Skateboarder dishes up fresh, relaxed dining

The former executive chef of Roy's goes casual with Mariposa Mexican Grille.

Published July 13, 2007

Chef Rand Packer works with the staff at his new restaurant, Mariposa Mexican Grille.

A surfer turned skateboarder, one of Tampa's top chefs is bringing the flavors of his Pacific roots to Lutz.

At Mariposa Mexican Grille, Rand Packer serves up smoked chicken and plantain nachos. He has graduated from macadamia nut mahi mahi to grilled wahoo fish tacos, featuring fish marinated in citrus and spices served with a cabbage salad.

At his new restaurant, Packer blends his experience in fine cuisine with casual dining and his more-casual lifestyle.

Packer, 34, is the former executive chef for Roy's, an upscale Outback Steakhouse franchise started by renowned chef Roy Yamaguchi.

A native of southern California, Packer graduated from the California Culinary Academy. After working in San Francisco for two years, he wanted a change.

"I first saw Roy on the cover of one of his cookbooks," said Packer. "He was holding a glass of wine, barefoot, overlooking the ocean ... I thought, that's what I want."

The tropical lifestyle and cuisine of the Hawaiian Islands were the perfect combination for Packer. He honed his culinary skills as Yamaguchi's sous chef at the original Roy's in Honolulu. On days off, Packer surfed.

"Hawaii is the melting pot for killer cuisines," said Packer. "It's perfect for growing fresh produce. We put 23 different greens into our salad mix - all picked fresh from the ground that day."

At Roy's, Packer specialized in what Yamaguchi coined Hawaiian fusion cuisine, seafood with a unique, Asian flair.

While in Hawaii, Packer met his wife, Tiffani, who had moved there shortly after graduating from San Jose State University.

"I tried the 9-to-5 type job and it just wasn't for me," said Tiffani. She got a job at Roy's as a server, and she and Packer instantly hit it off.

When Yamaguchi partnered with Outback in 2000, Packer became executive chef and partner at the Tampa location on Boy Scout Boulevard.

Packer received both critical and public acclaim. Under Packer's leadership, Roy's was voted Best Restaurant in Tampa in 2005 by the Times.

That year, with a toddler daughter, the Packers bought a shaded lakefront house in Lutz. The seeds of Mariposa Mexican Grille were planted.

The Packers have two daughters now, Mekena, 3, and Kirra, 1. And they have a restaurant right around the corner from home.

Mariposa is at the southern end of Van Dyke Commons, at Van Dyke Road and N Dale Mabry Highway.

"I can just hop on my skateboard and skate to work," said Packer.

Tiffani is his partner in Mariposa.

"We're so much alike," she said. "I just love the energy that he has."

Much like at Roy's, the emphasis at Mariposa is on creating unique dishes with the freshest possible ingredients.

The inspiration for the menu came from Packer's travels to the Pacific coast of Mexico. He uses authentic Mexican ingredients such as passion fruit, ginger and pasilla chilies.

"Mariposa is not even close to being Tex-Mex," said Packer. "It's Pacific fresh Mexican."

The menu will feature homemade salsas at the salsa bar, hand-pressed corn tortillas, aqua de frescas (fresh fruit juices) and paletas (Mexican popsicles).

Though he's traded formal fine dining for a more casual, family friendly atmosphere, Packer says he plans to keep his culinary skills sharp by offering more sophisticated dinner specials and wine selections.

"I think people are looking for a good place to eat that's different and close by," said Packer. "I treat customers as if they're guests in my own home ... I feel ecstatic they want to spend their hardworking dollars on my food."

 Mariposa Mexican Grille

The restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 17623 N Dale Mabry Highway in the Van Dyke Commons shopping plaza. Lunch and dinner entrees are $6 to $15. Call 264-1212. A "grand opening fiesta" with a mariachi band is scheduled today.