We hold this truth to be self-evident: food critics love to eat. And the corollary that follows directly from that core value is that we owe eternal gratitude to people crazy enough to open a restaurant. They must be totally enthralled and, then, be able to sustain that thrill of first love. It’s a tough business under any circumstances. And now, there’s 2020.
Much of our globe is having a communal culinary experience; if you’re reading this you’re more than likely a restaurant patron bitch-slapped by this pandemic. The future is uncertain. When will our lives return to normal? Will our favorite haunts where we met friends and lovers to break bread together survive? Even these fleeting questions prompt pangs of dread and elicit waves of empathy.
Avo’s Kitchen @ Iberian Rooster
475 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Appetizers (cravings) $3 - $13; entrees (bowls) $10 - $16; no desserts; drinks $2 - $4
Survival, in many cases, means metamorphosis. Russell C. Andrade transformed St. Pete’s Iberian Rooster into Avo’s Kitchen, a celebration of his grandmother (“Avo” in Portuguese) with spice blends formulated from her restaurant in Tanzania. His father, you see, is a native of Goa, a region south of Mumbai on the west coast of India bordering on the Arabian Sea. However, it was a Portuguese colony for 450 years.
So the new “authentic yet accessible” menu is a throwback to Andrade’s childhood. His mother and grandmother worked with the chef to assure that his family’s Goan roots and the flavors of his fond memories are all available in his fast-casual, counter service, build-your-own bowl themed restaurant.
The spice blends we tasted build on typical curry spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric); you’ll have no problem tasting their South Indian influence.
The potato-filled samosas are not particularly crisp and the filling is soft rather than chunky. There are a few green peas, as well, but ultimately this version is—surprisingly—a bit bland.
More successful, for me, are the Goan patties. They are similar to empanadas; ours are stuffed with creamy sweet potato mash dotted with peas and corn. The pastry is flaky, but soft and delicate.
The “mild” rooster wings are quite spicy for Western palates. My friends from the Indian subcontinent laugh at me, but I find too much heat overwhelming. My son, however, can’t get enough. You know where your own taste lies. The wings themselves are meaty and well-cooked.
We choose to go with a trio of chef selections in lieu of the mix-and-match option. Each one is full of flavor and well-balanced. There’s lots of variety inside the broader world of curry spice.
Millennial Falcon is a veggie affair with chili-fried tempeh and lots of contrasting texture, heat and distinct curry spice. The base is Pilau rice pilaf and lentils plus curried cauliflower florets and chickpeas. It’s tossed in some creamy Rooster sauce with jalapeño and cilantro leaves and then layered with lush avocado crescents and crisp pickle rounds.
Boom Chicka Boomer fills the bowl with brown rice and crisp chickpeas plus ample chunks of curry chicken salad in a sweet herb sauce with plenty of diced red onion. It’s another nice mix with lots to please your palate.
My favorite of our trio is Prawn Stars. Perhaps I’m seduced by the yummy bread bowl, which catches all the juices. But the moist curried shrimp are just scrumptious surrounded by cauliflower rice and chickpeas topped with tart and crunchy rings of colorful pickled red onions, which add a lovely pink accent. The loaf is surrounded by mixed greens. I can’t resist tearing the empty bowl into pieces to enjoy the amalgam of flavors. It’s really got me Goan.
There are no sweets on the menu, but Avo’s does feature a coffee bar and a trio of lassi, sort of a yogurt-based shake. We hoped to try the coconut version, but when we order online it’s marked as unavailable. The website is easy to navigate and the prices are fair. We have to wait just a bit on pickup, but that means our order is fresh. It all stays hot in the individual takeout bowls neatly packed into big brown bags for easy transport.
The disc-like bowls resemble recycled paper UFOs with crystal clear tops. And as we try to pop them to access our meal, we need to use a dinner knife to separate the tight-fitting parts. We laugh that these are child-proof containers. Actually, after having experienced takeout where the receptacles failed, we’re actually happy that it takes some work. The meal is definitely worth it—another triumph of experiencing world cuisine without the 9,000 mile journey.
Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you up to the minute news on how Coronavirus is affecting Tampa and surrounding areas. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.
Want to know everything going on with Tampa Bay's food and drink scene? Sign up for our Bites newsletter.