7 reasons to check out the newly opened El Chapo Taco

The restaurant is what we like to call "Gulfport fancy," meaning it isn't at all.

click to enlarge Served with cilantro rice, black beans and elote, El Chapo's El Gringo and black bean and corn tacos. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Served with cilantro rice, black beans and elote, El Chapo's El Gringo and black bean and corn tacos.

Years ago, Gulfport locals flocked to Casa Cortez (now Manatees on the Bay) for American-style Mexican food. Casa Cortez wasn't on par with Agave, or Casa Tina, but it wasn't exactly Taco Bell, either. What Casa Cortez lacked it made up for with great prices, friendly staff and consistency. 

It's been a long time since the neighborhood's seen cheap, tasty Ameri-Mex cuisine. And, honestly, it isn't that easy to come by anywhere. We fancy in Tampa Bay. But the newly opened El Chapo Taco ain't. 

El Chapo features a full-liquor bar as well as indoor and outdoor seating (there's a covered patio and side deck) at 3038 Beach Blvd., the former home of Fish Bar and Grille. Here are seven reasons to check out the latest addition to the Gulfport restaurant scene.

1) $3.50 tacos 

As in, all of them — beef, chicken and black beans and corn, whether you go with corn or flour tortillas. Actually, the Baja fish taco costs an extra 50 cents.

Yes, it's one taco per order. You can get a meal with two and some fixin's on the side (think cilantro rice and black beans). However, if you don't want a whole buncha food, you don't have to do that thing where you take home half of your meal and forget it in the back seat of your car.

click to enlarge Don't even think about touching my elote. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Don't even think about touching my elote.

2) Elote

Mexican street corn. It comes as a side or a starter, though it's not the sharing kind of app because hands off my Mexican street corn.

3) If the gang from Friends ran a restaurant, this would be it.

The former GM from Fish, Angelique Everett, owns the business, and there's quite a few former servers there. But they're friends — not just work friends, friend friends — and it shows. Picture the cast of Friends (only today's 20somethings) running an inexpensive Mexican joint and you've caught my drift.

There's a camaraderie here that you simply don't see at most restaurants; they seem to have a sense of, "Yeah, we're in this together and we're gonna make it happen." My mother-in-law handed the payment to the wrong server, and she didn't do the, "I'll get this to your server" thing — she took it, cleared our table, processed the card and brought back the receipt without missing a beat.

On my recent visit, the team also smiled at each other and laughed as they worked. All that's missing is a big red couch and obnoxiously large cups of coffee. Whatever. Happy begets happy, and the result is that the vibe in the restaurant is definitely a nice one.

4) Remember Viva La Frida?

In 2004, I worked an Alley Cat show at Tampa's Viva La Frida, and I ate the same dish every night for a month. I don't remember what it was, but it was a glorious amalgam of chipotle cream, beans, rice and other stuff. And whatever El Chapo puts on its black bean and corn tacos tastes exactly like what I remember.

One bite and I was a 30-year-old broke AF freelance writer moonlighting as a freelance stage manager to make ends meet and eating the starving artist special unironically.

5) The food's served up late.

As in, El Chapo stayed open until midnight on a Sunday. In Gulfport. I'm pretty sure the entire town is collectively dying of shock right now: We have two restaurants that operate late. We have options, and they're both good. What's next — sushi? A 24-hour diner? Thai food? Gulfport, you so crazy.

6) Staff from other restaurants in the neighborhood eat here.

Hey, when you try a restaurant for the first time and see the day crew of a nearby establishment sitting down for a meal, that's a great sign that the grub's decent. My understanding is other servers have been dining there since El Chapo launched a few weeks ago — and with good reason.

7) Refreshing honesty.

"You don't want to order that."

That's what my server told me when I tried to order the skirt steak, which is the priciest thing on the menu at $15.95. I hadn't asked his opinion, so his statement gave me pause.

He went on to explain the restaurant had switched suppliers for the steak, and it wan't thrilled with the result. Well, OK then. If you care that much, I'll take your advice — and think more of you for it (and, no, the crew didn't have a clue who I was or that I intended to write about the place). 

If you go: Bear in mind El Chapo is new and this isn't a review. While my meal wasn't perfect, it was delicious and reasonable. Plus, seriously, don't underestimate the atmosphere created by a team of people who are having a great time with each other and the customers. It makes you want to return for another taco.

And that elote certainly doesn't hurt.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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