Eater island: Kon Tiki brings Latin-Asian fusion and stylish fun to hotel dining

Most of the menu is based on just a few proteins presented in a variety of styles. Mojo pork, braised short rib and chipotle pork come in sandwiches, tacos, tortilla pizzas, nachos or spring rolls, each meat used in a variety of preparations. Stick with small plates, and you can try all three, plus one of the several preparations of chicken.

Those base meats are largely winners, although the short ribs can be a bit sodden with braising liquid when piled on a wonton shell or in a taco. The real key to Kon Tiki’s culinary success are in the little touches that add in that Asian and Latin flavor.

[image-1]Like pickled jalapeños that explode with tart heat in every other bite of the short rib nachos, or add crunch when fried and scattered in a chicken sandwich. Cilantro is thankfully used sparingly, so it adds a bright burst of herbaceous punch when you encounter it on a pork and corn pizza. Fried plantain chips provide counterpoint crunch in rice-paper wrapped rolls of pork and sticky rice, while crumbled queso blanco adds a pungent richness to sweet and sour slaw.

Fish is sauteed and served in fresh corn tortillas with classic Baja garnishes of cilantro and cabbage for one of Kon Tiki’s taco dishes, while tuna is tossed with coconut, sesame and lime for a fried wonton version. None of it is brilliant, but it doesn’t have to be: Kon Tiki’s food is casual, satisfying and priced just right for the location. That’s not to say that the restaurant can’t up its game when called for.

Kon Tiki has a few entrees that are a step above the other fun and friendly dishes, like a perfectly cooked grouper filet covered in a subtly sweet soy glaze and served with seasoned sticky rice. There’s also a crisp and creamy slab of tofu crusted with crushed pumpkin seeds atop rice laced with yellow curry and adorned with a bounty of veggies. Both are technically better than the more casual dishes, if a bit less exciting.

There is also a sizable list of sides that run the gamut from smoky bok choy from the grill to some of the best sweet potato fries around. And the slaw is nothing to sneeze at, thanks to a generous injection of cheese and a crisp texture that comes from being assembled to order.

Although the restrained playfulness of the food usually works, the cocktail list has a few problems. Many of the drinks feature boba tea-style tapioca balls — a pain to dig out of the bottom of a martini glass — and flavor combinations that are difficult to justify. Tequila and pomegranate? Not a good mix, especially with gummy gems soaking up the dregs at the end.

But kudos to the place for trying something new, regardless. Unlike Thor Heyerdahl’s iconic South Seas journey, Kon Tiki isn’t about struggle, innovation or even proving a point. It’s a restaurant that works for the location, satisfies its clientele and throws in a few curve balls to keep people on their toes.

Photos: James Ostrand.

After biting through a gooey mass of braised short rib and sharp queso fresco into the flaky crunch of deep-fried wonton skin, and feeling the bright bite of pickled jalapeño blow though the other flavors, I can’t help but assume that Thor Heyerdahl never had it this good.

Of course, the intrepid explorer/author and Easter Island aficionado also didn’t hang out in hotel restaurants very much. The Kon-Tiki he called home — his long wooden boat — was a tad less posh than this new restaurant in the bottom floor of the Tahitian Inn and Spa on Dale Mabry in Tampa. This Kon Tiki still has that hotel restaurant vibe, but with plenty of patterned wood and natural materials it’s more stylish than most. And the food is more interesting than most hotels can hope for.

Kon Tiki bills itself as Latin-Asian fusion, but the food is decidedly less fussy than you might imagine. Dig past the occasionally playful and sometimes surprising blend of ingredients like mojo pork and Thai sticky rice, or pumpkin seeds and curry, and you’ll also find that the restaurant’s tasty food is rather simple.

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