The Tijuana Flats restaurants never disappoint.
Several times a week, The Lovely Joan [TLJ] and I consider where we could go and have an inexpensive meal, one with fresh ingredients and great taste, one where it is not necessary to wear more than shorts and a cotton shirts and where the ambiance is somewhat noisy but not oppressively so. More often than not, we end up at one of three Tijuana Flats restaurants in Tampa.
While each of the restaurants has much in common, the menus are the same, the food is well prepared and offered up in attractive servings and the line to place one’s order is bounded by cases of beer and Sangria, yet there are still subtle differences. For example, the patrons at the restaurant at the store on Fowler Avenue, close to the University of South Florida are more likely to be students at USF, certainly they are younger, although at our age, most people appear younger. At the restaurant in Westchase, patrons are more likely to be young couples, many with children in tow. At the “Flats”: on North Dale Mabry in the Old Carrollwood area, patrons are a bit older.
Not only is there some differences in the patrons, each store is brightly, some would say garishly, painted with wall murals and, fascinating, ceiling murals, too. Add muted TV screens tuned to local interest sports and games, an iced cold choice of bottled and draught beers and some wine choices, toss in freshly made chips and containers of salsa, queso and guacamole, one’s hunger is satisfied. A cabinet along one wall is topped with a collection of hot sauces, in varying degrees of heat, the cabinet festooned with truly tacky and funny stickers and pseudo-bumper stickers
Customers line up to place their orders, bring back drinks to tables and wait for very energetic wait staff to call out names and bring food. At each of the restaurants we have visited, staff comes to the table regularly to take repeat beer or wine orders or to bring complimentary refills on soft drinks and iced tea and, wonder of wonders, fresh portions of queso, salsa or guacamole.
Often when TLJ and I go often to a restaurant, we tend to order the same things. Tijuana Flats is only a partial exception. TLJ always orders the mid-sized chicken burrito. (“Burrito” is Spanish for little donkey and I’m sure that is wonderful to know; how to work that into everyday conversation is beyond my understanding. But there you are.) It comes stuffed with chicken, of course, and, as with just about all of the restaurant’s entrees, lettuce, tomatoes, black olives, jalapenos, sour cream and salsa. Joan has them leave off the jalapenos whereas I order extra.
My personal taste goes to dos enchiladas which are not fried; I order the steak-filled variety, leaving off the sour cream, and have the rolled up tortilla topped with red sauce. The main principle at all of the Tijuana Flats restaurants is that the food is always fresh and the portions more than ample.
Now the hot sauces. A unique aspect of Tijuana Flats is the collection and offering of hot sauces, ranging from mild all the way to extremely painful. About 30 or so are on the sauce cabinet table and others, claimed to number close to 700, are available for sale at any one time. The signature choice gives an idea of the irreverence of the restaurant, Smack my Ass and Call Me Sally.
The story has been told often of how this restaurant was conceived by a Florida college graduate who had spent much of his undergrad years enjoying food establishments in the central part of the state borrowed money from his father to open the first store, saw it expand to close to 70 stores in 13 years and keeps on expanding. The father from whom the initial $20,000 investment was received is a top executive brought out of retirement by his son’s dream and success.
But none of this is important is the food isn’t good. Thankfully, it’s very good indeed.