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Where to go for Cuban cuisine in Tampa

Hosting  the 2012 Republican National Convention is a huge opportunity for Tampa to steal the national spotlight.  

While the "Cigar City" may not be known as a "foodie" town, the city's restaurant scene is anything but boring --thanks to strong Spanish and Cuban influences.  If you're in Tampa for the GOP Convention or just passing through town, check out this go-to guide for a memorable meal.

First stop: Columbia. The classic Cuban restaurant dates back to 1905 making it the oldest family-run restaurant in Florida.  Known as the "Gem of Spanish Restaurants"  you can find Columbia  in Tampa's historic Ybor City district (after dinner, stroll down 7th Ave to soak in the nightlife). When making your reservation (and you definitely need one) you can choose from five separate dining rooms, including one featuring live music and flamenco dancers. Start your experience with a glass of Columbia's famous sangria followed by the award-winning "1905" salad: strips of baked ham, Swiss cheese, tomato, green olives and grated Romano cheese topped off with garlic dressing.  You will not be disappointed.  The menu is a bit overwhelming at first, but whatever your choice, you really can't go wrong.  The menu features a wide variety of paella, chicken, meat and fresh fish like grilled mahi mahi "cayo hueso" (marinated in citrus juices) or "varadero" (mahi mahi crusted with ground crispy green plaintain chips with a cirtrus butter sauce).  If you're really hungry, order the Cuban platter, "la completa cubana" with roast pork, boliche, empanada de picadillo and platanos, yuco, beans and yellow rice. Enough said. If you save any room for "postres," (dessert) order several and share the following: flan, churros and guava & sweet cream cheese turnovers (baked in a flaky pastry). You only live once.

Hungry for a delicious Cubano (pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles, mustard on cuban bread) head to the West Tampa Sandwich Shop or Brocato's Sandwich Shop.  Locals flock to these two Tampa institutions for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  West Tampa Sandwich Shop features a honey cubano (hot cuban sandwich slathered with honey)  that is out of this world (our waitress recommends ordering it without lettuce and tomato). Add a side of fried plantains and wash it all down with a fresh mango milkshake. If you need an extra jolt, the cafe con leche (espresso Cuban coffee with steamed milk) will wake you up, guaranteed. From the outside, the restaurant looks like a small home, where its been for more than 15 years. Grab a seat at the counter or at one of the tables and quiz yourself on how many famous politicians you can name by looking at the autographed pictures lining the walls.  Brocato's is almost known for its Cubanos and other hearty deli sandwiches, but tourists show up for the "Devil crab" - a softball size fried croquette stuffed with crab meat with red sauce, served warm, it's a meal by itself. Be prepared for lines out the door at lunch time.  This family-run Tampa landmark started back in 1948,  and is a bit hard to find at first (if you're not familiar with the area) but well worth the trip once you arrive.
 
What started out as a local grocery store in the 1970s has since grown into one of Tampa's most popular Cuban restaurants offering huge portions for reasonable prices.  Today  La Teresita, a short drive from downtown Tampa, serves thousands of hungry customers every week and also happens to be a popular spot for political candidates on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney held a town hall event at La Teresita during his first run for President of the United States back in August 2007. For lunch try the pollo con arroz (chicken with yellow rice) with a side of tostones (fried green plantains) for only $10.  The " Mariscos" (seafood) menu features several shrimp dishes, including the popular Camarone al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce ). For more variety, go with "Cielo, mar y tierra" (chicken, shrimp and steak) marinated in the best Cuban flavors.  Before you leave, don't forget to drop by La Teresita Cafe & Bakery (located next to La Teresita) to pick up a few irresistible sweets to take home with you.

For the best street food eats be sure to check out Tampa's Taco Bus. What started as a food truck is now serving Mexican food at four different locations around Tampa (get updates on twitter @tampatacobus).  Taco Bus owner Chef Rene grew up in Mexico serving and enjoying Mexican street food and made it his mission to bring it to Tampa.  At the downtown location you can dine alfresco after placing your order at the Taco Bus window or choose to grab a booth inside.  The extensive menu includes plenty of vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free options. If you're in hurry you can even place orders online. Menu favorites include soft corn tacos ($3) with "shredded pork marinated in Achiote and bitter orange, then wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted in a smoker  (based on a 5,000 year old Mayan recipe)."   If you're not in the mood for meat, try a "beer battered Swai fish taco with white cream sauce and Chile de Arbol on the side." For your grand finale, treat yourself to a slice of tres leches cake (it's only $3.50) "sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk, baked at Taco Bus daily."  

Columbia
2117 E. 7th Ave, Tampa, FL  (813) 248-4961

West Tampa Sandwich Shop
2904 N. Armenia, Tampa, FL  (813) 873-7104

Brocato's Sandwich Shop
5021 E. Columbus    Tampa, FL  

La Teresita
3248 W. Columbus  Tampa, FL

Tampa Taco Bus
Multiple locations