Tina Avila has helped turn downtown Dunedin into a dining destination. Her Mexican restaurant Casa Tina is renowned in Tampa Bay for its cultural authenticity, fresh ingredients, vegetarian options and healthful approach to cooking. A Dunedin fixture for more than 20 years, Casa Tina is equally beloved for its ambience. The restaurant’s lively open kitchen, wild Aztec décor and Saturday night Cirque du Soleil-type performances make it more than just a burrito-slinging Mexican joint. Eating there is an adventure. Avila, a longtime vegetarian, health foodie and long-distance cyclist, is the kind of entrepreneurial wonder woman that inspires envy in other women. She married her husband Javier — the inspiration for Casa Tina — 26 years ago when the two worked together at Javier’s Mexican restaurant in Miami. Since setting up shop in Dunedin two decades ago, the Avilas have expanded Casa Tina, opened a brick-oven pizza place (Pan y Vino), and added a small coffee shop in Dunedin’s old CSX rail car (Orange Crate Café) to their growing collection of Main Street establishments. The mother of a 22-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter, Avila spends her free time mountain biking with her husband across Utah, Idaho and most recently, Europe.
Favorite way to start the day: Biking Honeymoon Island.
“I head out around 7:30 in the morning. My normal ride is 15 miles. I ride hard for the first 15 minutes, then the free thoughts start to flow. It gives me such a sense of peace. My business and personal relationships are better because of it. I can’t start my day without seeing the water. It’s like brushing my teeth.”
Favorite way to end the day: Pensare in Dunedin.
“When my husband and I are through at the restaurant and we want to go someplace quiet and calm, we’ll go to Pensare and split a bottle of wine.”
Favorite way to hang with tourists: Encounters with Dolphins in Clearwater.
“For $18 you get 30 minutes on a dolphin-watching boat off Clearwater Beach. One day we saw a dolphin jumping with a little baby. I love that stuff.”
Favorite place to take out-of-towners: The Beachside Fire Pit at the Sandpearl Resort.
“There’s hardly anywhere you can sit in the sand and have a glass of wine. In Mexico people sit around fire pits in the sand every day.”
Favorite underground destination: Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida
. “It’s this Buddhist temple on the Palm River in the middle of Tampa. On Sundays only you’ll catch like 50 families cooking Thai and Vietnamese dishes. There are monks walking around and women in costumes dancing. It used to be this super tiny thing, now they have a huge temple with 100 picnic tables. The food is really cheap ($5 or less) and it all goes back to the temple. It’s crazy beautiful.”
Favorite item on her menu: Chiles rellenos.
“It’s fresh roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and topped with tomato salsa. We don’t batter or fry our poblano peppers, so it’s very low fat. I eat it almost every day. I love, love, love the food on my menu. I crave it when we go on vacation.”
Favorite crunchy cuisine: Serendipity Café in Dunedin.
“I feel a kinship with the owner [and cook] Kim Mohr. She’s a mother of two. She’s at the restaurant every day and she puts her heart and soul into her food. She makes a wonderful [Asian] kale salad.”
Favorite off-road breakfast spot: Café Honeymoon in the South Beach Pavilion at Honeymoon Island State Park.
“I’m a yogurt and smoothie girl. I’ll get a fruit and yogurt plate and sit on the deck overlooking the gulf.”
Favorite stretch of pavement: The Pinellas Trail from Dunedin to St. Pete Beach.
“I could live on my bike. I like veering off into little neighborhoods and discovering new streets.”
Favorite bike shops: Chainwheel Drive in Palm Harbor and The Energy Conservatory In Dunedin.
“I’ve been going to both of these places for 20 years. They just look at my bike and they know I’ve been riding hard. I don’t have to explain problems.”
Favorite neighborhood outside of Dunedin: The bayou neighborhoods in Tarpon Springs.
“I love that they have that Greek history. I love that you see old men gathered outside around a TV. Old men do that in other countries! I love going to Dimitri’s on the Water. I love sitting out by the boats and hearing the clanging of the lines against the docks.”
Favorite easy date night: Clearwater Cinema Café.
“We’ll get a pitcher of beer and a veggie platter and watch a movie. That theater has been doing food and drinks for 15 years, well before CinéBistro came along.”
Favorite Tampa Bay festival: Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Dunedin.
“We get about 3,000 to 4,000 people each year. People bring pictures of loved ones who’ve died to put on the altar [at Casa Tina]. It transcends sadness and morbidity. The parade is such a celebration of life! The public gets dressed up. The kids lead the procession. There’s a drum band. It’s just a beautiful cultural event.”