Ybor's culture, cigars and Cubans a big hit with visiting football fans

The neighborhood's hand-rolled cigars and Cuban sandwiches are a hit with fans.
Published January 9 2017
Updated January 9 2017

YBOR CITY — It was a total reversal of that stereotypical sitcom scene of husbands huddled in a shoe store corner holding purses as their wives shop.

On Sunday afternoon, Taylor Graham and her adult daughters Madison and Paige Graham — all of South Carolina and all Clemson fans — sat at a corner table in Ybor City's Tabanero Cigars as their spouses shopped for stogies.

"They wanted to watch football and buy cigars in Tampa since this is where to get them," Paige Graham said. "Hopefully the cigars will be celebratory."

Who emerges victorious from the College Football Playoff National Championship game between Clemson and Alabama will be determined tonight at Raymond James Stadium, but a winner over the weekend was Ybor City's culture known for hand-rolled cigar shops and the invention of the Cuban sandwich.

Gaspar's Grotto chef Mark Hook had only a moment during the lunchtime rush to detail how many Cuban sandwiches his restaurant sold over the weekend.

"We stopped counting individually and now say how many tubs they could fill," he said of Cubans, the official sandwich of the city of Tampa. When pressed for a number of tubs, with a laugh he replied, "A whole lot."

At Carmine's, hostess Kelsey Phillips gave a more exact number — 180 Cuban sandwiches were sold during lunchtime on Sunday alone.

Some football fans knew prior to coming to Tampa what Ybor City's signature product and sandwich were. Others learned upon arrival, said Joyce Lucas, a historian at the Ybor City Visitor Information Center.

"Then they all want to know where to get them," she said.

The Tampa Bay Times stopped into seven shops in Ybor that sell locally made cigars. Some roll them fresh throughout the day.

Employees at each said business was up this weekend thanks to the influx of tourists.

When Clemson secured its spot in the championship game, Ryan Sousa of South Carolina said friends began sending him cigar orders.

"You can't get hand-rolled cigars in South Carolina," said Sousa as he made a purchase at Long Ash Cigars. "So you can't leave Tampa without a lot."

Through the mid-1900s, Tampa was known as the cigar capital of the world. While on a lesser scale, Ybor remains a known epicenter for fine hand-rolled cigars, as proven by this weekend, said Yanko Maceda, owner of Tabanero Cigars.

"Ybor is one of the few places you'll find this many boutique shops hand-rolling cigars," he said. "We are unique."

Manager Michelle Loucks of Long Ash Cigars, which rolled football-shaped cigars for the occasion, was disappointed the city didn't consider pushing Ybor City as a locale for events. Business was up, she said, but not as much as she had hoped.

"Everything is at the Riverwalk in downtown to promote that, and I feel like Ybor was ignored," Loucks said. "Ybor is Tampa's culture. We are important."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.