Especially since I'll be back for more.
There are other things at Shrimp & Co. worth returning for, like black gumbo built on a deeply-flavored roux and packed with a mess of sausage and shrimp, or baskets of simple fried fish and shellfish. It's all hearty fare, largely built on the Cajun and Creole culinary heritage, with a little of the Caribbean thrown in for good measure.
That means that at lunch po' boys rule the day, a good example of the form thanks to crisply fried oysters or shrimp, doughy bread and crisp lettuce. Even better is the green mahi sandwich, the fish topped with thick slices of green tomato and the restaurant's tangy mayo.
Appetizers fall largely into salty treats best with a cold beer, with fried onions, crawfish, calamari and wings topping the list. That fits Shrimp and Co.'s vibe perfectly, the rustic wooden booths and casual but capable service reminiscent of an island fish shack, albeit with a view of Ybor traffic.
At dinner, I'd be hard-pressed to pick anything but Shrimp and Co.'s incredible blackened seafood, although once you get past that and the baskets of fry you'll find some of Louisiana's more elegant, French-inspired dishes to pick from. Filet is stuffed with garlicky shrimp scampi and doused in rich mushroom sauce. Chicken is wrapped and stuffed with bacon and shrimp, with a subtle white wine sauce dotted by fresh crab. Both are tasty enough, but without the punch of the basic fish and shrimp. For more powerful flavors you need to look to the island-inspired dishes, like an imaginative spiced ceviche, or sections of conch doused in a tart garlic vinaigrette.
Eh, who cares what you order, to be honest. Whatever you end up with at Shrimp and Co. will be seasoned to the absolute limit -- without stepping over the line -- and treat your mouth to more excitement than it's had in many a day. Especially the tilapia.
Hamburger Mary's seems to go a different route than Shrimp and Co.. Instead of exciting your mouth, it tries to titillate your eyes. There are a dozen television screens playing musical moments from Broadway and Hollywood, inserting breaks into tableside conversation every time a new one starts and people try to guess the song before the info pops up. The big space — at the top of Centro Ybor — is brightly painted and decorated with stars and guitars, and at the end of the meal the check comes inside a red patent leather high-heeled shoe.
That's fine and dandy, and fits Hamburger Mary's status as the "ONLY national franchise actively marketing to the gay community," but it falls a little flat once you actually sit through a meal. If you're going to be flamboyant, you might want to start with the food.
Burgers -- the meat of Mary's menu -- are capable enough, the buns are doughy, soft and sweet and the restaurant has a penchant for Thousand Island dressing to top their patties, but that's all a matter of taste. For a patty specialist it would be nice if the burgers were cooked as ordered or if the meat itself could manage to transcend the stuff you can find at any suburban chain, which it doesn't.
In fact, despite the marketing and origin of Mary's, it's more akin to those straightlaced suburban chain cousins than to the exciting and idiosyncratic GaYbor vibe that's been nurtured recently. Look past the cutesy and unimaginative names on the menu ("Mary's Breast"?) and you'll find items that are distinctly familiar, even dreary. Quesadillas and wings, chicken strips and seared tuna. Mary's, it turns out, is a stereotype in more ways than one.
Maybe the real fault lies in Mary's mission statement. Instead of actively marketing to the gay community, it comes across more like a gay-themed version of the Rainforest Cafe, perfect for suburban straights who want a whole lot of safety to go with their taste of the other side.
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