Mercel's Bake Shop (Pinellas Park)
I've concluded I've taken too much from this board and not given enough back. Other than complaints about heavy-handed mods, I don't know why posting about Tampa Bay area places has dropped off precipitously, but I resolve to post more often; maybe others will follow. The way I see it, despite the scores of offensive establishments in our area, there really are some gems, and they deserve our praise, support, and attention.
Enter Mercel's Bake Shop. I love Filipino food, but more often than not, restaurant Filipino food does not leave me happy. Mercel's is quite a different story. We have visited twice over the last three months, and I can now really say this place is worth the drive. It has been written up here previously http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/809087 , but I think it merits another mention.
I have had lechon kawali and lumpiang shangha (on both visits), lechon paksiw, pinakbet, and bicol express. All have been outstanding. Filipino food is not glamorous at all, but when that perfect balance of brininess, sourness, and fat comes together, underlined by white rice, you can experience quite a party in your mouth. I recommend Mercel's particularly because it seems all is cooked to order. This is what makes it wonderful to eat here; but this is partly what makes it a test of patience.
On both occasions I have visited, there has been a staff of exactly two. That's right: two people to cook for multiple tables, ring up groceries, take orders, serve rice, and everything else. You will wait. You will have to go up to door of the kitchen to see if there is life. You will not have water until you go up and ask for it. You will feel hot and probably break a sweat in the lightly-air conditioned space. But you will also lick your plates clean when the food finally comes out, and likely forgive the lack of staff.
Now all of that being said, I am already looking forward to my next trip back. Everything tastes incredibly simple and straightforward, without the usual restaurant unnecessary heaviness, greasiness, or saltiness. Vegetables are fresh, crisp, succulent, and flavorful. Not dead, limp, or overly cooked. The lechon has been delicious both times, crispy and non-greasy, with plenty of sauce.
MIL bought some pandesal -- homemade "dinnerish" rolls, although that description doesn't do them justice. OUTSTANDING! Mercel's is foremost a bakery, and this is the first baked good I've tried there. If this is any indication, I am sure the cakes are excellent. The pandesal was perfect: fluffy, light, barely sweet, barely savory. Very, very elegant bread. I'm already craving more.
I don't know of any other Filipino restaurants open in the area, but I don't know if I much care, given the quality of the chow at Mercel's.
Bring an extra dose of patience with you. Like most Filipinos, they are exceedingly kind and warm, but the situation will test your limits. I guess I would think of it like going to grandma's, not like going to a restaurant.
Again, I've only gone on Sundays, but I can't imagine it being much better on the weekdays.
But this level of quality of Pinoy food is definitely unique. Enjoy.