October 5, 2015
Many US cities proudly tout a signature dish. Philadelphia is famous for cheesesteaks, Boston has lobster rolls… and in Tampa, it’s all about the Cuban sandwich. These hearty lunchtime feasts of pork, salami, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles served pressed in crusty, Cuban bread, were originally enjoyed by cigar-factory workers in Tampa’s Ybor City district. Today, Ybor City’s restaurants compete to produce the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa, and there’s even a Cuban Sandwich Festival held here every March. Seek your authentic taste of Tampa at one (or more”¦) of these awesome eateries.
This Ybor City staple is Florida’s oldest restaurant, complete with flamenco dancers and Spanish flair. Located on Seventh Avenue, Ybor City’s characterful main drag, Columbia Restaurant is perennially popular for its hearty paella, jugs of sangria and other Latin favourites – and the Cuban sandwiches are as good as you’ll find anywhere. The secret ingredient is crispy, fluffy Cuban bread baked daily at nearby La Segunda Bakery, which, like the Columbia, has been in business for over a century.
Carmine’s, further along Seventh Avenue, is another Ybor favourite. In contrast to the Columbia’s more traditional decor, the wooden booths and bare brickwork here speak more of urban cool. Carmine’s Cuban sandwiches are a little different, too: in defiance of the purists, their Tampa Cuban includes lettuce and tomato; or go all-out veggie with a Caprese Cuban of chopped tomato and balsamic reduction. The bar also serves an impressive array of locally brewed craft beer.
Also on Seventh Avenue (and a former Cuban Sandwich Festival winner) is quirkily themed bar and restaurant, Gaspar’s Grotto. Combining two of Tampa’s passions – Cuban food and pirates – it’s named after Jose Gaspar, a notorious pirate who terrorised Florida’s Gulf Coast in days gone by. Regulars flock here for the lunchtime specials of ropa vieja (beef stew) and crisp Cuban sandwiches and then stick around for happy hour when a shot and a beer cost just $2.
Westshore has a thriving Hispanic community, and Cuban sandwich joints abound here, too. Standing out from the crowd is West Tampa Sandwich Shop, which hit the headlines in 2012 when President Obama stopped in for lunch. His choice on the day – the Honey Cuban, with extra lettuce and tomato – has since been re-named the Obama Sandwich. He also reportedly sampled a Puerto Rican-inspired Tripleta, while regular customers rave about the garbanzo bean (chickpea) soup.
A relative newcomer in Tampa’s Westshore district, The Floridian modestly claims to make the “finest Cuban sandwich on the planet”, and as a winner at last year’s Cuban Sandwich Festival, clearly this is not an idle boast. As with the original Floridian (across the bay in Treasure Island, a resort area near St Petersburg), the Cubans here are perfectly pressed with just the right amount of mustard, and taste best when ordered with cafe con leche – rich, steamed milk enlivened with a jolt of Cuban coffee.
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Written by James Litston