FLAN AND FIESTA: OUR FAVORITE CUBAN SPOTS
This weekend brings Flan Fest and Fiesta Day in Ybor, a celebration of Latin culture, so that gives us a chance to look back at some of our favorite Cuban restaurants and bakeries in the Tampa Bay area. • But if you are headed to Ybor this weekend, check out Fiesta Day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. The family-friendly street festival celebrates the cuisine, culture and heritage of the Latin immigrants who settled in Ybor City at the turn of the 20th century. It's free in front of the Italian Club at 1731 E Seventh Ave., Tampa. And on Sunday, the related Flan Fest lets you sample traditional and not-so-traditional flavors of flan, along with flan cupcakes and flan pie. Children's activities, entertainment and other foods for sale round out the day in Centennial Park, 1800 E Eighth Ave., Tampa from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. • Tampa Bay's restaurant scene is no stranger to great Cuban kitchens. Among them:
2117 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 248-4961
The granddaddy of them all, Columbia Restaurant bears the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in Florida as well as the nation's largest Spanish/Cuban restaurant, with 13 rooms extending one full city block. There are now several locations, from Sarasota to Celebration, but this is the original, and some of these waiters have been here a lifetime. There are stirring flamenco shows most nights, and owner Richard Gonzmart has an evangelical zeal when it comes to authentic Cuban sandwiches and the tossed-tableside 1905 Salad. Head straight to the glorious bar inside Tampa's most historic restaurant, and order yourself a mojito. If it's not the best you've ever had, it'll be darn close. Stirred with sugar cane and bursting with lime and mint, it'll make you feel like Hemingway in Havana.
Floridian Cuban Sandwiches
4534 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 287-6662
Harold Seltzer, co-founder and former president of the Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse chain, saw a gem called the Floridian. It is a Treasure Island old-timer founded by the Dilar family, distinguished by its long record of winning the title of best Cuban sandwich in the area. He licensed the concept last year and opened this Tampa-side Floridian on a busy stretch of Kennedy Boulevard. It's small, charming, tidy — just a shop with a row of presses and young sandwich engineers adept with the mojo spiced pork and Genoa salami. The Cuban sandwich is the centerpiece, its cross-section revealing a perfect stack of sweet ham, slightly spicy roast pork, salami, gooey Swiss, dill pickle and a slick of mustard-mayo mix. The pressing is aggressive, yielding a sandwich that is crunchy-edged but not dry or tough.
5402 Gulfport Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 321-8855
With a little upstairs art gallery and its own cigars and smoking room, find plucky Cuban classics like boliche (slow-simmered eye of round stuffed with sausage), ropa vieja and tostones (little fried plantain saucers).
7233 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 882-0184
Tampa Bay is blessed with many steam-table cafeterias. Thank goodness several are Pipo's, dishing up the best roast pork ever to sidle up to rice and beans or snuggle up in a loaf of Cuban bread. While the Hernandez family started the Cuban cafe chain more than 30 years ago in this Town 'N Country location, some other locations are under different ownership.
La Segunda Central Bakery
2512 N 15th St., Ybor City; (813) 248-1531
In Tampa, the Cuban is the king of sandwiches, so you go to La Segunda Central Bakery for an audience with the king. The bakery turns out 6,000 Cuban loaves daily: about 36 inches long, with a zipperlike seam topped with the remnants of a palmetto leaf (used during baking to hold the top of the bread together and create the signature crack along the top). There are also rows of sugared pastries glistening behind glass. The breakfast crowd is elbow to elbow at the counter, reaching for steaming cups of cafe con leche. Other tantalizing menu items: deviled crabs, chorizo rolls, empanadas and flan.
1120 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 623-0942
The little box that has harbored chocolate cake makers, barbecue impresarios and other culinary schemers and dreamers over the years recently became a hip, fun and affordable little Cuban bodega. Order at the counter and simple dishes (black beans, ropa vieja) are packed in eco-friendly brown cardboard boxes, the Cubans and other pressed sandwiches wrapped tight in the kind of waxed paper that starts to get a little grease-splotchy, which somehow adds to the anticipation.