Restaurant review: Suegra delivers a flurry of Mexican finesse

Suegra Tequila Cantina

3.5 out of 5 stars

4022 Tampa Road, Oldsmar. Appetizers: $6-$16; entrees: $10-$32; desserts: $8-$9; tequilas: $5.50-$250. 813-814-5800; suegratequilacantina.com.


Mexican cuisine is a complicated affair. Sadly, as it crosses the Rio Grande, it's most often toned down, simplified and limited to the ubiquitous taco-enchilada-burrito variations popularized at Taco Bell and Chipotle. Not that these don't deliver plenty of flavor at popular prices, but the tradition is so much richer.

Luckily, many mom-and-pop restaurants broaden that paradigm with fajitas, margaritas, sangria and the like. We've got many terrific options across the bay, such as Casa Tina and bartaco. And rarer still are upscale establishments that treat tequila like fine wine and aim for an expanded bill of fare.

I've been lucky to dine at a few upscale restaurants in Mexico City's chic Polanco neighborhood, from La Hacienda de los Morales (think Bern's Steak House) to the inventive Izote de Patricia Quintana, which unfortunately shuttered in 2013. Those experiences opened my eyes. Sadly, it seems we're so happy with tacos, et al., that the local market rarely embraces Mexican gastronomy aspiring to the kind of finesse that we more easily embrace from other great cuisines.

St. Petersburg's Red Mesa has been the lone purveyor of Mexican dishes pushing the fine-dining envelope. Happily, restaurateur brothers Craig and Matt Vario recently opened the splendid Suegra Tequila Cantina with an eye to offering Mexican food that elevates the traditions. Sure, you can still get tamales and tacos, but when's the last time you had slow-roasted suckling pig carved tableside?

The concept is the brainchild of celebrity chef Todd Hall. Unfortunately, opening a new restaurant is like living in a pressure cooker, and sometimes things explode. Just after I took my foodie amigos to taste the wares, the owners and the chef parted ways. But the menu items we tasted remain.

"We parted ways for differences and hired a traditional Mexican chef," said Keith DeAngelo, area manager for the Varios' restaurants, which also include St. Pete Beach's Toasted Monkey and Rick's Reef. "Now we are making all of our own tortillas and tamales from a local husband-and-wife chef team."

The opening salvo is a trio of mini puréed dips — verde, roja and black bean. It's a nice touch, well presented, if you can let go of your fresh and chunky salsa expectations.

Our bacon guacamole looks great. First of all, it's served in a huge molcajete, the traditional three-legged stone bowl used to crush spice and mash avocado. The chunky avocados are at their peak of creaminess, but the jalapeño and onions scream. And what happened to lime, cilantro and salt? I also prefer some tomato and cumin, but that's personal. And the bacon is a crisp folded garnish not integrated into the mix. This is an unnecessary disappointment.

Heirloom tomato gazpacho includes achiotina, lard colored with annatto, and is seasoned with roasted chiles and topped with crema. The gazpacho is neither chunky and rustic, nor puréed, strained and silky. Instead, it's coarse like it was made with a food processor. I assume there are some yellow heirlooms in the mix since the color is very light. While there's nice acidity, it's not as refreshing as a cold soup without the distinct presence of cucumber and olive oil.

Tender octopus tentacles touched with flavorful char surround soft, seductive corn pudding with a firm, bright streak of acidity that wonderfully balances green aji pepper sauce, which is mild but perfectly creamy like aioli. The whole thing is dotted with small red bits, which appear to be from grape tomatoes. It's sensational and one of this year's best dishes.

Our first entree is sea scallops al pastor (in the style of the shepherd). They bear no resemblance to the usual use of this term, which normally refers to shaved meat. But, though the scallops could perhaps have a crisper sear, the grilled pineapple with toasted coconut butter makes for a delightful mouthful.

I must say I'm impressed to see suckling pig carved tableside on the menu — talk about old-school and upscale. It's slow-roasted for 10 hours and split down the middle of the back. The pig arrives with a flourish on a wheeled cart, which causes a stir in the dining room. The serving is ample and simple, with a small silver pitcher of natural sauce. It's everything you might expect, and even a little pig serves 10. I guess daily leftovers go to tacos. Despite feeling conflicted upon seeing the little one, it is succulent, tender and delicious. Such is the carnivore's dilemma.

Grilled chicken mole is advertised with Mexican street corn and plantains. Strips of chicken breast are only lukewarm and would be dry without the sauce. The street corn is off the cob, and the plantains seem absent; we don't taste any sweetness in the mix, and typical slices of plantain aren't there. This might portend disaster if the mole itself weren't so delicious. It's a wonderful alchemy of chocolate and chili that coat the poultry to magical effect.

Our desserts are small yet intense. The Kahlúa chocolate cake is brownie-dense and topped with "caljeta," by which I assume they mean cajeta, or Mexican caramel, ice cream. It's tasty, but the flavor isn't bold. Mexican flan is similarly tiny. However, it's creamy with plenty of expected dark caramel sauce. What's one-of-a-kind is a garnish of candied sugar palms. They're little white gelatinous balls that are quite sweet, which make the seasonal berries — in this case blueberries — seem out of place.

Quibbles aside, when the dust settles and the kitchen hits its stride, sophisticated Mexican glories and 150-plus tequilas should lure you to Oldsmar.

Editor's note: Additional reporting for this story was done by Nicole Abbett.

CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system, or email him at [email protected]

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When's the last time you had slow-roasted suckling pig carved tableside? You can at Suegra Tequila Cantina.
Nicole Abbett
When's the last time you had slow-roasted suckling pig carved tableside? You can at Suegra Tequila Cantina.
The upscale restaurant recently opened to Oldsmar off Tampa Road in the former home of City Fish.
Nicole Abbett
The upscale restaurant recently opened to Oldsmar off Tampa Road in the former home of City Fish.
A circular bar greets diners as soon as they walk through the front door.
Nicole Abbett
A circular bar greets diners as soon as they walk through the front door.
The splendid Suegra offers Mexican food that elevates the traditions.
Nicole Abbett
The splendid Suegra offers Mexican food that elevates the traditions.
Charred octopus, featured as a starter, is sensational and one of this year's best dishes.
Nicole Abbett
Charred octopus, featured as a starter, is sensational and one of this year's best dishes.

Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

At a time when local-based reporting is critical, support from our readers is essential to our future.