ST. PETE BEACH — From her seat inside the large garage window, Felicia Lacalle can see it all: sun-kissed beachgoers popping by for breakfast, day-tripping tourists in need of a pick-me-up and locals rediscovering the beach restaurant scene.
It’s also impossible to miss Lacalle, perched right next to a large, colorful mural of a woman flanked by two palm trees smoking a cigar on the corner of 75th Avenue and Blind Pass Road in St. Pete Beach.
“I love it over here,” Lacalle said. “It’s a special place — it really is.”
Kuba Cocina opened on May 15. The restaurant is the latest incarnation of Lacalle’s popular modern Cuban concept, which was called Hemingway’s when it first opened inside the Heights Public Market at Armature Works in 2018. Lacalle and her business partner left the Tampa Heights food hall in March, when they decided the time had come for their spot to evolve into a brick-and-mortar business.
The St. Pete Beach location, which Lacalle is playfully calling Kuba en La Playa, is really just the beginning of what Lacalle has in store this year: In the fall, she will open a much larger version of her restaurant inside the Seminole Heights carriage house that was once home to the original Refinery.
“That one is going to be my baby,” Lacalle said.
Though both restaurants will feature many of the dishes that put Lacalle’s modern Cuban cooking on the map, the Seminole Heights restaurant will feature a much larger and expanded menu, with a more upscale dining program in the downstairs portion of the restaurant and a Cuban-inspired speakeasy upstairs, at the rooftop bar.
Lacalle pictures lively brunches on the weekends, a Cuban lechon roast on Sunday afternoons and “preserved” historic decor that will bring her guests right back to 1950s Cuba. Of course, there will be live music, and, of course, there will be dancing.
A graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Miami, Lacalle, 40, grew up in Tampa. Her mother, who was Mexican, was adopted by a Cuban woman, and Lacalle described her upbringing as a blend of Mexican, Irish and Cuban influences. She said she picked up the Cuban-inspired recipes from her mother at home, learning how to make dishes like picadillo and rice and beans when she was 11.
After culinary school, Lacalle worked at Roy’s, Malio’s and Daily Eats in Tampa, and was the executive chef at Samba Room. She also ran her own meal prep company.
At the St. Pete Beach restaurant, which is entirely to-go, guests order from the front window next to the larger-than-life mural of “La Doña,” a symbol of strength and independence in Cuban culture. Diners can either take their meals with them or grab a seat inside the adjoining building’s communal space. Eventually, Lacalle said they will add some outdoor tables and — once she secures a liquor license — sangria and other drinks to-go.
The menu is designed with a takeout focus in mind, and features a selection of handheld empanadas (including lobster, picadillo and a breakfast version); deviled crab served with red pepper chimichurri; lobster and shrimp salchipapa (with chicharrones, aioli and Muenster cheese over truffled yucca fries); plantain-crusted snapper sandwich; “Kuban” fried rice; and a Cuban sandwich.
There are also several breakfast sandwiches on the menu, including a breakfast Cuban made with guava-glazed pork belly, fried eggs, salami, ham, pickles, Swiss cheese and special sauce on media noche sweet bread. For dessert, Lacalle is serving a guava and cream cheese tres leches cake and toasted coconut flan, and a list of milkshakes includes mamey, coffee, mango and tres leches flavors.
In an attempt to cast a wide net that will appeal both to locals and tourists, Lacalle said the restaurant will be open all day, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. She said the dining options will continue to expand in the coming weeks as she continues to tweak and adjust the new menu.
“As a chef, being able to get back into the kitchen and create — you need it for your soul,” Lacalle said. “It’s my happy place.”
Kuba Cocina, 7525 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach, is open 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. 813-255-1241. kubacocina.com.