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Exotic tastes

Finding a good Cuban sandwich in Town 'N Country is about as easy as walking out your front door.

Finding a good Spanish grocery store is not much harder.

"We're from Cuba," said Emilo Martinez, owner of La Bodeguita, a family-owned Spanish grocery store that opened last year at Hanley Road and Woodbridge Boulevard. "We opened to make Cubans."

While a Cuban sandwich is more or less a Cuban sandwich, there is a world of difference among the ethnic grocery stories in this largely Hispanic area. Shelves are stocked to suit a variety of palates.

"Different nationalities are good for business," said owner Magueline Marchene, who comes from the Dominican Republic and owns Mi Pais Mini-Market, a Latin American grocery store at 6640 Hanley Road with a South American flair.

Cuban-born shopkeepers tend to go heavy on basic ingredients for cooking such as beans, rice, plantains and tubers, suited to Cuban tastes. South American-owned stores include items such as Colombian marinated tomatoes or coconut cream, popular in the Colombia and Peru crowd.

"We have a mix," said James W. Martinez, owner of Latin Mini-Mart, 5425 Sheldon Road. "About 40 percent Colombian, 60 percent Peruvian, and some Mexican."

There probably are more similarities than differences among Spanish grocery stores. In addition to continuous Latin music, most devote at least one shelf to canned seafoods such as tuna, sardines, octopus and clams, in sauces that might include brine, tomato, olive and garlic.

Then there are the rectangular slabs of fruit pastes (guava, mango and papaya), and bottled jams such as mango, peach, plum, guava, vanilla and pear.

The sheer number of bodegas in Town 'N Country might suggest fierce competition, but the stores appear to be thriving.

In fact, the Latin Mini-Market is the former Produce Patch, whose previous owners converted it from a Spanish grocery store five years ago into a posh place where Westchase commuters could pick up wine and roses on their way home. It has reverted to its Hispanic roots under new ownership.

"This whole section is South American," said Martinez, indicating Colombian figs in heavy syrup, hard-packed disks of brown sugar, and bars of chocolate that promise to flavor milk with a hint of cinnamon and cloves as well.

Martinez, who bought the store and renamed it Latin Mini-Mart three months ago, also specializes in Peruvian products such as dried beans, figs and hot peppers, even a canned drink called Inca Kola.

Even the beer is South American; this is one of the few places around where you can pick up a six-pack of Club Colombia, Cerveza Cristal or Gerveza Aguila.

"We came here from Miami looking for a business," said Marchene, the owner of Mi Pais Mini-Market. "We lived in the neighborhood and there were a lot of Spanish people. We knew it would be good for business."

Their instincts were on target. The 2002 census shows that Town 'N Country is 29 percent Hispanic, the second most Hispanic neighborhood in the area, after Tampa's Egypt Lake.

That's far more than the percentage of Hispanic residents countywide, 18 percent.

"We have all kinds of people; you name it, they come in," said Alex Olivera, who works at Mi Patria Bakery, 6714 Hanley Road.

It might be the aroma of freshly baked bread or custard-filled eclairs that attracts people, but Mi Patria has set itself apart by offering an abundant selection of baked goods, from flan and carmelized orange custard to churros and Spanish cheesecake.

Of course the ever-present Cuban sandwich is not limited to Cuban-owned shops.

"I came to the U.S. in 1983 from South America and moved to Miami," James Martinez said. "I know how to make a Cuban."

But Laci Stinnette, whose Cuban-born parents own La Mercedes Supermarket at 6724 Hanley Road, considers them a birthright.

"Tampa-style Cubans have everything, tomatoes, mustard, lettuce, salami," she said. "Cubans made in Cuba are made from ham, pork, cheese, butter and mayonnaise."

They are, agrees Pipo's manager Gabby Garcia, a national treasure.

"I'm not knocking everybody else," Garcia said, but "we're all from Cuba and I ate a lot of Cuban sandwiches in Cuba, before Castro."

_ Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or