Rene's Mexican Kitchen, Pepper's Island, Ybor Seoul add to the flavor of Ybor City

A trio of new restaurants add their own unique tastes to the diverse flavor of Ybor City’s food scene.

Along the 2800 block of North 16th Street, Rene Valenzuela, the founder and former owner of Taco Bus, opened Rene’s Mexican Kitchen in August. The new Ybor location has a brick-and-mortar kitchen to handle cooking and food prep work for  Rene’s Mexican Kitchen’s food truck along Nebraska Avenue and its catering business. Mexican dishes like carne asada, tacos al pastor, chorizo, gringas and more are also available for carry-out at a service window. 

On the 1700 block of East Fourth Avenue, Trinidadian restaurant Pepper’s Island also opened in August. Owner Rodney Dhanraj left a high-ranking corporate job to pursue his dream of owning a restaurant. 

“I’ve been cooking all my life, since I was a kid,” he says. “My grandparents had a restaurant in Trinidad. It’s still there. My aunt runs it now. That’s where I got it from. It’s in my blood.”

Ybor Seoul opened along the 1500 block of Seventh Avenue in August.On the 1500 block of East Seventh Avenue, Korean restaurant Ybor Seoul also opened in August. Located along Ybor’s main drag, the restaurant can draw a crowd at dinnertime or mid-afternoon on a Thursday. The menu features fare like kimbob, noodles, Korean corn dogs and drinks like sweet bubble tea.

One step at a time

After selling Taco Bus several years back, Valenzuela was severely burned in a food truck fire in 2018. He was placed in a medically induced coma, spent six months in the hospital, underwent several surgeries and could not work for a year. His arms still bear the scars from the burns. 

“While I was in the hospital, with my wife by my bedside nursing me back to health, I had an epiphany about the brevity of life, the importance of family and the short time we have to do the work we’re supposed to do,” Valenzuela says. 

For years, he’d wanted to launch an upscale Mexican steakhouse but the money was not there after his hospitalization. He started to build his restaurant business back with the food truck on the 4400 block of North Nebraska Avenue, near Southen Brewing & Winery. 

Now, the brick-and-mortar Ybor location is the next step.

“This is the next step for me after the things that happened in my life,” Valenzuela says. “One step at a time.”Rene Valenzuela opened his new Ybor City location of Rene's Mexican Kitchen in August.

The Ybor location is in an area north of Interstate 275, away from the restaurants and the crowds along Seventh Avenue. But the nearby neighborhood and businesses like the J.C. Newman Cigar Company provide customers. The wave of redevelopment that’s hit Ybor City is also spreading to this area. A short walk up 16th Street, the century-old Perfecto Garcia Bros. Cigar Factory building is being restored and converted into apartments.  

“This is an area that is growing,” Valenzuela says. “It’s redeveloping. More businesses are coming. But there are not a lot of restaurants yet in this part of Ybor. I’m in ahead of the curve.” 

Pursuing a passion

Rodney Dhanraj was a vice president in the banking industry when he decided to leave the corporate world.
 “Little by little it was killing me,” he says. “I just wanted to get out and do something I love to do, which is riding my Harley or cooking. I do a little bit of both now.”

At first, he opened Pepper’s on weekends, working his banking job during the week. In September, he left the bank to focus on the restaurant full-time. The menu features Trinidadian staples that Dhanraj has cooked since his childhood, when he would visit Trinidad in the summer and hang out with his uncle at his grandparents’ restaurant.

“I’m not trying to get too crazy with the menu because I am a one-man show,” he says. “I try to do what I do so it’s consistent. I love my curry goat, my curry chicken, my stew chicken.”

Rodney Dhanraj takes a customer's order at his new Trinidadian restaurant in Ybor City, Pepper's Island.On Friday and Saturday nights, Dhanraj has a friend who DJs at the restaurant to add a little music and atmosphere and the place draws a crowd.  He says he is still working on building a following and a crowd on weekdays. 

Like his grandparents' restaurant in Trinidad, Pepper’s is a family business. On the wall next to the counter where customers order, Dhanraj’s daughter painted a mural of a beach scene that also includes touches like Ybor City’s iconic roaming chickens and the family restaurant in Trinidad. On weekends, his kids help out busing tables. His parents come in to sit at a table and keep an eye on things.

“This is my passion,” Dhanraj says. “I fell in love with it when I was a kid. I don’t have a plan B. I’m just gonna make this work.”

For more information, go to Rene's Mexican Kitchen, Pepper's Island and Ybor Seoul
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.