At Tampa's San Carlos Tavern, dancing and drinks cross all language barriers

San Carlos provides a mix of Colombian culture and drink. Luis Santana/tbt*

San Carlos provides a mix of Colombian culture and drink. Luis Santana/tbt*

Despite a collective 10 years of high school Spanish between us, my girlfriend and I are both completely hopeless when it comes to actually speaking the language, a fact that became especially evident during a recent trip to Barcelona. No doubt the locals were amused by our feeble attempts to converse in the local tongue, but I wish we would have been more prepared.

Now that I'm home, I've made learning Spanish a real goal. We live in Florida, a state rich with a diversity of cultures from around the world, especially those from Spanish-speaking regions. What better way to learn a language than to use it right at home?

This idea ultimately led me to San Carlos Tavern, a bar and grill in Seminole Heights. Owner Juan Carlos Londono, hails from Colombia, and the focus here is on music and dancing. The San Carlos Tavern website even serves as a crash course on the subject, with descriptions of dozens of styles and sub-styles of Colombian music, dances and musical instruments.

During the day, San Carlos is primarily a restaurant, with a menu featuring a wide variety of Mexican, Cuban, and Colombian specialties. Guests can dine indoors, or out in the large patio, which is also open at night for those in need of some fresh air, or a break from the sometimes jarringly loud music that fuels the dance floor inside.

The dance floor is both literally and figuratively the central focus of the interior. A small stage/seating area is on one end, table seating on the sides, and a small bar on the other, lit with cool, blue lights, all forming a perimeter around the dance floor. These areas are divided by archways, creating separation while still keeping everything open.

We visited on a karaoke night, featuring a dozen or so people singing along to surprisingly loud Spanish tunes, while music videos played in the background. Try as I might, I could barely make out more than 10 percent of the lyrics. More practice is clearly in order.

Fortunately, ordering drinks in Spanish is easy for even the total beginner, so if you'd care for some practice, this is as good a place as any to start. If not, the bar staff speaks English just fine, if with a slight need for repetition at times due to the loud music.

In terms of selection, there's a full line of the typical stuff, along with some interesting rums of various Caribbean origin, as well as some house wines and a handful of beers, including the Colombian beer Aguila, which is an unusual find around here. However, my attention was drawn to a few unfamiliar spirits up front, with names such as Blanco del Valle, Cristal and Antioqueño. These, I learned, are brands of the Colombia's national spirit, aguardiente. For educational purposes, let's break this down as two distinct Spanish words: agua (water), and ardiente (burning). It literally means "firewater." See, isn't language learning fun?

Aguardiente is a sweet, anise-flavored liqueur that is usually served as a shot. My Aguardiente Antiqueño arrived in a small, branded shot glass, and it wasn't half bad — similar to ouzo, if a bit lighter on the palate. You can mix cocktails with this stuff, but I'd suggest just trying it as a shot first. Aguardiente is something you won't commonly see around here, so I certainly recommend giving it a taste, for posterity if nothing else.

After enjoying some aguardiente, you may find yourself inspired to dance. Consider first visiting on a Sunday, when dance lessons are given. Or you can just stop by on a busy night like Friday or Saturday, featuring DJs and the occasional live band, and jump right in.

Either way, San Carlos Tavern is a nice place to experience Colombian culture while enjoying a few drinks that you won't find just anywhere. You can even brush up on your Spanish in the process — no passport required.

— jg@saintbeat.com

San Carlos Tavern

6416 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-1267, sancarlostavern.com

The vibe: A Latin restaurant and nightclub with a focus on music, singing and dancing.

Food: Appetizers, salads and sandwiches, $5.99-$11.99; entrées, $8.99-$22.99; desserts, $4-$6.

Booze: Beer, $4; wine, $5; liquor, $5-$8.

Specialty: For Caribbean flavors, try the Brugal Añejo rum from the Domican Republic, or the Martí Mojito, a Caribbean blended rum flavored with mint and lime, to recreate the cocktail in 80-proof form. However, I strongly recommend that you try the national spirit of Colombia: aguardiente. This anise-flavored liqueur is around 30 percent alcohol by volume, and, like most anise-based spirits, is best served as a shot, or on the rocks. It's available in both the typical, sweetened version, as well as sin azúcar (sugar-free). If you'd like to start off lighter, consider Aguila, a light adjunct lager brewed by the Colombian brewery Cervecería de Barranquilla.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Wednesday-Sunday, or later, depending on how busy the bar is (especially on Friday and Saturday).

At Tampa's San Carlos Tavern, dancing and drinks cross all language barriers 08/08/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 8, 2013 10:01am]

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