In search of the best lunchtime taco in downtown St. Pete

click to enlarge ADOBO TO GO: The excellent taco from Adobo Grill. - LISA MAURIELLO
ADOBO TO GO: The excellent taco from Adobo Grill.

Everyone knows that St. Pete's downtown dining scene has had a serious kick in the ass over the past five years. It has grown, stalled and grown some more, with restaurant row on Central and BayWalk helping bring people back to the business district after dark. That's all great, but what about the people who have to be downtown during the day?

On a recent walkabout, I was surprised at the lack of street vendors plying their wares to wage slaves let out of their cubicles for recess. There just aren't enough sweaty men selling Italian sausages and icy cans of coke from gleaming metal carts.

Never fear! There are a few options for the busy career person craving quick, tasty, portable food to fortify the stomach and the soul for the remainder of the work day. Within a single two-block area, smack dab in the middle of downtown, sit no less than three taco joints.

Tacos are among mankind's most perfect foods - a cornucopia of nature's goodness. Meat, dairy, veggies, herbs and spices contained by a simply folded piece of tortilla, with innumerable permutations and combinations. Don't mistake the humble taco for mere fast food, though. A good taco is a work of culinary artistry. A great taco is like found art. I set out to find the best of the area.

Z GrilleZ Grille is essentially a dinner place that opens during lunch for a bit of extra trade. At night, it serves Baja-inspired cuisine from Southern California - lighter than Tex-Mex with a lot of fresh seafood. During the day, the menu is stripped to the bare minimum, with fast food versions of the restaurant's dinner dishes.

Pork, fish, chicken, and steak are served in tacos, burritos or on salads. I started with the fish tacos ($8.95), which, to me, define a taco stand. Too upscale for a Taco Bell, the fish taco lets me know where the food is coming from and what it is trying to accomplish. Z Grille's fish is covered in batter and fried until golden and flaky, a recipe straight from San Diego. The fish was fine, but it was covered in what seemed to be lettuce (instead of the superior crunchy cabbage) as well as a lot of shredded jack cheese, which tended to drown out the subtle seasoning on the fish. The corn tortillas were so bland, they tasted more like the flour variety.

Steak tacos ($8.95) had the same salsa, lettuce and cheese topping, which suited the more weighty meat just fine. The beef was over-marinated, though, which led to an overpowering lime flavor as well as the broken down texture that comes from a long bath in acidic fruit juice. They weren't bad, but they weren't good.

At this point it seemed like every dish had a split personality - something good paired with something not so good. The pork burrito ($7.95) was no different: juicy, tender pork infused with a great combination of cilantro, garlic and lime packed next to yellow rice that had an odd seasoning reminiscent of Lipton soup mix. A crock of pinto beans ordered on the side looked great, but tasted only of the beer they were obviously cooked in. I ate the pork out of the burrito and pushed the rest to the side.

Dino's Jazz BarMexican food is new to this jazz bar and performance space right next to Jannus Landing, and around the corner from Z Grille. No pork or fish can be had (sacrilege!), so a shrimp taco ($7.95) had to do. The shrimp were red with a spice rub and rubbery from overcooking. Combined with dry tortillas and a sharp bite of heat, my mouth turned to dust and I immediately reached for something to lubricate the food down my throat.

Beef tacos ($6.95) were better, the meat juicy and well seasoned, with tomatoes, lettuce and shredded cheese crammed into the aforementioned dry tortilla. With those two items behind me, I should have known better than to drain my Dr. Pepper before trying the chicken burrito ($7.95). The chicken was cooked until every last shred of moisture was removed from the flesh. This time, I ate the rice out of the burrito and left the rest.

Adobo GrillI began to worry that I might not be able find a place for office-dwelling folk tired of their Lean Cuisines and Uncle Ben's Microwave Rice Bowls. I steeled myself and entered the populist wonderland that is BayWalk. Who would have known that the best Mexican food in the downtown area is served over a little counter on the first floor?

It became much easier to understand when I found out that Adobo Grill is a fast food satellite of the exceptional Red Mesa restaurant. It shows in the taste.

Medallions of mahi covered in "adobo paste" were topped with simple salsa fresca and a pile of extremely crunchy shredded cabbage in Adobo's fish tacos ($5.50 for two). The doubled-up corn tortillas tasted like, well, corn. These were what I was seeking all along - a multitude of restrained spices combined with subtle fish, toasty corn and contrasting textures. I could eat a pile of them.

Ground beef tacos ($1.95 each) were almost as good - the saucy, cumin-infused meat packed into a chewy flour tortilla with fresh lettuce, cilantro-laden pico de gallo and crumbled queso fresco instead of shredded cheese. The burrito ($4.95) was packed with tender pork tinted green with salsa verde, a smear of refried beans, pockets of melted cheese and simply seasoned rice that picked up flavor from the pork.

A side order of jet-black beans ($1.50) thankfully tasted simply stewed, with just a hint of cumin and onion. The guacamole was odd, almost preternaturally creamy and rich, like something was added for effect other than avocado. It was easily forgotten after taking a big swig of the incredibly fragrant sweetened hibiscus tea.

Go to Adobo Grill. Become a regular. With such excellent food to look forward to, the workaday morning will fly by. If you need help to get you through the afternoon, just plan on returning for dinner.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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