When Chef Elvis Barros was thinking of names for his new restaurant, he thought the most logical would be Elvis' Café, named after himself. But almost as soon as the restaurant opened, they received a call from the heirs of another Elvis — as in Presley — challenging his choice.
"They wanted to know where we got the name and wanted to know if we were displaying [Presley] memorabilia," explained part owner and manager Paul Rogers. "We told them we didn't have any memorabilia and that it was our chef's birthright, since his name is Elvis."
"They were disappointed, but they had no choice but to leave it that way."
Thus, Elvis' Café began, a little neighborhood restaurant residing anonymously in a shopping center near the University of South Florida. When the center lost its grocery store last year, the remaining tenants struggled on. Now, the dated shopping center is slated to be demolished and rebuilt with more modern amenities in coming months. Owners of the Elvis' Café hope they can remain tenants in the new building. But they intend to continue their business in the area either way.
The restaurant draws a mixed clientele of students, businesspeople, families and seniors. The food is solid, hearty and plentiful. They offer a combination of Spanish and Italian dishes, along with a few other offerings, such as Americanized pizza, chicken salad, lemonade and occasional forays into other cuisines as well.
Its culinary diversity is a result of Chef Elvis' heritage: half-Spanish, half-Italian, plus the enhancing effect of the chef's natural curiosity. He occasionally offers specials drawn from other cuisines as well, such as British Beef Wellington, as a treat to loyal regulars.
Chef Elvis learned to cook from his family, then at culinary school in New York City, where he worked as a sous chef at the Metropolitan Museum. He moved to Tampa 12 years ago, cooking for a local Spanish restaurant for a few years before opening his own place seven years ago.
Inside Elvis', it's quiet, dark and cool, with classical music wafting across the tables, melding with savory food odors emanating from the kitchen — where you can hear Chef Elvis clanking around with his pans. For some people, its closed-off-from-the-world aura might seem claustrophobic, but I had been out in the sun and heat all day and welcomed its protective embrace.
The tables wear cheerful, plaid green-and-white cloths. The night I was there, a family with a couple of young children sat opposite me, the baby cooing and giggling, and the toddler so intent on the food that I barely heard him at all.
To me, the fact that families feel comfortable there is a plus: It endows an unusual intimacy and hominess. Rogers was my server and his gentle banter and simple friendliness — plus the steaming, heaping plates of food — made me feel welcome and relaxed. Even though I was dining by myself, I felt as if I was among friends or relatives.
Skipping what I have heard is terrific sangria, and the wine list of a half-dozen or so selections, I chose homemade lemonade ($1.75, free refills). It arrived in a large glass, its clean lemony scent refreshing, the cold liquid and clinking ice such a perfect rejoinder to incessant summer humidity. During the meal, Rogers good-naturedly kept refilling and I drank several glasses to the bottom.
I chose one of my favorite Spanish appetizers, shrimp ajillo ($5.95), shrimp sautéed in white wine, butter and sprinkled with parsley. The shrimp was fresh and not overcooked, but its sauce needed more oomph. Either more garlic, a more assertive wine, a dash of dried red chili peppers or a spritz of lemon juice.
The little place sports a big menu, with lots of interesting entrées. They have everything from grilled chicken salad and Spanish-style roasted pork to Italian favorites like eggplant Parmesan, chicken Milanesa and fried shrimp. I ordered red snapper papillote ($13.95), red snapper baked in parchment paper with what technically is called a crab, shrimp and lobster sauce, but is really more like a stuffing with its heft and weight.
While I waited for the entrée, I entertained myself with the house salad (each entrée comes with bread, butter and your choice of soup or salad). The salad was a fresh spring mix of greens, iceberg lettuce, shredded carrot and grape tomatoes, charmingly ragged-looking in the dish. The salad was pocked with "peasant-style" croutons, sizeable chunks of bread crisped with butter. I ate the whole dish with relish, especially enjoying Elvis' popular homemade dill dressing, smooth with a subtle creaminess.
The main dish arrived bubbling, accompanied by a huge mound of fragrant, glistening yellow rice and two piles of julienned, glazed carrots. The fish was moist and white, still wrapped in the browned parchment paper with its thick sauce a deep pink color. The fillet was large and filling — I could barely eat half, but I ate every one of the glazed carrots and a good portion of the rice, too.
By the time I got to dessert, I was really on a roll, testing the brownie sundae ($4.50), a fat square of pecan brownie made with chocolate and topped with scoops of ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a cherry. The brownie was finely textured and infused with a deep, semi-sweet chocolate flavor. I could nitpick and suggest colder, better-quality ice cream, but if I had not finally exerted the slightest hint of self-control, I could have easily eaten it right down to the bottom of the bowl.
Elvis' Café is certainly a place I would patronize again.