By Andy Warrener
The Laker/ Lutz News Correspondent
The giant butterfly near Van Dyke Road marks the entrance to Mexican cuisine in Lutz.
Mekenita Grill is at the end of Van Dyke Commons near the intersection of Van Dyke and N. Dale Mabry Highway next to LA Fitness. Inside is chic décor and a menu that fuses Mexican food and the tastes of restaurant owners Rand and Tiffani Packer.
The Packers are no strangers to Mexican cuisine, fine dining and surf rock. The eclectic, Latin atmosphere blends with a surf-rock video and musical ambiance.
“We wanted to bring something to the Lutz/North Tampa community that it hasn’t had yet,” Tiffani said.
The Mekenita, pronounced Mek-en-ee-tah, is founded on two main principles: authentic food and family atmosphere. Even the name of the place is a takeoff of the Packers’ oldest daughter’s name, Mekena.
The original idea for the name was mariposa, which is Spanish for butterfly, hence the theme on the front of the restaurant, but family came first and Mekenita stuck.
Family first is a common mantra at Mekenita Grill.
“I don’t know anyone who on their death bed said they wished they spent more time working,” Tiffani said. “We’re not willing to compromise the kids or the marriage for the sake of the business.”
It’s more than just words for the Packers.
Mekenita is not open on Sundays, mainly to give employees time with their families. The Packers have four children, three girls and a boy ages 2, 4, 6 and 8, and the children come before anything else in their lives.
“We own the business, the business doesn’t own us,” Tiffani said.
The Packers are devoted residents of the community.
Since they opened their doors in 2007, they have survived with a “team first” mentality and have devoted much of their time and resources into the area. They participate every year in the Taste of St. Tim’s and in Frankie’s Friends charity events.
Their devotion to the community is equaled by their devotion to bringing an authentic Mexican flavor to their elaborate menu.
Tiffani and Rand have heavy Mexican influences in their lives.
Tiffani grew up in Brentwood, Calif. near a Mexican farming community where she said she developed a “love and appreciation for Mexican culture.”
Rand grew up in Woodland Hills, Calif., which is also heavily exposed to Mexican culture and cuisine.
Frequent trips to Mexico as individuals and as a couple, married 12 years, helped define just what the Packers bring as far as delivering diverse, flavorful and true-to-form Mexican dishes.
A great example are the nachos. The Packers were discussing putting them on their menu when they asked themselves if nachos would be found on a menu in Oaxaca, Mexico. Obviously, the answer would be no, and thus the Citrus Grilled Chicken & Pineapple Plantain Nachos were born.
Much of the menu is thanks to the creative mind of Rand, who worked as executive chef for Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion. The job is what eventually brought the Packers to Tampa in 2000.
Today, Rand rattles off tantalizing dishes such as cornmeal batter fried tiger shrimp salad, crab and roasted poblano enchiladas or Pacific wood smoked pork tacos.
Mekenita makes its own sangria, its own fresh-daily juices and its own salsas.
Their creative take on salads is not to be missed.
Prices range from $8.50 to $15 for a huge platter, and the prices have not gone up since the restaurant opened. You can even catch fiesta hour Mondays through Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. when most everything on the menu is $5.50, drink and chips included.
“We figured we’re here at those times, we might as well have customers here too,” Tiffani said. “We want everyone to be able to come to Mekenita Grill. If that’s all they can afford is to come here for fiesta hour, then we want them here for that.”
If you go
Mekenita Grill is located at 17623 N. Dale Mabry in Lutz.
Phone: (813) 264-1212