The Food Issue: Five terrific Bay area taquerias

Out-of-the-way Mexican food gems around the region that you've gotta try.

click to enlarge A trio of La Fiesta’s affordable and toothsome tacos. - meaghan habuda
meaghan habuda
A trio of La Fiesta’s affordable and toothsome tacos.

Tampa Bay’s hankering for Mexican cuisine is stronger than ever. Whether you’re looking for a quick bite that isn’t served from a drive-through order window or an escape from those typical neighborhood nosh spots, here’s a rundown on five out-of-the-way Mexican spots — ranging from sit-down eateries to outdoor walk-ups — that tend to fly under the radar. What are some of your favorites?

Casa Ramos The atmosphere at New Tampa’s Casa Ramos doesn’t scream Mexican restaurant, but its menu, rather than just reciting the typical “taco, burrito, enchilada...” offers one of the region’s widest varieties of Mexican nosh. From the Pollos Mexicanos grilled chicken to the you-choose-the-meat-and-toppings Tacos Authenticos, each dish mirrors its mouth-watering menu photograph, and the effort that goes into the food’s plating is evident. The satisfying deal is sealed from your first bite, leading you to return to this hidden oasis, headquartered in a small shopping center off the main road, as often as you can. 15363 Amberly Drive, Tampa, 813-977-2266. —Matthew Cruz

Chicken & Taco Loco I regularly crave the flavorful wonder of this open-air taco stand’s vegetarian torta, but all the delicacies that churn out of its kitchen are tasty. Nestled next to Brandon Auto Tech along the fast-paced Brandon Boulevard, Chicken & Taco Loco, owned by Jacqueline Mireles, keeps it simple inside its big mustard yellow bus: customers place and retrieve their orders from the bus’s walk-up windows and may choose to sit and nosh at one of the joint’s patio-style tables out front. The blink-and-you-might-miss-it find specializes in Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican fare, including fajitas, the classic huarache, gorditas, tacos and chalupas, as well as daily specials like pork in verde sauce and chile rellenos. When the staff asks if you’d like a hot or mild accompaniment, go hot, and don’t forget your house-made agua fresca to wash it all down. 105 W. Brandon Blvd., Brandon, 813-654-5497. —Meaghan Habuda

click to enlarge Chicken and Taco Loco is nearly hidden off Brandon Boulevard. - meaghan habuda
meaghan habuda
Chicken and Taco Loco is nearly hidden off Brandon Boulevard.

Cinco de Mayo Bakery Bright, clean, welcoming and located in the center of a modest Clearwater strip mall, the Montero family-owned bakery prepares fresh breads, savory foods and a vast assortment of elaborate, distinctive cakes for every occasion, from weddings to quinceañeras to birthday parties. Desserts range from simple goodies to sumptuous layered treats with rum, cream and other decadence. Best reason to visit: The service is friendly and very accommodating. Sandra Lyth, CEO of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute Hispanic Outreach Center, recommends Cinco de Mayo as among her favorite ethnic Latin eateries, noting its tamales as her personal favorite. You can also order, coffee rich mole sauce with your meats and empanadas — stuffed with different meats, potatoes, onions and spices — and other “serious food” catered at a variety of events. The bakery is among Lyth’s list of must-try Clearwater Mexican eateries (see more here). Be sure to try Cinco de Mayo’s custardy flan-like dulces in the refrigerator case. Muy rica! 1262 S. Highland Ave., Clearwater, 727-446-1937. —Julie Garisto

La Fiesta Less than five minutes from the daytime bustle and innumerable restaurants of Ybor City, you’ll find homey, authentic Mexican eats served from a kitchen nestled in the back of this Latin supermarket across the street from semi-infamous Hooker Point lounge-and-package joint Stoney’s. The menu is huge, the prices are small and unlike a lot of hole-in-the-wall Mexican places around the bay, there are booths allowing you to enjoy a big, spicy plate on the premises — along with chips, salsa, a plethora of indigenous hot sauces and maybe a Mexican beer or two — rather than in your car and, potentially, all over your crotch. In addition to tacos, burritos and the like (all available with a wide variety of meats, including the highly recommended spicy roasted-and-shredded beef known as barbacoa), La Fiesta offers some less ubiquitous options, such as tortas made your way and lengua (beef tongue). The service is friendly, the lunch combos come with a terrifying amount of beans and rice and you can always grab some south-of-the-border soda, pastries, cactus or chicharones (fried pork skins) on your way out. 1202 S. 22nd St., Tampa, 813-241-2477. —Scott Harrell

Taqueria San Martin Where Mango Road meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Seffner, this little walk-up, side-of-the-road taco spot dishes its delectable no-frills grub from a yellow trailer attached to a pick-up truck (how awesome is that?). Taqueria San Martin features a covered dining area with a few picnic tables to enjoy menudo, burritos, tostadas and other offerings alongside beverages like bottles of Jarritos soda. During a recent visit, a local produce stand was also set up nearby. Patrons are able to fill their orders of soul-warming $1.50 corn tortilla tacos with myriad ingredients — barbacoa, chicken and cabeza (beef head) among them. 4000 County Road 579, Seffner, 813-703-3323. —MH

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