Amigos Tortilla Bar
3 out of 5 stars
681 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Tacos, fajitas & more: $4-$17; sides: $1-$5; drinks: $2-$11. 727-258-8529, amigosstpete.com.
“Once you’ve ruined your reputation, you can live quite freely,” proclaims the Amigos Tortilla Bar menu (and its staff shirts). That cheeky motto seems more Key West, where the restaurant began, than downtown St. Pete. Drunken revels aside, fresh ingredients elevate humble street food like tacos, and Amigos has a special tortilla machine that cuts its dough — made from 100 percent freshly ground corn and water — into signature squares.
In theory, that means “more filling with less spilling.” But before we can test that theory, we begin with delicious sides and “especiales.” My tasters find parking right on Central Avenue, whereas I have to leave my car around the corner. They begin with warm corn chips, which are cool by the time I arrive. The still-crisp chips are a fine vehicle for the creamy, chunky guacamole that’s always a great start.
We also ask for mild salsa. It’s not a fresh tomato blend, but rather a poblano chile mix. At first, the smokiness takes some getting used to, though it grows on my tasters as we revisit the salsa throughout our meal.
The restaurant’s serving pieces are white-lacquered metal with bright red rims. They could easily portend a new trend. Our bowl of Mexican fried potatoes is small crisp cubes tossed in ancho chile powder and topped with garlic aioli, shreds of cotija cheese and green onion. They’re packed with flavor — as is the colorful fire-roasted Mexican corn on the cob presented on a handsome wooden platter with mild chile sauce, plus the toppings referenced above. Most of what we eat is full of taste, yet in the mild range in comparison to other local Mexican fare. Do not, however, confuse this with a recent review decrying the lack of spice. There’s plenty of flavor in the food, but our selections are generally on the tame side.
A grilled shrimp bowl is packed with juicy shellfish on cilantro lime rice, as well as a choice of refried or black beans, cheese, pico de gallo and just enough extra cilantro to balance things out. The combo comes in burrito form, too, with a wide range of proteins, including grilled or beer-battered fish, chicken, beef and pork carnitas. It’s an ample portion and very satisfying.
Carne asada fajitas feature thin, julienned pieces of beef with sautéed poblano and red peppers and onions. They’re served with plenty of corn tortillas, alongside containers of rice and beans, guacamole and sour cream on the side. There’s no pico de gallo, but the mashup still makes for a flavorful mouthful even if the beef is less prominent.
Marinated in ancho peppers, garlic, cumin and Mexican oregano, the crisp grilled half chicken is juicy and tasty, yet a little pink next to the bone. It’s a bit one-dimensional and monotonous after a while; this one could benefit from a dipping sauce.
Then we get to a platter of tacos. Our pick is the Baja fish: beer-battered fried mahi-mahi topped with pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa, along with cotija cheese and garlic aioli. The shredded red cabbage provides a bit of crunch as well. These are pure Mexican comfort food until we discover that one of our fish fillets is raw. Oops! This isn’t ceviche or a sushi bait-and-switch. It’s a quality control breakdown that can’t be ignored, which is a shame because the whole table is otherwise pleased with their food. But raw fish and pink chicken knock everything down a notch.
The key limeade is terrific, perfectly balanced on the knife’s edge between sweet and tart. I want a gallon, but the angel on my shoulder restrains my baser instincts. Suffice it to say, you’ve been warned. There’s also an assortment of beer in bottles and cans, in addition to a duo of Modelo on tap. Although the wine list is limited, it covers familiar grape varietals. Agua de Jamaica, a refreshing iced hibiscus tea, rounds out the drinks.
The restaurant space itself is a bright and welcoming dining environment. The roll-up door entrances blur the divide between inside and out. Tall ceilings with white beams and exposed ducts supply a casual vibe. The walls are painted with giant, multicolored squares based on Mexican tiles. The simple oak tables and chairs are partially painted with the brightest turquoise. The legs and backs and the bases and uprights glow like the prized gemstone that has been identified with Mexican jewelry since Teotihuacan masks that date back as far as 300 A.D.
In sum, Amigos is a welcome addition to the casual downtown food scene. I assume that our misfires will be corrected. It seems that some Yelpers had trouble with their service, but ours was very attentive. What’s more, soft corn tortillas definitely have a more rubbery mouth feel for those used to flour tortillas from Publix. The restaurant does offer hard corn tortillas (for gringos) in case that’s your preference.
As with much ubiquitous street food, diners are very clear about what they like. This isn’t the Mexican place for you if fiery spice is what you seek. But if fresh, square corn tortillas peak your interest, check it out. My quartet left with happy smiles all around.