The Bungalow: Casual dining in SoHo

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click to enlarge LIKE BURGERS, ONLY SMALLER: The Bungalow's surf and turf sliders feature tuna, grouper, crab cake and beef. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
LIKE BURGERS, ONLY SMALLER: The Bungalow's surf and turf sliders feature tuna, grouper, crab cake and beef.

There's something about South Tampa restaurants, especially those clustered in and around SoHo, that makes you think more of style than substance. Partly, it's the pretty people that populate this area, filling barstools and pouring drinks. When it comes to the Bungalow, a new casual bar and restaurant a block from Howard on Kennedy, it's also the restaurant itself.

The Bungalow in question is a 1919 example of the Bay area's most sought-after residential architecture, complete with an extended patio overlooking the teeming Kennedy traffic. The plentiful wood accents are dark enough to be sumptuous, with plenty of windows in the two main rooms to fill the place with sun or mood, depending on the time. It's as pretty as the people.

Thing is, there's also some substance coming out of the kitchen to go with the window dressing. Although nothing the Bungalow produces is exceptional, the casual, vaguely Floridian fare is consistently equal — or even a tad superior — to the premise.

Like a group of four surf and turf sliders constructed from tuna, grouper, crab cake and beef ($12.95). The grouper doesn't stack up to most Tampa fish sandwiches, but tuna seared rare and doused in cilantro oil meshes perfectly with the gooey mini-bun. The burger and crab cake both have a noticeable crust, with seasonings that complement the fillings.

Bungalow's fish and chips ($9.95) construction needs some work, with breading that extends a good inch or so thick at points that it's like eating hamburger helper without the beef. Fritters packed with big chunks of conch ($6.95) have a better seafood-to-breading ratio, but the massive size of the conch bits turn the little balls into extended chew sessions.

Sandwiches are Bungalow's strongest suit, ranging from good to exceptional across the line. The BLT ($5.95) is classic; chicken coated in subdued jerk ($8.95) is moist; and the Cuban ($7.95), while atypical thanks to the use of pulled pork, is still damn tasty. Even an oddly labeled grilled vegetable Cuban ($8.95) — which is not pressed and basically contains no traditional Cuban ingredients — is well worth the order, the sweet balsamic and gorgonzola crumbles meshing perfectly with oily, charred veggies.

Take the pulled pork off the sandwich, and you find Bungalow's best entrée. The massive pile of chunks and shreds ($12.95) are moist, subtly seasoned with the garlic and citrus of mojo, and bear a tinge of spicy heat. Black beans on the side are bland, but the stack of thick-cut yucca fries has the fluffy, almost custardy center and crisp exterior that makes the root the only fry better than a potato.

Pastas are forgettable, and the seafood options are adequate but rarely exciting. Better to stick with more casual fare that matches the laid-back décor and televisions scattered around the place. That type of food also fits with the bar scene.

The Bungalow's bar may be one of the biggest draws of this place. It's a homey setup that's more relaxed than a lot of typical SoHo meat markets and scenester joints, with a decent beer selection, full liquor and well-priced wines.

That turns the Bungalow into a rarity in South Tampa — a complete package. Nice bar, nice food, nice décor, nice human scenery and little of the pressurized partying that inundates this dining and drinking district on the weekend.

Openings

Just a few blocks down Kennedy, Bin 27 Bistro (2702 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-878-2700) — located in the much-transformed former home of South Tampa icon Café Con Trey — recently opened its doors. Like the Bungalow, it offers lunch, dinner and a full bar, but the feel is starkly different. An elaborate onyx bar, decidedly upscale furnishings and elegant interior make it more a destination spot than a casual restaurant.

Bin 27 chef Jason Cline cut his teeth with an internship at Bern's during cooking school at Johnson & Wales, then worked a few high-end spots throughout Florida before heading to Hollywood, Calif., to helm a Cuban-influenced restaurant called Paladar and a Mexican joint.

Some of that experience finds its way into items like sofrito rock shrimp and ropa viejo, but there's also a big hit of subtle worldwide fusion, with a smattering of Italian, Asian and Middle Eastern ingredients on the modern menu.

As the name implies, wine is a big focus of Bin 27, found in the extensive bottle and glass list.

Red Mesa Cantina (128 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, 727-510-0034) — a new endeavor in the former home of DeSanto by the longtime St. Pete Southwest/Mex Restaurant — had a surprise opening on New Year's Eve. Announced just a day or two before the event, the restaurant held two seatings that clocked in at $100 and $125, respectively. Drinks extra.

That's much more pricy than the regular menu promises, which is loaded with tasty bites from around Central and South America, as well as many of Mesa's Mexican standards. Most of the dishes are discrete small-plates, quick to come out of the kitchen, geared to accompany the Cantina's array of Latin American drinks.

Owner Peter Veytia expects the Cantina to be a spot for revelers before and after stints at the upstairs Push Ultra Lounge (where diners will get in free of charge) and other downtown St. Pete spots.

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