Downtown St. Petersburg has become one of the best areas to hang out on weekends in the Tampa Bay area — a source of wonder for those of us who remember when the city was thought of as a sleepy place overrun by the senior set.
Downtown St. Petersburg and the surrounding area now sport museums, live music venues, restaurants offering a variety of cuisine styles, USF-St. Petersburg, art galleries, a performing arts center — as well as the Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Not so sleepy, anymore.
We recently dropped in on one of the area’s better-known spots off Beach Drive, the Red Mesa Cantina.
Located at the corner of 3rd Street South and 2nd Avenue South, the cantina is one of two Red Mesa restaurants in the area. The other, on 4th Street North, is more of a formal restaurant with an up-market menu. The cantina is more relaxed, with three distinct seating areas and a varied menu filled with tasty treats.
After finding a parking spot on the street, diners enter through an outdoor dining area with a hostess station, fountain, umbrella tables and lots of greenery. Adjacent to this is an outdoor bar decorated with Mexican wrestling paraphernalia. The inside dining area features a peek into the kitchen, exposed brick walls and a large bar that our waiter informed us has the second-largest tequila selection on the East Coast.
Speaking of the waiter, he was exceptionally helpful and knowledgeable about the restaurant’s menu.
We made sure to make one visit during the weekend brunch, an excellent way to experience Red Mesa Cantina for the uninitiated. It features special breakfast treats as well as items from the regular menu.
It also has a bevy of drinks for those who may be hitting a brunch on Saturday or Sunday morning to get beyond the effects of a late Friday or Saturday night. They include an excellent Bloody Mary that comes with a shrimp, cucumber and green olive skewer. It was just spicy enough to wake up the slightly sleepy.
There’s also a champagne mimosa with fresh orange, pomegranate and passion fruit juices. You can also try a Mexican beer on the rocks with sangrita, lime juice and a chili spiced rim (the Michelada) or with fresh lime juice and Worchestershire (the Michelada Negra).
We started by ordering up a basket of tortilla chips with three dips, all made in-house. The guacamole was chunky, not smooth, which is a matter of taste but which we prefer. The cheese dip features chunks of sausage, which speaks for itself. The salsa was more pureed than chunky and has a slight smoky flavor.
The brunch menu started with a handful of breakfast omelettes. We tried the Norteno, a mixture of steak, chorizo, bacon, jack cheese and an ancho tomatillo sauce, all served in a cast iron skillet. Although not a beautiful culinary concoction — no French omelette, this — the portions were generous. Although it tasted good on its own, you’ll want to spoon a healthy helping into the accompanying warm corn tortillas.
The house-made hot sauce, available on each table in the restaurant, added an excellent kick.
The breakfast menu also features eggs — scrambled, fried and Benedict-style — mixed with a variety of south-of-the-border ingredients, such as pico de gallo, jalapenas, poblano and chipolte cream.
We also tried the Cantinita ceviche, which features snapper, shrimp, calamari and blue crab mixed with orange, tomato, onion and cilantro. The dish did a good job mixing textures, from the chewy calamari to the flaky crab. The combination of flavors was palate soothing, from the earthy cilantro to the sweet orange sections.
According to our waiter, one of the most popular of Red Mesa Cantina’s eight taco choices is the duck taco, and we can see why. The soft corn tortilla filled with shredded roasted duck, grilled pineapple and creamy goat cheese was the best thing we ate. For those wanting more standard fare, the steak fajita taco is stuffed with grilled beef chunks, onions, mild poblano peppers and jack cheese.
And the perfect ending to any meal are the cinnamon-and-sugar-coated churros served with Mexican chocolate and caramel dipping sauces.
With its atmospheric setting, varied menu and enthusiastic service, Red Mesa Cantina is a safe bet for Mexican fare in St. Petersburg.