Henry and Raul Castillo are West Tampa boys all the way. Baseball at the West Tampa Little League, afternoons at the West Tampa Boys Club, nights in a little house on Armenia Avenue just off Columbus Drive, a.k.a Boliche Boulevard.
Every family gathering was a Cuban feast of epic proportions — roast pork, black beans, picadillo, baked chicken, crab enchilado — you name it and their mom or abuela made it. And now the twin brothers are making it for a small cadre of loyal customers in a little restaurant down the street from where they grew up.
Castillo's Cafe and Catering has flown under the culinary radar for more than three years at a tiny, 20-seat place a couple of blocks north. They moved into a new, 70-seat spot more than a month ago. Now the word is getting out that they are making some of the best Cuban food in town.
It's the kind of restaurant once common in Tampa — the Don Quixote, the Alvarez, Spanish Park and plenty more — all unpretentious places with great food at reasonable prices. All gone. And now brought back to life at Castillo's.
Seriously, it's that good.
Start with a devil crab, a Tampa staple ($3.25). It looks like a standard version but it's so stuffed with crab you'll wonder why the rest aren't like this. Same with another Tampa favorite, the crab enchilado — red sauce thickened with blue crab and served over angel hair pasta. It's a Friday special all day ($8.45), and available most nights ($8.95). This is abuela's recipe, but with a lot more crab, and is Castillo's signature dish.
"We like to do things the way we like to eat 'em,'' Henry says.
Which means the frita ($6.95 or $8.95) — a Cuban hamburger with chorizo and ground beef usually as thin as a Krystal burger and topped with canned potato sticks — is thick and meaty and topped with extremely thin, freshly sliced fried potatoes.
The pork ($7.95) is marinated for two days in mojo made with sour oranges — customers bring them from home — and roasted until the exterior is slightly caramelized and the meat is tender and juicy.
Empanadas ($1.75) are filled with picadillo. The filet salteado, or beef tips ($12.95), are sauteed with chorizo, ham, potatoes, onions, red and green peppers, and black beans.
Most entrees are under $10. The most ambitious is seafood paella ($34.95), with clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, mahimahi and squid, big enough for two or more.
Mom makes the flan and rice pudding, both excellent versions. "She's 83 years old and she's a firecracker,'' Henry says. Raul is the chef — has been for years, even when he was a working full time as a dental technician — and Henry, an accountant, runs the front of the house.
It's a modest place, just one room with a few tables and chairs and a bar where Cuban sandwiches ($5.95 and $7.95) are assembled. Sandwiches (palomilla steak and pork, too) are served in plastic baskets, and iced tea comes in foam cups. Two murals evoke street scenes in Havana, where the brothers were born 55 years ago and left when their parents moved to Tampa when they were 3.
Gastric bypass made it possible.
The Castillo boys enjoyed their food so much that each grew to nearly 500 pounds. They didn't have the energy to run a restaurant, but then both had bypasses, dropped a lot of weight and got the strength they needed. When NoHo Bistro moved to South Tampa, the new Castillo's was born.
The brothers set a casual tone, so they wear shorts and kibitz with customers, many of whom are from the old neighborhood.
Or wish they were.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at (727) 893-8312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.