3.5 out of 5 stars
3701 W. Henderson Blvd., Tampa. Appetizers: $6-$18; entrees: $9-$29; desserts: $6-$9; beer, cocktails & wines by the glass: $5-$15. 813-353-3701, thelocaltampa.com.
As I pull into the triangular parking lot for The Local in South Tampa, I realize the space previously housed Square 1 Burgers & Bar, which I really enjoyed in my 2015 overview of cheeseburgers (and then Kobe sliders last year). It’s a sad reminder that the restaurant business is demanding, even if the food world’s lamentable affairs never make it to the cover of a supermarket tabloid.
Luckily, The Local has some splendid cocktails to distract my party. Built around smooth Havana Club añejo rum, the Old Cuban is a mojito variation combined with freshly muddled mint and lime, then topped with bubbly prosecco. One of my companions, who was going to pass on a pre-dinner libation, takes a sip, and we put a second on the bill. Likewise, the signature Manhattan is a satisfying mix of Four Roses, gently stirred with Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth and served with a bourbon-aged black cherry, which is really my excuse for ordering. I could eat these by the jarful, but it'd seriously distract from our appetizers.
The beer cheese fondue features a small cast-iron pot filled with a heady amalgam of local brew with melted Cheddar and smoked Gouda dotted with bits of bacon. It’s presented on a handsome wooden board with neat rows of toasted, warm soft pretzel bites, sliced sausage, roasted Brussels sprouts, and tiny cauliflower florets. While the menu also promises apple slices, they're absent from our array. We don’t really miss them because the fondue is so yummy — and a fun pool in which to dip the various food groups.
Rock the South is an inspired, down-home variation on oysters Rockefeller. Rock salt piled into a cast-iron skillet cradles our trio of open half shells, but instead of a bed of spinach, there are creamy, smoky Southern greens as a base for a crispy, craggy golden brown fried oyster. And rather than hollandaise, there’s a thick, lush garnish of Tabasco aioli that drips down to fill every nook and cranny, adding the right amount of heat to complement the oyster’s briny flavor and crunchy texture. Think of these as a sort of oysters Rhett Butler instead.
Another Southern twist: The Devil’s Eggs, which breads and then deep fries a quintet of hard-cooked egg white halves before piping them with the spicy yolk filling we’ve come to expect. Add a garnish of thin jalapeño slices and a crisp piece of bacon and you’ve got a starter that'll have Satan’s pointy tail wagging.
Our entrees are also alluring. Skillet pot roast stuffs a tiny cast-iron pan with an ample chunk of slow-braised beef surrounded by a panoply of root veggies, which glisten in dark gravy fragrant with rosemary and thyme. Chunks of sweet carrots, potatoes and soft onion pieces float in the lush sauce, and a triangle of chewy flatbread pokes skyward from the skillet’s edge. It’s a dish that I can see Maj. Ashley Wilkes eating before charging into battle while Scarlett O’Hara is off making a dress from the plantation curtains.
Then, there’s the delightful chicken pot pie. The dish swaps pastry for delicious cornbread topping to cover chunks of juicy chicken interspersed with sweet peas, carrots and celery in a succulent herb gravy.
The Whole Hog isn’t far from the truth. A huge 20-ounce, bone-in pork shank rises from a bed of creamy risotto dotted with wild mushrooms. It’s bathed in a coating of “momma’s gravy” that pools up around the shank as you shred the tender meat. Truly a pork lover’s dream.
The Local's wine list is selective. There are 10 choices, with each representing a single grape varietal, alongside one red meritage blend. Every option, however, highlights a reliable producer, so you’re in good hands in terms of finding a synergistic match for your meals. Plus, the beers on draft cover a range to please most palates.
Desserts sound alluring, but don’t deliver as well as what’s come before. Southern bread pudding promises a homemade peach concoction covered with warm caramel sauce and an ample scoop of vanilla ice cream. Unfortunately, the peaches are not integrated into the custard; they're instead a compote-esque topping. And when the caramel sauce meets the cold ice cream, it becomes globular. The treat clumps in tasty morsels, yet as a whole, it ends up less than the sum of its parts. What could be sigh-producing seductive comfort food leaves us underwhelmed.
Check out more photos of what we ate from photographer Chip Weiner
The same is true of the seasonal parfait in a jar. Citrus cake crumbs are layered with key lime mousse and whipped cream. Though the mousse is appropriately tart like a proper key lime pie, the parfait is less appealing than the real deal.
Still, The Local delivers “Southern roots, locally refined” with a splendid flair. The menu also lists butter beans, shrimp, boiled peanuts and Uncle Kirby’s pickle sticks. Thankfully, culinary heritage doesn’t carry the negative stigma of Confederate monuments and the stars and bars. The civilization may be "Gone With the Wind," but the South’s flavors are going strong on Henderson Boulevard.