I shy away from the the term "hipster," if only because it's tossed around with a disregard of meaning that puts the misuse of "cool" and "hip" to shame. Sometimes it's a slur, sometimes a misguided attempt to classify a widely varied range of people. But when it comes to Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe, it fits.
This new restaurant is in a restored house in Seminole Heights, which may give you the impression that it's a tiny, funky place with a few tables and a lot of art. Not by a long shot. There is a lot of art, from the life-size metalwork sculpture of a horse in the front yard -- seemingly in the throes of a painful attempt to stand up -- to detailed pieces composed of found objects, and everything in between. By the hostess stand are sculpted faces above pages from books, their contorted features conveying a sense of the text before you even get close enough to read it. It's an impressive display, and the restaurant's devotion to the "folk art" part of its name is reflected on Ella's menu, where each artist is afforded an entire page with pictures and a bio.
Even so, that artwork can get lost in a space that is both bigger and much slicker than my preconceptions of what a Heights house restaurant would look like. Surrounding two sides of the two-story building is a giant deck, with wooden rocking chairs for waiting patrons, two-person booths tucked under the eaves and more tables scattered under a canopy of oak trees. Pretty enough, until it rains.
When I walk up to the hostess, who's in a vintage dress with hair and make-up to match, she tells me that we can sit outside, "but it's going to pour in about 30 minutes." Huh. I'm skeptical, but I take her advice and decide to wait for an inside table to open up. In under 15 minutes the sky opens up, drenching the patio, just in time for us to snag a cozy table in the dining room. Prescient and precious, that hostess. She epitomizes the Ella vibe, that nostalgia for old mixed with slick, reconstructed new. It's a hipster place.
That vibe extends to the menu, an interesting melange of upscale fair food, American classics, Tex-Mex and Asian-fusion, often with a vegetarian bent. You can start the meal with only fried items, if you want, like Ella's Fat Japs -- big jalapenos stuffed with pulled pork, cheddar and cream cheese, then battered and deep fried. Crunchy, gooey and greasy, the stuffed peppers are a hefty treat, with a half dozen to a plate. Beware, though, since the heat level varies wildly between peppers, from gentle green glow to tastebud-destroying inferno.
There's also battered and fried shrimp tossed with fried yams, meant to be rolled with cilantro and apricot fish sauce into leaves of romaine -- tasty, but the yams detract from the package. Papa's chimis are essentially mashed potato croquettes, rich enough even though the goat cheese and garlic blended in are barely there.
Entrees at Ella's are a less exciting read, probably because the trend there is more toward housewife fare than fair food, like chicken spidini, various pastas and meatloaf. That last even reminds me of my mom's cooking, when she grew tired of our complaints about her beef loaf and began doctoring it with all sorts of peppers and spices. Ancho-crusted salmon could have used some of that same jazzy seasoning, the pepper coating almost too subtle to taste, but the fish is cooked right. Both come with starch and sauteed veggies, simple stuff that evokes more of that throwback aura.
Vegetarians are treated well at Ella's, with no less than four of the 10 entrees devoted to their culinary fetish, including a veggie pot pie accompanied by the devilishly clever roasted beet "box" stuffed with pepper slaw.
It's fun food, done well, but there is one standout: Ella's burgers are easily among the best in Tampa. Although the restaurant's signature versions are stacked high with toppings, you should order it as plain as you're willing, clearing the way for the impeccably seasoned, crisply crusted, organic beef flavor to hit your mouth unimpeded. It's easily packed with more beefy flavor than any burger I've had this year.
Ella's dining room has a soaring ceiling obscured by a loft, which the restaurant usually opens up for seating on weekend nights. There's a stage tucked into a corner next to the kitchen, maybe so Ella's owner, chef and Nervous Turkey frontman Ernie Locke, can indulge in an occasional impromptu jam session, but more likely for the regular live music he has planned for weekends. On this night the tables are packed with a small range of people, from gay couples to young artsy types, all very much at home in the hipster vibe.
But this is still the Heights, which means Ella's will inevitably be a neighborhood joint for one of Tampa's most diverse populations. That explains the middle-aged couple behind us that breaks my easy classification of the place, the woman digging into a salad, the man alternating bites of a double-stack burger with non-ironic hits from a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall-boy.