Guac n' Cheese
3 out of 5 stars
4101 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa
Appetizers: $6-$14; entrees: $12-$27; desserts: $4-$6.50
We seem to have an insatiable appetite for Mexican fast-casual cuisine. Tacos are everywhere and tortillas are now seen as vehicles to take diners on whirlwind tours of global gastronomy.
But it’s comforting to know that a neighborhood place like Guac n' Cheese can deliver, although it’s clearly geared for American palates who demand less spice than Oaxaca or Vera Cruz. The vibe is comfortable, local and buzzing with energy.
Chips and salsa say a lot about any Mexican restaurant. At their best, the salsa sings with freshness, particularly from the diced tomatoes and fresh cilantro. And the chips are made in house and present an ineffable crispness. Lesser establishments embrace jarred salsa and commercial chips—usually in the colors of the Mexican flag.
The salsa presentation is unique. The chunky tomato sauce is served in a small clear glass carafe; it’s fresh, but chilled for easy service. The mixed basket of chips is colorful, but at least one is a bit stale. Pouring salsa is an intriguing twist and neater than dipping.
The guacamole has large chunks of creamy avocado and a spine of fresh lime which makes it lively on the palate even without heat. An appetizer trio of beef empanadas is piping hot; the pastry is flaky and the ground beef filling satisfying. You just can’t beat a “hot pocket” that’s obviously fresh from the kitchen without a hint of greasy oil.
A refreshing match for the cuisine is the sweet and fruity red sangria that’s topped with a plentiful dice of assorted fruits—red and green apples, orange segments, and red grapes that rise to the surface. The frozen lime margarita is huge and has plenty of zip. The alcohol and lime are nicely balanced and the flavors dance on your palate. It’s a step above the generic slurpees that are often passed off as cocktails.
Fajitas are always a great way to test the mettle of the Mexican kitchen. Our chicken fajitas (with flour tortillas) are sizzling with the usual onion plus julienned red and green peppers. The chicken has lovely char and the accompanying platter is huge, with ample servings of tasty beans and rice. The beans have almost no shape, but are rather like a creamy legume butter. The rice is tasty with a nice balance of tomato, garlic, and chili. It’s flavorful without being overly assertive.
A huge mound of juicy shredded pork carnitas topped with julienned cilantro is full of flavor and crispy bits. The platter has a large molded mound of the Mexican rice, a cup of beans and shredded lettuce with a scoop of guac and sour cream. A trio of warm foil-wrapped tortillas accompanies the dish for you to serve up delicious mouthfuls. It really delivers for pork lovers.
Besides these, the menu features a full array of Mexican classics-—burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tamales, chimichangas, etc. There’s also a range of lunch specials and even musicians to charm you on Mariachi Thursday evenings.
For dessert, there’s churros, tres leche and fried ice cream plus a vanilla flan that’s classic, but is taller than most. It’s cylindrical rather than disc-shaped, and when pipped with a generous amount of whipped cream reaches skyward. There’s a lovely ring of burnt caramel sauce, but not enough to pool; I always want more. That said, the texture is smooth, lush and not gelatinous. It’s also offered in coconut or cheese.
Guac n’ Cheese isn’t pushing the envelope, but if you’re looking for fresh classics served with care, you’ll be happy to be in the neighborhood.
CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.
Want to know everything going on with Tampa Bay's food and drink scene? Sign up for our Bites newsletter.