Road Trip Edition: Tampa, FL

On Thursday, I spent most of the day driving back to Ohio, but even a driver has to eat sometimes. I had skipped breakfast and lunch, so by 4pm or so, I was starving. By that time, I was about two hours into the drive, and around the Tampa area.

For some reason, I had the bright idea to have my husband ask his boss for recommendations, since his boss lives and works in the Tampa/Brandon area. Without hesitation, he told my husband to tell me to go to The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, a historic district in downtown Tampa.

This restaurant has been around pretty much forever – since 1905, actually – and has seen five generations of the family being involved in running it. Because of this, The Columbia Restaurant is a Florida institution, with people coming in from all around.

The building itself is imposing – it takes up a whole city block, and has 15 dining rooms that seat 1,700 people. Once you find parking (in the parking lots either across the street from or behind the building), it’s very easy to go in the wrong door like I did. I entered through the bar area, and in many ways I’m glad I did. I was definitely underdressed for the place (I was wearing shorts, a shirt, and sandals), and felt a little out of place among the tux-sporting waiters and men in business casual garb, but decided to eat at the bar since I was dining alone. Good choice. The bartender who took my order and waited on me made me feel very comfortable and right at home. Let me apologize in advance for the quality of the pictures, I was trying to take pictures on the down low in a low amount of light, and some of them came out blurrier than I would have liked.

The bread service consists of Cuban Bread, nice and toasty and served with butter. While great on it’s own, I think it pairs with their salad (more about that later) perfectly.

Columbia Restaurant - Pane Cubano

As an appetizer, I got their Croquetas y Croquetas, which is 4 each of both the Croquetas de Pollo (Chicken) and Devil Crab Croquettes. The chicken ones were delicious – each crunchy nugget containing a creamy concotion that reminded me of chicken pot pie. The delicate flavor of the crab in the other croquettes got a bit overwhelmed by the spices, but even these were quite good.

Columbia Restaurant Chicken and Crab Croquettes

Now, about that salad – their 1905 Salad is absolutely amazing, which I find hard to believe considering I’m not a big iceberg lettuce fan. But the combination of flavors? Julienned ham and swiss? Tomatoes and olives and a fantastic vinaigrette? Rocked my world. I’ve already found the recipe for it online and am planning to make it at home soon. I opted for a side salad, which was huge! About the size of entree salads in these parts. This pic does not do it justice at all.

Columbia Restaurant 1905 Side Salad

For an entree, everything on the menu looked so delicious that I had a hard time deciding. I settled on the La Completa Cubana platter, which is a sampler of several different things – roast pork, boliche (chorizo stuffed eye round), empanada de picadillo (ground beef turnover), platanos, yuca root, black beans and yellow rice. I can honestly, without a moment’s hesitation, say this is the best Cuban food I’ve ever had. The meat was tender and flavorful, the sides inventive while staying true to the traditional, and was a great way to sate several cravings at once. The yuca root didn’t do much for me, but I think it’s a texture thing that has nothing to do with their preparation.

Columbia Cubano Completa Platter

I would have liked to say that I tried something from their dessert menu, but I didn’t. I was full after the salad and croquettes, and was only able to take a few bites of my entree. I opted instead to box it up for eating in my hotel later (and it was just as tasty cold as it was hot).

I did, however, get a to-go order of both the ropa vieja and the paella campesina to take home to Ohio with me so Paul could share the experience with me. I cannot express in words how helpful the bartender was in getting everything packaged in microwave-safe containers and steady in the bags for the long trip. And the food survived just fine, and made for many delicious meals in the days to come.

I hear tales of flamenco dancers and cigar rollers, but unfortunately I was just passing through and didn’t get to experience either. I do know that on a return trip to Florida, this will require a day trip to experience the right way. If you’re lucky enough to live in Tampa, I probably don’t have to tell you how awesome this restaurant is. The fantastic food got me through another 10 hours of driving before I stopped for the night. And the leftovers got me through the next day. It sure as hell beat the fast food joints along the interstates.

If you’d like to go: Columbia Restaurant, 2117 East 7th Avenue, Tampa, FL – 813.248.4961

Columbia on Urbanspoon

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