We were looking for a great authentic place for some Latin food in the Ybor City neighborhood in Tampa and we found El Puerto. I was excited when we walked in and saw almost all the tables filled. The air smelled like garlic and onions and I thought this was going to be great. Maybe we just caught the kitchen on an off night. Perhaps we just ordered the wrong things but both of our entrees and the appetizer were hardly edible. Waxy, overcooked and dirty. We left still hungry.
We ordered the Provoleta al Oreganato ($7) for an appetizer. Described on the menu as “Provolone cheese melted with tomatoes, olive oil & oregano” and well, that’s what we got. Traditionally, the dish is usually served up as more as a grilled brick-like piece of cheese with spices, flipped over a couple of times on the grill but not entirely melted. What we got was a bowl of melted cheese that was hard to scoop out. It was like cold wax. Plus, we were not served any additional bread with it though we were only served two pieces about ten minutes prior. We were, however, invited to order more bread at $.50 a piece. We decided to settle on eating the cold wax with just a fork. It wasn’t that we were too cheap to buy more bread, it was just the principle that when you order something as an appetizer, you would expect that the dish would include anything needed to enjoy the dish. For example, if I ordered hummus, I think the carrots and celery or crackers would be included in the price of the appetizer. So, our $7 plate would turn into $9 if we each ordered two more pieces of bread. Petty? Perhaps. Just charge $9 to begin with and include the bread and save me from being disappointed. When I asked a server walking by how we eat this she just shrugged and walked off.
I had also ordered a small house salad. Not that I expected anything special for $2 but I was at least hoping the veggies would be ripe. The tomatoes were so under-ripe they were quite bitter and tough to chew. Yuck. But the vinaigrette they used was really tangy and had a lot of flavor.
Next up- Chad ordered the Pescado a la Chorrillana ($13) – “Tilapia filet breaded and sautéed in olive oil, served with onions, pink sauce and a side of white rice.” It looked really good even if the tilapia was buried under a huge heap of sautéed onions, peppers and (again) very under-ripe tomatoes. Well, the sauce was really flavorful and spicy and was really tasty with the rice and veggies. However, the breaded tilapia was very thin and was probably cooked a while ago as the edges were very tough to cut through, let alone even try to chew. For the small center of the fish we were able to eat it was good.
I got the Caamarones al Ajillo ($14) – “Jumbo shrimp sautéed in wine, garlic, lemon and spices, served with your choice of two sides.” I chose Yuca Frita (Yuca fries) and Tostones (fried green plantains) for my two sides. I wanted to be very Latin authentic here. I never got to try the sides. When I first went to cut into a shrimp I saw something that ruined my appetite. Probably not a big deal to some people but the intestine (also known as the Poop Shoot) is just disgusting to me. To a lot of people that is a sign that the shrimp hasn’t been cleaned properly.
Now before you go sending me a nasty email about it being authentic in Latin cooking etc. just let me continue. When I explained to the server that I just couldn’t eat that her response was not at all surprised. Apparently, it is very common at El Puerto for the shrimp to be sent back for not being de-veined. It would seem to me, whether it is authentic or not, if a plate is always being sent back to the kitchen then maybe there should be a warning in the description on the menu for us “uncultured” Americans decide to order or not to order.
In my defense, I spent many years working in seafood restaurants, some casual and some very high-end. In every place I worked, leaving the poop shoot in the shrimp was a sign of serving dirty shrimp. I would understand a little more if I was one of a very small few who sent the shrimp back but according to the server, I wasn’t.
So, my entire plate was taken away and I never got to even taste the sides I had ordered. But that was OK, the server was very apologetic and removed the offending dish from our bill though we had never asked for that. Actually, our server may have been the one excellent thing in the whole restaurant. We understand that occasionally there will be a dish we just don’t particularly like or enjoy and that is usually our own fault for ordering the wrong thing. That is part of eating out. Trying new things. However, when everything we order has some type of an issue, most likely it is a spot we would not return to. El Puerto is one of those places.
Luckily, being only a block of the main drag we were able to take a short little stroll to find some dessert so we didn’t leave Ybor City hungry.
El Puerto is on East 5th Street- just one block from the main strip of 7th Street in Ybor City. Tucked on a quiet corner away from the hustle and bustle, there is plenty of free parking if you arrive early enough. We were able to park for free at about 5:30pm but by the time we had gotten back to the car about 7pm, there was an attendant at the lot charging $10. So happy we at least had free parking as another positive of the meal.