Gulf Rim fusion cuisine, what a novel concept -- like Pacific Rim fusion, but with the focus shifted to the Gulf of Mexico.
That was my first thought when I learned that a restaurant named Gulf Rim Café had opened in downtown Hillsborough. Visions of Cuban pork gumbo, gator nugget carnitas and conch fritters in salsa verde danced in my head.
Turns out those visions were the product of my overactive imagination. The menu at Gulf Rim Café isn't based on a fusion concept at all. In fact, about the only way you might use the word "concept" in describing this laid-back little eatery is to say that its menu is a gastronomic souvenir book of the life and travels of its owners. Joe and Andrea Tullos hail from New Orleans, and Joe's career as a rock musician has taken the couple all around the Gulf of Mexico. The eclectic menu at Gulf Rim Café represents their favorites among the foods they enjoyed along the way, from the Yucatan peninsula to the Florida Keys. By and large, this culinary Gulf cruise is smooth sailing, though you may encounter a few rocky shoals.
You'll find some of the best conch fritters this side of Key West, for instance -- not in salsa verde, thankfully, but the classic version: golden brown and cornmeal-crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside, and riddled with exceptionally tender bits of conch. But don't let the fritters lull you into thinking that you can sail through deep-fried waters on autopilot. I did, and ran aground on an appetizer of dense- and heavy-crusted oysters. Fortunately, a fine-textured, citrus-bright seviche of fish and squid came to my rescue.
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The menu does occasionally flirt with fusion -- or at least, a contemporary twist on a traditional dish. A salad of jicama, orange and avocado over mixed greens in a Cuban-inspired mojo-orange vinaigrette is one example. Another, an addictive spread of smoked ahi tuna served with toasted pita points, is inspired by the barbecue tradition of the Florida panhandle.
That same tradition is behind an entree offering of baby back ribs with blackberry cilantro barbecue sauce -- a dish I didn't sample but is clearly popular, judging by the number of rib plates I saw coming out of the kitchen. I did get to sample another popular dish, crawfish pie with andouille cream sauce. I can understand its popularity, too, though in this instance the otherwise tasty filling was lukewarm and the puff pastry crust well on its way to being soggy. I suspect the misfire was not the fault of the kitchen but the wait staff, which can at times be too laid-back.
I'd like to tell you about the nightly fresh fish special, which the menu tantalizingly describes as "brought in fresh from the Carolina coast" and says "could be wahoo, could be grouper, monkfish or redfish."
Unfortunately, both times I dined there -- specifically on a Thursday night, when the restaurant gets fresh its fish delivery -- it was salmon. Salmon? In a restaurant called Gulf Rim Café?
But I can't fault the grilled scallops, which arrived beautifully grilled on bamboo skewers, with lime cilantro sauce (chipotle cream is also available) on the side. Nor a burrito filled with tender, juicy shreds of whole pork shoulder that had been slow-roasted for hours with garlic, cumin and oregano. Listed frequently on the chalkboard of nightly specials as Cubano pork burrito, this one has proved to be such a hit that Joe Tullos is adding it to the permanent offering.
Now that the restaurant has had a few months to settle in, Tullos is tweaking the menu. He's eliminating a few dishes and adding more samplings of his and his wife's native Cajun-Creole cuisine. He's also broadening the offering with Cuban style ropa viejo and a soul food take on smoked chicken. He says he might even add gator nuggets if he can find a source for good gator meat. That's fine by me.
Just as long as he doesn't quit selling those excellent pecan pralines he gets from Matthew's Chocolates next door.