Still tasty after all these years, El Cap's fare hasn't changed much - and that's just the way the St. Petersburg restaurant's fans want it.
By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published September 9, 2004
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
The El Cap burger is still best enjoyed with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle and onions.
ST. PETERSBURG - Is there something new at El Cap? No. Should there be?
Well, the joint has caught onto those newfangled chicken wings and the whaddya-call-em cheesesteaks from up in Philadelphia, but the menu at El Cap hasn't really changed much in decades. The only real novelty is nuggetized corn dogs. (How many does it take to produce a litter of 10 corn pups?)
El Cap is the same as it always has been, which is why we go there and fill up the place daily. Oh yeah, you can use a credit card and smokers sit outside now, but drinkers and eaters, sports talkers and arguers still sit inside, where they can debate the state of the Rays, Bucs or Lightning with a barfly or a TV screen. Burgers and sports come first here and have since 1964.
A more useful question is whether there's anything to eat besides burgers? Not that there needs to be, for El Cap's signature is still a fine use for freshly ground beef, best enjoyed full-bore with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle and onions. The pickles are those redesigned ovals the size of a racetrack, but I forgive that and add it up to the sloppy joys of the best d.i.y.-burgers. I like my onions grilled, to add to the mess (and don't tell the ninnies, I'll have my burger rare, too.) The true gourmand doubles up on the patties. But I demurred. Really.
If you've never gotten beyond the burgers, you might be surprised. It's a short list, almost all sandwiches, but it's not bar food or even deli stuff. El Cap serves the kind of simple sandwiches you can't get anymore: Swiss cheese on white bread (get rye to be exotic), complete with an Alpine joke. Or liverwurst, or ham, or salami. Yes, they lay it on heavy, but it won't have any trimmings unless you want 'em (and pay extra).
These are the sandwiches your parents made at home on a Saturday, not the work of a generous or feisty counterman. I almost expected to see pickle loaf and waxed paper bags. While there's a grilled cheese, pork tenderloin and other hot sandwiches, there's no meatloaf, chicken pot pie or other nostalgic heart-warmers. The best here is cold comfortfood, but comforting, indeed, in a wrap-warped world. Bring on the cole slaw. Real chicken salad? Yep, crunchy with onion, slippery with mayo, it fills almost an inch between the bread and spills beyond. Few make 'em like that anymore.
Chili is like home, too, at least my home, not real thick, a bit oily, kicked up with a little chili powder. But the kitchen does go beyond Mom and Dad on a few items. We never had fries as crisp as El Cap's, never grilled an Italian sub and only rarely had leftover meatballs around for a sub (a Tuesday special). And El Cap does make a fair fried grouper sandwich, not the best on the beach, but good eating.
There is no dessert and only a little wine and wine coolers. The beverage of choice is beer, and it's not a bad range, with $1.20 drafts, $1.75 cans of PBR, and Yeungling, Genny Cream, Newcastle and Warsteiner the best of the bottles.
The icing is the homey atmosphere, which you ought to pick up from the rathskellar decor (okay with 16 TVs), underscored by bartenders and servers who treat you as family. Maybe ornery relatives, but still family. One pro brought our burgers with instructions. "Be careful there. You might want to turn it over and eat it that way. The bottom half of the bun gets wettest first." We would have figured that out, Mom. Honest, we would have. But thanks.