Tangelo’s finds a home

The old St. Pete staple survives — and thrives — two years after its move to Gulfport.

click to enlarge LIVING COLOR: The food is as bright and casual as the decor at Tangelo's. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
LIVING COLOR: The food is as bright and casual as the decor at Tangelo's.

When Tangelo’s Grille lost its lease in downtown St. Petersburg in 2010 and left for Gulfport, their departure ended over two decades of serving a vibrant and exciting lunch to legions of devoted St. Pete fans. That might have been the end of the story — restaurant moves can be fatal to business, especially when a beloved spot winds up far from its core clientele. Not for Tangelo’s, however.

In the heart of Gulfport, just a few steps away from the casino and waterfront, Tangelo’s not only found a new place to set up shop, it found an ideal home.

The colors inside the space are bright, evoking the islands that drive much of the cuisine at Tangelo’s and meshing perfectly with Gulfport’s casual, sandals-and-t-shirts vibe. The food is just as bright and casual, a mélange of Caribbean hits with a touch of Mexico thrown in, more home cooking than fine dining, with prices to match.

Add in the very personal touch provided by owner Lisa Brennan, who you’ll find serving tables and chatting up regulars almost every day, and you have a formula that seems tailor-made for turning Gulfport locals into regulars. Not to mention helping introduce Gulfport to fans that have followed Brennan from downtown St. Pete.

But just because it serves homey and comforting dishes, don’t underestimate the potential power of Tangelo’s food. The kitchen isn’t afraid of heat, and fresh flavors dominate most plates, with a few exceptions.

The best expression of this is in the restaurant’s Cuban-style pork. Slow-roasted until the hunks of meat shred at the slightest touch, the pork is incredibly moist, carries a hint of smoke, a bit of fragrant garlic and just enough citrus to brighten each bite. Every scoop of the accompanying black beans and rice features many of the same flavors, and every so often a blast of green heat sears across your tongue thanks to tiny bits of spicy pepper. By themselves, the beans and rice are standard starch, but add in the sharp vinegar, fresh veggies and diced peppers of the salsa on top and they’re rescued. Elevated, even.

A version of that salsa shows up in Tangelo’s salsa fish, where the cool and spicy flavors add layers to an otherwise simple filet of salty-deep-fried fish. Even the restaurant’s chili — thick and packed with big chunks of tender ribeye — gets help from the lively green heat of peppers, accenting an already deeply flavored dish.

When the fresh veggies and spicy peppers are missing, Tangelo’s food often seems bland or dumbed-down, like the restaurant’s Oaxacan mole chicken. The pounded-flat breast meat is nicely cooked and seasoned well, but the dark brown sauce clinging to it almost detracts from the whole, a bit pasty and one-dimensional with none of the fresh heat that could rescue it.

Tangelo’s vegetable fritters suffer from a similar problem, the dense batter heady with jerk spices and fried a deep brown, until all you taste is a deep-fried spice cabinet instead of the vegetables that are seemingly at its core.

Other sides and appetizers are much more successful, like crisp, starchy yucca fries served with a spiced sauce, plantains that are cut thick and fried until golden-brown and tender throughout, or conch chowder that’s rich without being heavy, loaded with potatoes and tasting of the main ingredient.

The restaurant has also made a name for itself with its Cuban sandwiches, one of the stars of its former downtown lunch business. For good reason, since the restaurant roasts its own pork, infuses mayo with pungent garlic and knows how to build a classic. Tangelo’s doesn’t press their Cubans much, which makes the crust more chewy than crisp. Vive la difference.

Sangria is the restaurant’s signature drink — along with a small beer and wine selection — which is perfect for the warm Gulfport evenings outside on the sidewalk. Sit long enough and you’ll likely see why the neighborhood is such an attractive place for people who want to slow down and live a more storybook Florida kind of life. Every other person who walks by will stop to chat with someone they know, maybe even sit down for a while, and Brennan greets almost everyone she sees by name.

That sort of constant interruption can slow down service, but it’s a small price to pay for Tangelo’s Gulfport vibe.

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