Hometown hacienda: James Beard honoree to open farm-to-table Mexican restaurant in Tampa Bay

Acclaimed chef Todd Hall is transforming Oldsmar's City Fish into Suegra Tequila Cantina.

click to enlarge Chef Todd Hall, who's behind the soon-to-open Suegra Tequila Cantina. - Suegra Tequila Cantina
Suegra Tequila Cantina
Chef Todd Hall, who's behind the soon-to-open Suegra Tequila Cantina.

Guess where a two-time James Beard Foundation honoree is opening an upscale farm-to-table Mexican restaurant in Tampa Bay.

Oldsmar.

Craig and Matt Vario, who own City Fish at 4022 Tampa Road, found out about Temazcal Tequila Cantina — an acclaimed Boston-born Mexican restaurant from award-winning chef Todd Hall — through a third party. Known for opening the world’s first four-star Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda at Arizona’s Scottsdale Princess Hotel, among other high-end dining spots around the country, Hall says the Varios reached out to him for help transforming their 10-year-old seafood grill and chophouse into a concept like Temazcal.

That indoor-outdoor concept called Suegra Tequila Cantina, it's scheduled to open early this year. The modern eatery will spotlight traditional gourmet Mexican grub as well as a tequila bar featuring more than 200 tequilas and mezcals.

“They like the employees, like the neighborhood,” Hall says of the owners. “They don’t want to shut down and leave and thought, ‘let’s grow with the times.’ They’re listening to their market and that’s brilliant.”

click to enlarge The new eatery's crispy plantain empanadas. - Suegra Tequila Cantina
Suegra Tequila Cantina
The new eatery's crispy plantain empanadas.

Hall, who’s moved to Westchase from Vail, Colorado, and is passionate about the flavors and cooking styles of his native southwest, began his 30-year culinary career in French cuisine. After receiving formal training at age 15 and becoming the youngest graduated apprentice to earn American Culinary Federation certification, he became chef de cuisine at Salt Lake City’s Le Parisienne, a fine French restaurant, at 19.

In addition to launching restaurants for a number of hotels and resorts as a consultant, Hall has served as executive chef or chef de cuisine at La Posada de Santa Fe, Château du Sureau, L’Auberge de Sedona, Paradise Valley Resort and Los Abrigados Resort.

For his latest project, the 8,000-square-foot Suegra, Hall has focused on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, whose water towns have “really great fish and cattle ranches.” The country’s southern end, unlike the north, he says, offers more fruits and veggies, which Suegra’s menu of healthier, fresh Mexican will reflect. With a 40-seat patio and room for 200 inside, the lunch and dinner restaurant does plan to showcase lots of fish, but it won’t be the focal point.

Combination plates, fried food and cheese on everything are some of what the chef says he’s observed while scoping out Mexican spots across the region, from Oldsmar to St. Petersburg. That’s not what diners will find at Suegra; instead, Hall says the food will be more in the vein of modern Mexican restaurants from chefs like Richard Sandoval and Rick Bayless.

Expect crispy plantain empanadas and tons of salads — chopped, plus varieties with fish and grilled skirt steak, ripe tomatoes, avocados, radishes and chiles. Dreamy-looking photos of huevos rancheros, seared wild sockeye with mole poblano, lobster guacamole and chorizo-stuffed quail have also been shared on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“I think what I’m introducing to the market no one’s really doing,” Hall says.

click to enlarge Ingredients that Hall uses to create Huachinango a la Veracruzana, or red snapper. - Suegra Tequila Cantina
Suegra Tequila Cantina
Ingredients that Hall uses to create Huachinango a la Veracruzana, or red snapper.

To pull off its farm-to-table dishes, the restaurant is set to source from Florida farms, including the hydroponic Swank, not far from West Palm Beach, and Tampa’s Urban Oasis, another hydroponic operation that Hall refers to as his local favorite.

“[Urban Oasis is] growing cool stuff — berries, teardrop tomatoes, mizuna. They’re really growing the stuff I like to work with,” he says. “Definitely the coolest thing I’ve seen so far.”

Despite the difficulties that come with making farm-to-table a reality — a lack of diner support for the restaurants doing it, chefs writing menus they’d like to see rather than menus based off what’s available, and the way food is grown in America (Hall mentions Monsanto’s Roundup practices), to name a few — the chef is optimistic.

For instance, he says Swank’s growing season, October to March, is “the best season you can ask for” because it picks up when farmers throughout places like Kentucky and North and South Carolina are winding down. And when it comes to summertime in Florida, when sourcing locally grown ingredients becomes even harder: “What you have to do is the next best thing.” This means stocking up with locals from September to June, then going a little north to Georgia, then farther north and onto the east coast as it gets hotter.

“We have the same problem in Arizona. We have six months perfect growing, and then six months where we can’t grow anything, so we go up to Utah and Colorado. That’s the same thing here,” Hall says.

click to enlarge Suegra's strawberry margarita calls for Patrón Silver, strawberry, basil, lemon and St-Germain. - Suegra Tequila Cantina
Suegra Tequila Cantina
Suegra's strawberry margarita calls for Patrón Silver, strawberry, basil, lemon and St-Germain.

click to enlarge Another cocktail, Maguey, features Wild Shot Mezcal, lime juice, mint, agave nectar, a dash of Tabasco and Gosling's Ginger Beer. - Suegra Tequila Cantina
Suegra Tequila Cantina
Another cocktail, Maguey, features Wild Shot Mezcal, lime juice, mint, agave nectar, a dash of Tabasco and Gosling's Ginger Beer.

Suegra’s extensive tequila and mezcal selection reflects what he calls “a whole new trend of tequila bars.” Plus, tequila is a big deal for the fine dining rooms of a hacienda, the Spanish word for “estate.”

At the new restaurant, shots start at $6 (Ilegal Mezcal Joven) and can go up to $250 (Jose Cuervo 250 Anniversario). Phew.

“When you go into real haciendas,” the chef says, “tequila is like fine wine. They’re really, really valued as part of the culture, so they all have hundreds of them.”

Flights of tequila and mezcal will be highlighted, as will craft cocktails that incorporate the spirits. The restaurant will use Mexican sodas, sugarcane, agave nectar, hibiscus flowers and other tropical offerings to execute its drink menu.

In English, suegra translates to “mother-in-law.” While doing research and development for La Hacienda in Acapulco, Hall worked in the kitchen with cooks who’d make great food that wasn’t on the menu. When he’d ask them where it came from, according to the chef, they’d always reply, mi madre or mi suegra.

“When I started traveling and exploring the market, women do all the cooking. It’s all women. And so we named it Suegra,” Hall says.

The moniker easily rolls off the tongue, but also makes for good brand association. As the chef puts it, everybody has a suegra — future or otherwise.

As for the restaurant’s opening date, Hall, who’s staying in Westchase for the foreseeable future, tells CL the grand opening fiesta is planned for Feb. 4, but that construction could push it back until March 1.

“We’re switching to high-end Mexican, but will have more variety and a lower price point. We’re gonna make it so that someone with $15 can come here to eat and the most expensive thing will be $32.”

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