There are a lot of decommissioned gas stations across the country. Some have been reinvented, cleverly made over as upscale restaurants. There’s Big Star in Chicago, Elaia & Olio in St. Louis, Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, Va., even Bijou Café in Sarasota. You’re sitting there, napkin on lap, and someone says, "You know, this used to be a gas station." And you take their word for it because it’s not entirely apparent.
Chile Verde opened in November, basically across the street from another taco titan, Tacoson. It absolutely was a gas station, a Citgo. And it shows. There are parking spots right where the pumps were (honestly, it feels a little weird to park there, like it would be an automatic fail on a driving exam), and the inside of the restaurant still looks like a minimart, somewhere you’d buy lottery tickets and a bag of Skittles with a fillup. In fact, it still kind of is a minimart, with an array of snacks.
But if you need to get oriented quickly, check the signage. The CHILE VERDE sign is about as big as a sign can be, with MEXICAN FOOD: BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER on one side of the pump awning, TACOS, QUESADILLAS, BURRITOS, TORTAS on another side. The signs are massive and all caps, and there are a lot of them. The only thing that might flummox you is a pair of cast plastic Clydesdales at the entrance, their ankles chained lavishly together.
Once you’ve finished taking a selfie with the horses, it’s taco time. The past 12 months have brought a deluge of new taco places (stay tuned for reviews of Nuevo Cantina and a bunch of other newcomers in South Tampa), but Chile Verde is top-notch: With a largely Hispanic customer base, its wheelhouse is Mexican tacos, $1.99 each, a warm doubled corn tortilla topped with a meat and a flurry of cilantro and white onion. I worked my way through the plush, savory beef barbacoa, the unctuous, long-simmered pork carnitas and the bigger pieces of pork in the al pastor, as well as the simple steak. (The fancier meats like tripe and tongue are $2.99.)
All of the filling options are available in an American-style taco ($2.49), a puffy warm flour tortilla packed with lettuce, tomato, avocado, sour cream and shredded cheese. For my money, I like the purity of the former style, but you’re going to be happy either way.
The meat fillings get repurposed as anchors for a trio of tostadas ($8.99) spread with refried beans, the fried tortillas doing yeoman’s work under their thatch of tomato, onion, sour cream, cheese and chicken, steak or pork. And again in a very solid burrito ($7.99) or chimichanga ($8.99, really a burrito that has been tortured in the deep fryer and drizzled with creamy sauce), or as a filling for a hearty sandwich ($7.99) or enchilada ($8.99).
As you order at the counter you’ll notice a small buffet of steam trays, rice and greens and soupy chicken curries and shrimp fajitas that seemed homey and slow-cooked but not nearly as appealing as the taco offerings. But for a hot lunch pronto, it’s an option.
I zoomed back to Chile Verde a second time for breakfast, the huevos rancheros ($5.99) and chilaquiles ($5.49) making me hum my happy-eating song. (Do we all have one of those?) The latter is a virtue-of-necessity dish. Have some stale tortillas? Rip ’em up and make them the base for eggs, bacon (or ham or sausage), then ladle the whole thing with red or green salsa so the tortillas slowly give up the ghost and become something like corn-flavored oatmeal.
What you need to know: Green sauce delicious and very mild; house-made hot sauce delicious and a little face-melty.
Order and grab something from the beverage case (mango juice or Jarritos sodas, but there’s also horchata in a big tub on the counter). Your food finds you at your table. Service is very sweet and solicitous, a couple of the regular servers so soft-spoken that you have to lean in a bit to get the gist. Pay at the end, really honor-system style.
You may not be able to fill up your gas tank at Chile Verde, but your personal tank will likely be admirably topped off for well under $10.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.