Douglas Rodriguez was not about to put salami on a Cuban sandwich.
The chef had lived in Miami for too long and considered the addition of the cured Italian sausage superfluous — sacrilege, even. He knew the Tampa version well ― it just wasn’t for him.
But a couple of weeks after opening his restaurant inside Ybor City’s buzzy new Hotel Haya, Rodriguez caved. Tampa spoke up, and Tampa wanted salami.
Now, the sandwich is offered two ways — Miami-style and Tampa-style — although the jury is still out on which one will sway diners the most.
As executive chef, Rodriguez is overseeing both Flor Fina, an upscale Latin restaurant, and Cafe Quiquiriqui, a casual breakfast and lunch spot, inside the new boutique hotel, a $52 million project that opened last month at 1412 E Seventh Ave.
The hotel, from the Aparium Hotel Group, has a business model that focuses on being hyper local. The owners tapped Rodriguez, a tenured chef known for his envelope-pushing Latin and Cuban fusion fare, to design menus inspired by Ybor’s myriad cultural influences, including Spanish, Italian and Cuban cuisines.
Rodriguez, 54, is well-versed in that field. The so-called godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine was born to Cuban immigrants and grew up in Miami. A James Beard award-winning chef, he was a member of the original Mango Gang, a group of pioneering South Florida chefs that included Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken and Mark Militello. The group was largely credited for putting South Florida cuisine on the map during the ’80s and ’90s, and since then, Rodriguez has gone on to open celebrated restaurants in New York, Miami and Philadelphia.
So, how did he end up in Tampa Bay? Rodriguez, like so many other chefs in the industry, didn’t escape the pandemic unscathed. His lauded Philadelphia restaurant Alma de Cuba, which opened almost 20 years ago, has remained shuttered for renovations since the beginning of the pandemic. His other restaurant, a seafood and ceviche shack in Miami, closed and will not reopen. So when the call came from a headhunter for the ambitious new Ybor hotel, it offered both a welcome opportunity and a big career move.
“If it wouldn’t have been for COVID, I wouldn’t have taken that phone call,” Rodriguez admitted. “Everything in life is about timing.”
After putting together a tasting for the hotel’s owners (they asked for six dishes, Rodriguez cooked 12), he got the job. A week or so later, the chef arrived in Tampa. And though he’s only been here for a few months, Rodriguez says he’s already grown very fond of the city.
“It feels less rushed,” he said. “And people are just nicer.”
Cafe Quiquiriqui, the hotel’s more casual restaurant, is Spanish for cock-a-doodle-do, a reference to Ybor’s roaming wild roosters. The bright and airy corner space features terrazzo floors and serves pastries like guava pastelitos, Cuban toast with butter and bacon and egg biscuit sliders.
For lunch, there’s a smoked Cobb salad, black bean soup and empanadas. This is also where the Cuban sandwich is served, a hefty tribute to the classic, made with ham that’s smoked in-house for 12 hours, juicy, mojo-marinated roasted pork, homemade pickles, melty Swiss cheese and a lick of mustard on thick, crusty Cuban bread from local bread wholesaler Mike’s Bakery. For now, there’s fennel pollen salami on the Tampa version, but in the coming weeks, Rodriguez says he is determined to start making his own.
Designed by local firm Alfonso Architects, the hotel incorporated what was once the exterior of Las Novedades, a restaurant built in 1890, as well as brick walls from the Warren Building, where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were said to have stayed.
Flor Fina, the hotel’s upscale Latin restaurant and cocktail bar, is outfitted with sultry velvet booths, which lend the space an intimate feel, despite the yawning floor plan. The decor evokes a Cuban social club from the 1950s — it’s hard to tell where the lounge ends and the restaurants begins. A long wraparound bar sits beneath a golden ceiling and is flanked by tan swivel stools. The bar features a rum-focused cocktail program with a collection of spirits curated by region that spans over 40 varieties from 17 countries, including Guyana, Jamaica and Martinique.
The social nature of the space extends to the dinner menu, which includes several large entrees meant to share and a selection of tapas and snacks. There are ember-roasted shishito peppers with pistachios and a green romesco, mussels steamed in a caldo verde with Fresno chiles, and a smoked mahi spread made with a horseradish-spiked mayonnaise, pickle, chiles and crispy shallots.
A strong Latin influence runs throughout the menu, from the smoked Argentine-style chorizo to a selection of ceviches, which feature prominently — Rodriguez authored a book about the dish. The menu includes four different varieties, including a tuna and watermelon combo with yuzu and calamansi, garnished with tarragon, as well as a cobia aguachile, made with cucumbers, kaffir lime, serrano chiles and papas huancaina, a Peruvian-style potato dish.
All the pastas are made in-house, a nod to Ybor’s Sicilian roots, from the Sorrentino ravioli filled with smoked ham, ricotta, walnuts and crushed tomatoes to a pappardelle with goat ragu and pecorino cheese.
The main menu is not too expansive, but features a few showstoppers. For one, the “Dirty Bone” tomahawk ribeye comes with the allure of a tableside shaving of beef chicharon (the crispy, fatty bits scraped straight from the steak bone) and is served with a bright chimichurri.
And it’s hard to imagine the porchetta suckling pig won’t quickly land on the list of Tampa Bay’s most Instagrammed plates. Billed as a “feast,” the dish requires 48-hour notice and is meant for at least a table of four people to share. The suckling pigs are deboned and stuffed with rosemary, pistachios and currants, then confited for four hours before being roasted at a high heat, which renders the skin crackling, not unlike a Peking-style duck. The pigs are served with coffee-glazed carrots, a farro gratin and salsa verde.
For dessert, the menu features just three dishes: a quatro leches cake with dulce de leche and toffee brittle, a pavlova with coconut yogurt, a tropical fruit salad and key lime ice cream, and a chocolate parfait made with dark and white chocolate natilla (a type of custard), white chocolate ice cream, espresso granita and milk espuma.
Moving to Tampa Bay after spending so many years on Florida’s other coast included a big leap of faith, Rodriguez says. But now, the chef says he is ready to settle in for good.
He said, “It already feels like home.”
Hotel Haya, 1412 E Seventh Ave., Tampa. 813-568-1200. hotelhaya.com.