Popular Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar doesn't hold up to the hype.
-1 Snap! Won't go back
Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar, delayed for months, opened in February in its new digs at Bay Street in International Plaza taking over the space once occupied by the Blue Martini. For a solid year there's been a lot of anticipatory hubbub about how great it would be to add the brand to Tampa’s culinary map. I was asked to visit and shoot specific dishes for Creative Loafing Tampa and looked forward to seeing what all the clamor was about. I dined anonymously.
Checking in for a table at 2:45 p.m. on Memorial Day garnered a 30 minute wait for an outside seat. There were at least 5 unoccupied tables on the patio but they were not available. The hostess told me I could take a seat at the bar if I found one.
I often wonder about the reasoning behind such delays. Is it that there are no servers to address the tables or that delaying hungry customers might drive them to the bar to wait, potentiating additional sales. There’s not much hang-out space in the lobby so standing for half an hour was the only option. They do offer text notification for those who prefer to shop or wait elsewhere.
The place is filled with whimsical kitsch and a lot of wood tones and warm brick decorating the walls. Chubby cherubs and ceremonial Mexican masks hang at the outside bar and interesting sculptures and graphics adorn the inside.
The tequila and mezcal selection is impressive with the menu offering hundreds of options from two full pages in small print of six different varieties of the cactus juice. Prices range from $8 to an astounding $286 a glass, the latter being Clas Azul 5 Year Xtra Anejo. A magnum of the same spirit sells for $5012 at this taco stand. Available beers are national brands and the wine list covers the essentials.
Rocco’s is not the typical taqueria. They serve no gratis tortilla chips and salsa but do offer them with table side guacamole preparation ($13). I pass, and order the Elotes Street Corn appetizer ($5) and Bistec (steak) con Avocado Fries medium rare ($24), my assigned dishes for the photo shoot. I’m now about an hour in.
The food arrives in acceptable time, but the Elotes appetizer arrives with the meal. Two half cobs of sweet buttery corn is firm, grilled with cotija cheese, chipotle mayo, and accented with "Rocco's spice". I mean c’mon! Delish! The avocado fries accompanying the steak are top of the line as well, with a crunchy coating and nicely ripened fruit inside.
Unfortunately it’s where the food love fest ends. The steak, ordered medium rare is way under cooked and tough. Flavor from the peppers and garlic in the chimichurri is good but the meat is very tough and way too rare. The cut of the steak is not identified on the menu, but it’s a chewy one. I verify with the sever that I ordered medium rare and she confirms. The manager arrives a few minutes later, acknowledges that it is under cooked, and offers to put it under the grill again, but I decline. Over cooking beef can toughen it more and I am out of time and patience. There's no offer to remove it from the check or even to wrap it to take home. Two bites in, it goes to the trash.
I don't know what all the fuss was about in anticipating this eatery. It took 11/2 hours from requesting a table to check delivery. That’s just unacceptable for a taco place. They have been open for several months now, long enough to work out the kinks. Maybe it was a bad day or maybe it was because I was a solo diner. Food critics I know give it a thumbs up. As I search for redeeming qualities, I suppose it’s convenient to the captive shoppers at Bay Street wanting Mexican food, and the decor is inspiring. And, with hundreds of bottles of tequila available, it must be a go-to for a blue agave juice aficionado.
But that's not enough for this diner. If you are going to be a big brand and generate a big buzz about it, ya gotta be prepared to back it up.There’s just no excuse for that wait (with tables available), level of customer service, and poor food prep for those kinds of prices. I won’t go back.
Chip Weiner is a Tampa food blogger and an award winning freelance photographer specializing in portraiture, food photography and photojournalism . He has been a photography instructor for over 10 years and teaches Tampa photography classes throughout the year. Have a suggestion for a food event or restaurant? Contact him here
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