3 1/2 out of 5 stars
2149 3rd Ave. South, St. Pete. Appetizers: $5-$8; entrees $14-$26; dessert $6; beer/wine: $4-$12.
You lovely island,
Island of tropical breezes.
I’m pretty sure my first awareness of Puerto Rico came from West Side Story. I hadn’t yet become much of a traveler. And I had absolutely no idea about authentic ethnic cuisine. My German-American maternal grandmother sometimes made potato pancakes. But most of my relatives were English, so our idea of exotic food was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Otherwise, my path to exploring the gastronomic riches of the world was largely lined with cans of Chun King.
When I finally made it to Europe and had my “aha” moment, it rocketed me into a kaleidoscope of global cuisine. OMG. The food world is amazingly diverse, with thousands of flavors and dishes that represent a sense of place. I saw (and tasted) firsthand a cornucopia of ethnic dishes beyond French toast, tacos, and pizza. I learned to seek out traditional dishes and street food as a way to get inside the skin of the people wherever I went. I got the travel bug and now, wherever I go, here or abroad, I want to explore. There are so many wonderful regional and national dishes to embrace. Luckily, in 21st-century America, most cities of any size have dozens of mom-and-pop restaurants proudly serving almost anything you could desire from cuisines around the world.
It’s possible to travel the globe gastronomically without hopping on a plane. Think of all the myriad choices available to us just here in Tampa Bay. Even the many contemporary chefs who use traditional cuisines as creative springboards to launch surprising culinary mashups know fusion cuisine isn’t always desirable. Ferran Adria, the godfather of modernist cuisine, hails local, simple, fresh food as his distinct favorite. He took the late Anthony Bourdain to a special restaurant on the Costa Brava which serves only fresh-caught daily seafood with a sprinkle of salt. Nature is the touchstone to establish benchmarks of taste.
With that in mind, it’s a joy to find WEPA! (WEH-pah), which is hiding in an industrial area of St. Pete across from 3 Daughters Brewing. WEPA! is a common expression of jubilation and celebration for Puerto Rican natives. Chef Jean Totti brings handwritten family recipes from his boyhood in San Juan that represent three generations and a lifelong dedication to sharing his roots. These are the same dishes that begin with finding perfect ingredients at the farmer’s market and end with the satisfaction that you’d enjoy on the island alongside friends and family.
The beef patty starter is a crisp, warm empanada stuffed with ground beef filling that’s spicy, but not too hot. The pastry is light, not flakey, and it’s obvious that these were made to order. It’s a wonderful way to begin. The other starters are also sides, so we choose one of everything else to go with our individual entrees. Everything has a homemade feel; you get the connection to Totti’s love for his ancestors and how these dishes channel the family tradition.
What’s more representative than simple rice and beans? But the individual grains are fluffy and the ample beans are distinctly spiced. The first mouthful is met with an “oh my.” They make you take notice, which is not always the case. Most other versions are unremarkable; not here. I’m not swooning, just pleased. Plus, the tostones are bright and flavorful with just the right texture.
We try yuca fries with the roasted pork. The thick cut pieces are warm and crisp; the outside yields to a seductive, creamy center as if to say, “move over, potatoes, we’ve got this.” The shredded pork is moist and juicy with some wonderful crisp ends. A wedge of fresh lime adds a touch of brightness, and there’s a stainless cup of melted butter with ample garlic for dipping or drizzling as you see fit. It’s a triumph of simple ingredients and impeccable technique.
The garlic sautéed tail-on shrimp are plump, glistening and sprinkled with parsley. The yuca en escabeche bursts with flavor. The sliced yuca is soft without being mushy and intertwined with sautéed onion, red pepper and dotted with capers. It’s simply delicious.
The most dramatic dish is a beef tenderloin sitting on a molded round of mofongo and topped with a yummy seared scallop. It’s surrounded by a green ajilimójili sauce that’s a staple in Puerto Rico. It’s the first time I’ve encountered this; it’s reminiscent of chimichurri, although more peppery than herbal. The mofongo base is a mashup of garlic flavored plantains with bacon. My tablemate finds it dry and wants some sauce, but it certainly doesn’t lack for flavor.
The desserts are fine, if less exciting. The vanilla flan is a wedge with nice texture with a zig-zag of dulce du leche instead of burnt caramel. And there’s a cheese plate with three thin queso rectangles topped with candied papaya. I guess I’m spoiled by the vision of a French cheese cart, but the sweet fruit is lovely.
All in all, WEPA! has homegrown flair and if you choose to go, know that “tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night.”
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