Restaurant review: VIP en la playa

VIP Lounge, a Treasure Island institution, serves up Mexican-American fare with bargain prices and a beach-town vibe.

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click to enlarge THREE AMIGOS: Chicken, steak and shrimp fajitas with a refreshing margarita. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
THREE AMIGOS: Chicken, steak and shrimp fajitas with a refreshing margarita.

I’ve often lamented the homogeneity of the food down Gulf Boulevard. Too much emphasis on cheap beer and fried everything. Admittedly, the casual vibe along the water doesn’t put the sandcastle set on gastronomic high alert.

So what happens when you put a Mexican-American spin on what beachgoers obviously crave? Does VIP Lounge & Mexican Restaurant champion big quart bottles of Corona Especial with unlimited nacho variations celebrating Cheez Whiz? Or have they found a way, like Long John Silver, to thrive on Treasure Island — all without diluting the allure of our southern neighbor’s culinary traditions?

As it turns out, VIP’s recipe for success is actually very simple: “fresh ingredients, strong drinks and consistency.” Even though they were under my radar until recently, it turns out they’ve been a gathering place for locals for more than two decades. When my posse arrives on a recent weeknight and walks through the kitchen (yes, you heard me right), we can barely make our way through the restaurant to the rear patio because the place is teeming with happy patrons. And it’s most certainly not high season. I can’t wait to see what the excitement is about.

click to enlarge The restaurant's Saturday lunch crowd. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The restaurant's Saturday lunch crowd.

On the beer front, there’s VIP’s custom pint glass — “$6 with a fill up of beer or $6 with no beer, you choose.” More importantly, VIP specializes in design-your-own margaritas. Customize your ’rita by choosing from many flavor combos of tequila and orange liqueur in a range of popular brands (Cuervo, Patron, Don Julio), from blanco (young and bold) to añejo (barrel-aged) tequila with triple sec from Cointreau (light) to Grand Marnier (a cognac blend). My obsessive side wants to sample all the variations; oh, well — too bad I’m driving.

After knocking back perfectly acceptable $5 house margaritas with salt, we begin with “three amigos,” a huge pile of freshly fried corn tortilla chips served with a trio of dips: a pleasantly spiced chunky salsa, creamy guacamole and a smooth queso dip. We eat entirely too much even before our entrees arrive. The best Mexican restaurants across the Bay feature complimentary chips and salsa. VIP, however, has more modest prices; a reminder that nothing is actually free, and that the VIP menu is a bargain.

One of the unique aspects of VIP’s selections is the appropriation of popular dishes from other world cuisines. There’s Mexican pizza with stacked tortillas, novel Mexican egg rolls (think mini deep-fried burritos) and, not to be outdone, a “Philly-steak” burrito.

Speaking of burritos, VIP’s signature is the famous “wet burrito.” They take a flour tortilla, roll it up with cheese and meat (ground beef; shredded beef, pork or chicken; steak, shrimp, or fish), smother it with red burrito sauce and melt even more cheese on top. On the side, there’s lettuce, tomatoes, onions, black olives and a cup of sour cream. You can eat it with a fork or choose the messy route. It’s very tasty, although our shredded pork version is too salty.

There are combo platters as well as “gringo food,” but why anyone would come to a Mexican restaurant and eat a patty melt or a hot dog with fries is beyond me. Instead, try a chicken enchilada or a splendid fish taco with crisp corn tortillas filled with grilled mahi, cabbage, cilantro and onion.

click to enlarge The famed VIP wet burrito. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The famed VIP wet burrito.

Sizzling fajitas give you a choice of chicken, steak, shrimp or a combo of all three. We opt for the troika (easily the most expensive entree at $23, but all the better to point out that most entrees are a bargain under $10). I’m happy to say all three fajita proteins arrive hot and juicy. Rolling fajitas is fun, and all the usual accompaniments make for a tasty and filling dinner.

Dessert choices are limited, which is no surprise. There’s no flan or tres leche, which are a bit fussy for the beach. One of my companions swoons at the juxtaposition of a crunchy tortilla shell which serves as the bowl for Mexican fried ice cream, all creamy and gooey. We all enjoy breaking off bits of churro, dipping it in chocolate sauce and swiping a blob of whipped cream that’s piped the length of the fried-dough pastry. It’s a nice way to end the meal.

VIP’s rear patio is a pure beach environment, informal with a bamboo-lined smoking area and colorful metal mesh tables with built-in benches to withstand the sun and rain. Unfortunately, as the margarita anesthesia wears off, we become aware that spending an hour or two on these metal seats has a numbing effect. So we waddle to the parking lot, stuffed to the gills, but well aware that there are distinct advantages to padded chairs. If I’m going to be a VIP, I want to revel in the comfort that the acronym implies. Next time, as I work my way through the margarita options, I’ll bring a cushion. 

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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