Recently, two popular Tampa restaurants — the Taco Bus and Acropolis Greek Taverna — opened outposts in St. Petersburg, expanding their successful franchises across the bay to a whole new group of diners. One cultivates incredible excitement amongst diners almost unthinkingly, while the other goes out of its way to make a scene.
Walking up to the beloved Tampa Taco Bus' new St. Pete location, the first thing you notice is the line. Doesn't seem to matter when you decide to stop by, there's always a line snaking away from the window of the eponymous bus where all the food is made. I comment to my friend that the line seems like a melting pot of sorts, from African-American families to pierced and tattooed 20-somethings.
"Yep," he replies, "hipsters and regular folks."
The food at this Taco Bus is much like that found at the original, same menu and largely the same quality. The tortillas are better now than they used to be, the options have expanded over the past few years, and the fillings are built for the masses.
Taco Bus packs its seasoned meats and vegetarian staples into burritos, quesadillas, tortas, tostadas and, of course, tacos, topped with traditional shredded cabbage, onion, cilantro and diced tomatoes. All fresh, all tasty enough, if you're interested in a slightly dumbed-down version of the classic Mexican taco.
That's not meant as a critique; consider it praise for indefatigable owner Rene Valenzuela's deep understanding of his clientele. People go to the Taco Bus — here and in Tampa — because of the accessibility of his take on traditional street food. Hunting out more serious tacos at bodegas and gas stations in ethnic neighborhoods — where many suburban seekers might cringe at the apparent laissez-faire attitude toward cleanliness and food storage — isn't a passion for most folks.
So they come to the Taco Bus and eat milder versions of barbacoa, puerco asado and chicharron in the festive atmosphere, belly up to giant wooden spools turned into tables, and perhaps feel adventurous enough to sip at a tamarind aqua fresca or a bottle of Jarritos.
And, despite the line, the aura that surrounds the Bus is a huge selling point — one that almost eclipses the quality of the food. Music blares over the speakers as people in line gab with their neighbors, families loaded down with paper plates share space with hipsters on the long benches, and the Taco Bus staff scrambles to keep everything moving along.
The Taco Bus may have mild food, but you cannot deny the lively atmosphere.
The new Acropolis Greek Taverna location in downtown St. Pete — in the former home of Bella Brava — tries to evoke a similar celebratory feel. Instead of Taco Bus' casual, neighborhood potluck vibe, however, there's almost a hint of desperation in the Greek restaurant's antics.
First, there's the music, on this night forced out of an electronic keyboard turned to Hellenic muzak, assisted by the two-finger stylings of someone who may or may not be deaf. To be fair, most people might be able to ignore "Mary Had A Little Lamb" pecked out over generic bass and horns, if the conversation at their table is engaging enough.
But, every so often, he turns off the keyboard as a more energetic tune fills the air, signaling the beginning of the "show." The servers (and whoever else is handy) lock arms around shoulders and do a Greek chorus line throughout the dining room, accompanied by shouts of "Opa!" and explosions of bar napkins tossed into the air by a trailing manager.
Depending on your mood — and how open you are to spectacle — it can be a fun and funny scene. Beware well-intentioned friends, however, who may inform the restaurant about a special occasion in the offing. That'll result in a direct assault on your table by an enveloping crowd of staff, all bearing handfuls of those white napkin projectiles.
On the weekends, Acropolis feels a tad less desperate, thanks to a bigger crowd and the addition of belly dancers to lend a little authenticity to the presentation. Even during the week, though, the restaurant needs the dining room spectacle to make up for the lackluster food.
Here, Acropolis is a bit more like the Taco Bus in style. As the local Greek empire expands — four locations and counting — the menu has gradually become more standardized. The more of a chain it becomes, the more like a chain it tastes.
The spanakopita is still exceptional, a huge hunk of puff pastry, feta and spinach that's easily a meal, and the fish is well-executed across the board, especially the heavily seasoned Athenian-style entree. But pastitsio is dense and bland, the hummus lacks richness and the falafel is cooked so crisp you'll need sharp incisors to break through the crust.
At some points during a meal at Acropolis, a little forced spectacle (or even joking commentary on the background music) can be a refreshing distraction.