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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Dining review: Cigar City pub should be a keeper

From the moment news broke that Cigar City was opening a pub that serves food to go with its award winning, locally-brewed beer, North Tampa residents have eagerly kept track as the former TGI Fridays at Northdale Boulevard and North Dale Mabry was transformed from chain to chic.
That's because Joey Redner has cultivated quite a following with his brewery. In less than five years, and in a city and state not found anywhere on the craft brew map, Redner managed to create and market a number of beers that rate top tier in the craft brew tasting ranks. He's also built a brewery with a tasting room that has become a tourist destination and a staple hangout for locals.
Now he is expanding his empire to include a gastropub that brews beer on site and serves unique Cuban and Tampa-inspired grub to complement the suds.
So how did he do it? By paying attention to detail and being a hell of a marketer.
You can tell a lot of thought and planning went into the place, from the reclaimed wood hostess and server stations to the chandeliers made from repurposed barrel rings. Vermillion-colored walls are lined with beer cans, which are echoed in the stainless table tops and chairs.
Upon entering, you can't help but notice the massive stainless tanks in the brew room where beer and sodas are cooked up just for this location.
On our first visit, they didn't have any beer ready yet. On our second trip we ordered the house-brewed La Rubia Golden Ale, a medium-bodied ale with a floral background. Not our favorite.
Since its newness has worn off, the pub remains busy without being sardine-packed. Still, if you plan on visiting during peak dining hours, you may want to make a reservation.
Inside is a pub atmosphere - a mix of people, old and young, male and female. On a recent Saturday night, the side window-lined dining room was filled with families, many with children. A bevy of servers wearing Cigar City camp shirts brought fresh-pulled pints and plates of food.
A lot of thought went into the menu. The pub sources meat, dairy and produce locally, and lists the product and local producers on a chalkboard near the entrance.
If only as much thought went into the food preparation. Cuban dishes are prevalent, but there are a lot of places in Tampa that serve better Cuban food. The non-Cuban selections are experimental, and although some work, others make for better menu reading than eating.
For example, the "High marble farms pork chicarrones with mojo salt and lime" sounds like a great starter to complement most any beer. In reality, it was an attractive bowl filled with lukewarm cubes of pork fat that no amount of fresh squeezed lime juice was going to help.
The Cuban eggroll was better, with Cuban sandwich ingredients wrapped in wontons. The deviled crab was fine.
The rum-cured white oak-smoked swordfish tacos was the best starter, if you don't mind a liquid smoke aftertaste. It comes three to an order, and the swordfish is stuffed in a malanga shell that adds flavor, texture and holds up well to the stuffing.
A $5 kid's menu features Cuban sandwiches, grilled cheese, chicken tenders or orzo with butter and cheese.
Our favorite item was the farmer's salad. Local greens, toasted almonds, braised red and yellow beets are tossed in a guava vinaigrette and served with dollops of tangy goat cheese mousse.
For entrees, we had the Florida shrimp and Bradley's Florida cheese grits. The server informed me these would be course ground rather than creamy grits. I also had the option of keeping the heads on the shrimp, which I requested as it usually adds quite a bit of flavor to the bisque. What I got was a half-dozen huge shrimp on a bed of cheddar grits and a moat of spicy bisque.
Next time I would order it without the applewood-smoked bacon topping which, with or without shrimp heads, overpowers the dish with an abundance of smoke flavor.
The best entrée was the Providence Cattle Company grass-fed burger for $12. The flavor and texture of bacon and sweet plantains that top the cooked-to-order patty is a pleasant culinary combination, good enough that you wonder why it is not more prominent. And it's served with house-made malanga and plantain chips that are the ultimate bar snack.
The true talent of the kitchen shines at dessert. Skip the milk and cookies and go for the cakes. We had the four leches, which is moist, creamy and light. For something truly interesting, try the Hunahpu's Imperial flour-less chocolate cake. It offers an intense wave of flavors - first rich chocolate followed by deep cinnamon and finally a heat finish that comes from the chilis. It's served with a blueberry compote.
For those who may mock its location - this isn't the area's first gastropub. It's just the latest addition to a growing list of destination dining locations north of Busch Boulevard. And with more time to work the kinks out in the kitchen, it should be a keeper.
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