For a brief time I worked at the GTE Financial on W. Waters Ave. Not far down the street from there is Benjamin Rd, a small side road that seems to go into virtually nothing more than grassy fields, a few houses, and a granite store. You wouldn’t suspect that one of Tampa’s best restaurants is hiding back there in a converted house. And while the seating may be a little cramped (as can be the parking,) it’s one of those places that the food is worth taking home or even eating it right there in your car if absolutely necessary. But if you have patience and a little luck, you can usually get a seat.
Loli’s Mexican Cravings offers, you guessed it, Mexican fare. But not your Taco Bell-style pretend Mexican food. We’re talking straight out of Mexico. The ingredients are treated with care, the chefs show off their knife skills (the chopped onions, tomatoes, etc. are all perfectly and identically sized,) and the recipes are inspired. Every time I go in there, I might as well just hand them my wallet; self control goes right out the window.
Laura and I began our culinary foray with the shrimp quesadilla. The tortillas are all hand made; you can watch them squashing them into shape on the metal press behind the counter. They’re soft, lightly browned in spots, and the taste is just light years ahead of anything you’ll find in premade packages. The quesadilla is glued together by a mass of melted mozzarella (try saying that last part ten times really fast.) The cheese hid a swarm of curled shrimp, all simmered in a mild sauce that, when combined with the cheese, made each and every bite better than the last. This was one of the more expensive things on the menu, but there were so many shrimp in there that it was quite filling.
Next, Laura and I had the lengua tacos (you could also get chicken, pork, shrimp, etc. but lengua is our favorite!) Fresh cilantro kept the flavors bright, adding a bit of herbaceousness to the tender, meaty lengua. Laura, who enjoys raw onions far more than I, dug into my stash of white squares and added them to her tacos for the extra sharpness. I kept a few, allowing the onion to play its part. By donating a few drops over each cube of meat, the lime fulfilled its destiny as Garnish Supreme. Two hot sauces, one green with a grassier flavor and one red with a more peppery flavor, could be added at your whim, which both Laura and I did as they really added a punch of heat and flavor.
We saved the best for last. The tamales! Loli’s has several options, just like with the tacos, but we always go with the chile relleno. You start off with a husk wrapped bundle of joy. Once you get through the packaging, you find a plain looking flour meal. Fortunately, looks are definitely deceiving in this instance! By slicing down the center, you reveal the warm, wonderful center, filled with such things as cheese, the pepper, and ground beef. The corn husk and flour meal have created an oven within an oven, baking the ingredients to a soft succulence. You can certainly eat the chile relleno tamale as is, but Laura and I prefer to have it the traditional way. We get a side of guacamole mix, with its fresh avocado, tomatoes, and herbs, and some sour cream to add on top, taking a dish that already rates a 9 on the tastometer scale (that’s totally a thing now) and multiplying it by a factor of 10! The warm, the cold, the bright and the dark, everything comes together to make one of the best eye-rolling, “oh my god”-groaning bites in Mexican cuisine. It is, quite simply, a perfect dish.
Loli’s Mexican Cravings has some of the tastiest, most authentic food you’ll find in the Tampa Bay area. If it were an option, I believe my wife would rent a room in back so she could eat there on a daily basis. It’s the kind of place that you would like to give the chef a great big hug after eating there. For your mouth’s sake, take the time, make the trip. It’ll be well worth the drive.
Loli’s Mexican Cravings
8005 Benjamin Rd.
Tampa, FL 33634