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Ex-Californians: Great Mexican Restaurants in Tampa Bay?

I've gotten advice from Texans. And from New Yorkers. And, of course, from Floridians. And they all swear they KNOW what good Mexican food tastes like. Maybe they do -- but their preference is distinctly different from mine and every other California transplant I know. (Velveeta does *not* count as a Mexican cheese, folks.) There is something unique about Mexican food from California, particularly LA, and it hasn't been replicated at any eatery I've tried in Tampa thusfar. (To date, the closest in taste has been Guadalajara's on Hillsborough at Anderson.)

So, I beseech the California-palate Chowhounds: Please recommend truly authentic, truly delicious Mexican food in the Pinellas, Hillsborough or Pasco areas. My tum will be forever indebted.

FYI, the following do NOT fall on the list of "good Mexican," sorry:

Vallarta's on Anderson
Poblano's on McMullen Booth
Jose's on Drew

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  1. Have you tried El Toro Negro in St. Petersburg? Taco Nazo on Hillsborough in Tampa? Mi Mexico on Armenia in Tampa? They are all humble places that remind me of the Mexican food I"ve had in Mexico (which is pretty close to California). Al Gusto on Kennedy in Tampa is also pretty good, a little less humble, not quite like the real stuff, but perhaps closer to the California style, though I'm not quite sure what that is. Maybe you could help us by explaining what California style Mexican food is, rather than what it isn't (I assume you're not talking about the giant burrito that originated in the Mission District of San Francisco and is now the centerpiece of a couple of popular chains). I agree, the real stuff - the stuff I've had in Mexico - doesn't use yellow cheese of any sort (avoid the growing chain of Estella's restaurants in Tampa, for example, or Miguel's on Kennedy in Tampa). The fish tacos at Z Grill on Central in St. Pete I'm told are close to the California version. Try a few of the above and let us know what you think.

    1. Don't know the Tampa area but I *did* live in Orlando for a year and never had any decent Mexican.

      Why not learn to love Cuban? It's an entirely different Caribbean cuisine that they *do* do well in Florida? Then you can do what I did when I lived in Florida and Canada: bring back lots of Mexican groceries from your trips back to California and make your own. Mexican food isn't hard; it just takes the right ingredients which, as you point out, do NOT include Velveeta. And enchilada sauce is NOT a substitute for salsa.

      1 Reply
      1. re: rainey

        I'm sure the Tampa Bay area has enough Mexican grocery stores that it shouldn't be necessary to bring things back from California unless it's something from a region of Mexico that's not represented in the communities out here.

      2. Bergerman offered solid suggestions. Try those.

        I couldn't agree more on the places you mention (I will never set foot in a Vallarta's again!), although i think there is a time and place for decent texmex. Of course, tyhere's plenty of bad mexican food wherever you go, and we're no different here. It seems the first reacxtion fo newcomers is to try to find replacements for what they used to eat.

        We get the same complaints from New Yorkers about bagels and pizza. I often think that even if we had the exact same food here, emigres would still find it wanting. In any case, I hope you find something edible here. When you're done trying to replicate California food, you might find that we have some pretty good options in the area. Even some things you'd be hard-pressed to find in Cali. You might find the glass is half full one day.

        1. I've never been to Cali, so I can't really help with your request either. Check Laurie's post for Really GOOD Mexican food in CLearwater-although she's a Texan. The food at Guadalajara's was ok, but I found it to be a dirty location.
          I'm equally amazed that Chowhounds have repeatedly recommended Poblano's. Granted, I've only been there once, but there was a bad smell when I walked in and I'm pretty sure the tamale I was served came out of a can. And if the place is full of only Americans, how authentic can it be?

          1. I'm really surprised at the negative reviews of Poblano's. We usually go 2-4 times a month and have never had problems with cleanliness, smell or service. I'm really picky and would never go back if I thought there was an issue.

            An alternative is Casa Tina's in Dunedin--their food is fresh and healthy (for Mexican).