Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q almost got me. At first glance, the Tampa newcomer looked like a mom-and-pop stop for Southern barbecue, occupying an unassuming strip-center end cap. However, upon closer inspection, I learned it’s the product of a growing Jacksonville franchise with snazzy branding and restaurants in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
Featuring a drive-thru for convenience, the region’s first Willie Jewell’s — a fast-casual spinoff founded in 2009 of Jacksonville’s decades-old Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q — opened in the Carrollwood/Citrus Park area at 12004 Anderson Road on March 14. It’s named for Willie Jewell Daniels, the woman who taught Bono’s CEO Joe Adeeb lots about both cooking and life.
The down-home menu is composed of slow-smoked favorites (think platters, sandwiches and proteins by the pound) and classic sides such as hush puppies and collard greens, alongside cold beer. And don’t worry — there’s an entire bar of signature barbecue sauces for patrons to use when slathering their meat.
A fourth Willie Jewell’s location for the Sunshine State, aka the second in Tampa Bay, is coming to Seminole City Center at 7724 113th St. N.
• A couple of months back, Don Julio’s Authentic Mexican Cuisine fulfilled a lifelong dream for the Rodriguez-Nambo family. They always wanted to share the traditional Mexican flavors and recipes of matriarch Esther Rodriguez with the local community on a larger scale — and, boy, have they ever at 2808 E. Bearss Ave.
The casual, sit-down Tampa restaurant — with a name that pays homage to Julio, Doña Esther’s late husband — spotlights a number of specialties, including fajitas, pollo a la plancha (grilled chicken with onions and peppers), enchiladas and bistec a la Milanesa (breaded steak). Those dishes mingle with taqueria classics like guacamole, carnitas on house-made tortillas, agua fresca and churros, plus wine, margaritas and beer.
Don Julio’s seems to be working toward becoming a family legacy indeed.
• Nilsa’s Puerto Rican Bistro has expanded with a second Tampa location at 428 W. Waters Ave. The popular restaurant’s latest outpost celebrated its grand opening last weekend with a 20 percent off discount on orders of $50 or more.
Fans of Nilsa’s — whose flagship debuted near Busch Gardens last year — stop in for the signature dishes of Puerto Rico, including pasteles (similar to tamales), mofongo and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). The house-made flan and empanadas are also worth a taste.
• St. Petersburg saw the launch of Taquitos Mexican in February. Located inside the former digs of Chef Ken’s Smokehouse BBQ at 9617 Bay Pines Blvd., the taco house specializing in modern Mexican street food draws inspiration from Cadereyta de Montes, just outside of Mexico City.
Patrons, whether they dine in or request carryout, might have a hard time choosing between the lineup of sopes, taquitos, burritos, 10 types of tacos, quesadillas or bowls — but only because there’s so much goodness to behold.
Mama Rosita’s Quesadilla Frita (fried corn quesadilla topped with a selection of meat, lettuce, queso fresco and crema) and La Changa Chimichanga (tinga, rice and refried beans topped with lettuce, queso fresco, crema and tomato) are among the highlights.
• Not too long ago, Daybreak Cafe took over the Tarpon Springs property at 1981 N. Pinellas Ave., where Tarpon Bar & Grill used to be. The good-size restaurant showcasing a mix of booth and four-top table seating offers crowd-pleasing plates for breakfast and lunch like blackberry pancakes, cheeseburgers, pork souvlaki and omelets.
Other cafe news in Pinellas, ICYMI: Basimo Beach reopened its Clearwater Beach site on the second floor of Pelican Plaza in February. With a distinctly cozy vibe, it’s a vegetarian-friendly find at 483 Mandalay Ave. for made-to-order smoothies and juices, coffee and all-day organic bites.