ON THE ROAD WITH STEVE
By Steve DeGenaro
I’m thinking about several friends that headed off to sunny Tampa to attend the Republican National Convention. While I would not presume to offer them advice on how to cast their delegate votes, I’m certainly qualified to suggest a GREAT place to eat. I work in Tampa frequently enough to know a lot of good places to eat. Seafood is certainly a specialty there, along with all manner of international cuisine. And I once ate at a steak house there that is consistently listed as one of the top five steak houses in North America. But, when it comes to eating in Tampa, one place jumps to the front of the line in my mind.
COLUMBIA is a Spanish restaurant specializing in unique, fresh, and authentic dishes. This place is on beyond the typical Tapas bars that have become chic in the last decade. COLUMBIA is the home of the original Cuban sandwich, originator of a garlicky salad dressed tableside, THE place to get paella, and an “over the top” tile-decorated bar and flamenco show. Started in the first few years of the 20th century, COLUMBIA was a neighborhood place where the Cuban workers in Ybor City came to drink Cuban coffee and eat quick sandwiches. After work, they’d stop back for a drink –either a cerveza or some Sangria—and a quick snack.
The restaurant’s fame caught on, and a hundred years later, it remains an excellent place to eat, have a coffee, or stop by after work for some Sangria. The same family that started the place is still at the helm, now into the fifth and sixth generation!
Ybor City is a somewhat touristy neighborhood now, with restaurants, gift shops, bed & breakfasts and hotels. It is located near downtown Tampa, and while cigars are not commercially manufactured there in the volumes they were in the past, there is still a brisk tourist trade that cigar making and selling plays a large part of. Ask neighbors who have lived her long enough, and they’ll tell you that the family that owns the restaurant were largely responsible for the neighborhood’s resurgence in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Anchoring this interesting neighborhood is the flagship restaurant. Colorful Spanish tile decorate some of the outside walls, but you have to enter the building to see the wild splashes of color. Vibrant tiles, fountains, faux courtyard settings abound in the dining areas—a jumble of unique and historic rooms that comprise the restaurant. The largest room has bright floral colors and a stage for flamenco shows. I’ve seen the Spanish dance show, and once, a co-worker got up on stage with the troupe to dance, but frankly, my attention is always on the outstanding food!
If it’s your first trip to COLUMBIA, ask the server to suggest several tapas dishes. Empanadas—meat and veggie stuffed dough pockets—almost like a ravioli or pierogi is a good place to start. There are probably a dozen different shrimp preparations. I’ve had the garlic shrimp and also a stuffed & fried version with soft cheese and hot pepper. All succulent, all prepared perfectly, all served with excellent presentation.
Next, have a “1905” salad. One of the original salads prepared tableside, this plain lettuce and tomato salad has strips of cheese and a garlic lemon dressing that is completely unique. As in you won’t find it anywhere else!
Main courses are outstanding. There are enough to interest every foodie, but not so many that you’ll be overwhelmed. I’ve had Grouper Bilbao, a Basque dish with fish cooked in a casserole with tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, and lemon. Coca De Langosta, which my wife has ordered at least a couple times (and let me sample), is a Catalonian flatbread pizza with lobster meat and a rich manchego cheese aioli. Think Brier Hill pizza with Spanish spices.
Two excellent choices for first time visitors are La Completa Cubano and Paella Valencia. “The Complete” is a sampler platter/combination plate. There is a beef brisket in lime/onion as well as their version of slow cooked pork roast. The don’t call it pernil, but its like ordering this Latino meat. Like pernil, the pork is fork-tender, juicy, and has hints of lime and mint. The vegetables and starches are unusual too. Black beans and unique saffron rice are staples, but this platter also comes with yucca (a root vegetable similar in taste to squash) and plantains. The plantains, which look like bananas, are sliced and fried. They have a very nice sweet and salty combination taste. I’ve had them all over Florida and in several places in Latin American, and none come close to the ones at COLUMBIA.
Paella Valencia is another mainstay. It takes awhile to cook, and they warn you on the menu. Well worth the wait, put your order in, and settle back with some Sangria or a mojito—you won’t be disappointed! Paella is a rice dish. Rice is cooked on a flat cast iron or steel pan. Originally, it was “Sunday dinner” in the homes of many Latin cultures; and was cooked by the men outside. Now, paella pans can be ordered on line. The recipe can be revised to cook indoors but you have to invest some time in the prep: the rice is “started” on top of the stove, and finished in the oven. Saffron plays a big role in this dish and you use a lot of the red gold, generally considered the most expensive spice. Thyme and garlic are the other major players. And there are chunks of chicken, sausage, and every seafood you can imagine. Pieces of fish, shrimp, mussels, clams, and even squid tentacles end up on top of the pile of paella. Peas and onions represent the other food groups in this “one dish” meal. It’s a mound of yellow/red rice (from the saffron) with seafood and meat piled on top. It’s best shared, I think the menu says its for two, but you can easily feed three or four with their serving.
At something north of $25 but south of $30, paella is the most expensive main dish on the menu. This place is actually very reasonable when you realize how much food you get and the high quality of the dishes.
I never save room for dessert, but usually end up trying someone else’s over Cuban coffee (warning: even for hardcore coffee drinkers like me, this tiny shot of coffee will keep you up for two days). There’s a guava filled pastry that is their most popular dessert. I LOVE their bread pudding and flan, a custard similar to crème Brule.
If you aren’t in Tampa, the restaurant has become so popular that they’ve branched out to other major cities. There’s one in Fort Lauderdale, one in St. Augustine, one (or maybe more?) in St Pete’s, and even one in the Tampa airport. I’ve eaten in several of them and the food is just as good. But for ambiance, you want the original in Ybor City!
Make time if you’re anywhere near Ybor City and I promise you’ll enjoy it. It’s a value for the quality and uniqueness, and if your hotel has a fridge, take leftovers back and enjoy them the next day. I was so inspired by this gastronomic wonderland, that I bought a book on paella making, several pans, and the spices. That was ten years ago, and under the tutelage of a great friend who happens to be Cuban, I’ve gotten pretty good at making paella. I hold up my paella to most restaurants and find it at least “as good”, if not better. But it’s not as good as COLUMBIA’s, which sets the bar and remains the standard.
2117 East 7th Ave.