Visit Tampa’s Latin quarter for a taste of Cuban cuisine, entertainment and history.
With only 90 miles separating Florida from Cuba, the Sunshine State has welcomed Cuban emigrants for decades. While the majority landed and settled in Miami, many traveled farther north to Tampa. Today, the history and influence of the Cuban community in Tampa is not so obvious as to knock you over, but its cultural color is easy to find.
The epicenter of Cuban heritage presides within the boundaries of Ybor City, one of only two National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. By day, Tampa’s “Latin Quarter” is a walkable district encompassing the upscale Centro Ybor retail and entertainment complex, galleries, dining and the requisite Ybor City Museum, where you can watch a Cuban craftsman hand-roll a cigar in the traditional method. By night, Ybor City transforms into a 20-something scene of nightclub revelry that pours out onto its main drag.
The Ybor City Museum State Park comprises the Ybor City Museum (housed in the 1896 Ferlita Bakery building), the Casita and the Garden. A tour of this site begins with a self-directed look around the exhibits and displays depicting the early history of Ybor City and the cigar industry. Following a 15-minute movie, a docent takes visitors for a look inside “La Casita," one of seven small cottages that were constructed for cigar workers' families. The three which were built around 1895 are among the earliest structures in Ybor City. Most weekends, the cigar roller is on hand to give a demonstration.
On Saturdays, guided walking tours stoll Ybor City’s 7th Avenue and highlight local history and ethnic heritage. The tours includes a stop at Centro Ybor and end at 21st Street in front of the Columbia Restaurant.
The most notable reflection of Cuban culture remaining in Tampa is its cuisine. The famed Columbia Restaurant was opened in 1905 by Cuban immigrants in Ybor City. As the oldest restaurant in Florida, and the largest Cuban/Spanish restaurant in the world, it’s on most visitors’ “must-see” lists, and it caters to the tourist crowd. Try the La Completa Cubana dish, a sampling of roast pork, boliche, empanada de picadillo, platanos, yuca, black beans and yellow rice. For dessert, keep your eye out for pastries or anything made with guava, a traditional ingredient in Cuban sweets. When I go for dinner, I stay for one of the two nightly flamenco dance shows.
The Columbia really is the standard-bearer in Tampa, particularly in terms of atmosphere and décor, however if you want a more low-key authentic Cuban experience, seek out these basic eateries on West Columbus Drive, a smaller equivalent to Miami's Cuban enclave, Calle Ocho. This is where you’ll enjoy real, everyman Cuban food, excellent service and lively conversations in Spanish buzzing all around you.
Arco-Iris Restaurant, 3328 W. Columbus Dr.; tel. 813-879-1357.
LaTeresita, 3246 W. Columbus Dr.; tel. 813-879-9704.
If your day doesn’t start until you’ve consumed coffee, then you will appreciate the wide availability of Cuban coffee in Tampa.
Café con leche, traditionally served with breakfast, begins with a shot of espresso, which is then mixed with hot or steamed milk. Its distinctive taste stems from the added pinches of salt and butter. When ordered in a proper Cuban establishment, the coffee is served with buttered, toasted cuban bread, which the locals dunk in their cup.
Café cubano is the centerpiece of traditional mid-morning get-togethers. This strong brew is an espresso shot that is sweetened with sugar while it is being brewed. You can’t imitate the smooth, sweet flavor by simply mixing sugar into a regular espresso.
Here’s where the locals from Tampa’s Cuban community go to sip, savor and socialize:
La Tropicana, 1822 E. 7th Ave. (Ybor City); tel. 813-247-4040.
West Tampa Sandwich Shop, 3904 N. Armenia Ave.; tel. 813-873-7104.
Anyone joining me in the camp of those who prefer their sandwiches pressed and warm, should order up a “Cuban”—a hearty, working man’s sandwich. Tampa lays claim to the 1920’s birth of the Cuban, with several spots vying for the title of the city’s best.
Accept no substitutes; a real sandwich Cubano starts with a long loaf of Cuban bread (similar to Italian or French bread), cut in half on the diagonal. Inside are layers of roasted pork, ham and Swiss cheese. For me, it’s the tang of yellow mustard and the bite of the dill pickle that gives this sandwich its distinctive taste. Some places will add salami or, gasp, tomatoes and lettuce! The outside of the bread is buttered before being toasted in a plancha, similar to a panini press but without ridges.
Ask a local where to find the best pizza or ice cream, and you’ll get scores of different answers. Ask about where the best Cuban is served, and there’s uniform agreement. You’ll find the tastiest, most authentic Cubans at these no-frills eateries:
Aguila Sandwich Shop, 3200 W. Hillsborough Ave.; tel. 813-876-4022.
Alessi’s Bakery, 2909 W. Cypress St.; tel. 813-879-4544; www.alessibakeries.com
La Ideal Sandwich Shop, 2924 W. Tampa Bay Blvd.; tel. 813-870-0150, www.laidealsandwichshop.com.