Sunday, May 06, 2001

Ybor City restaurant serves spicy taste of Spain

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Longtime visitors to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area have learned to take time out from the beach scene for a stop at an urban landmark where succulent Spanish food and entertainment have been a tradition for decades.

        This year is doubly worth a trip to the Columbia Restaurant in the heart of Ybor City, Tampa's historic Cuban neighborhood and once the center of cigar production in the United States.

        The city recently spent millions on a face lift for the area, designated as a National Historic Landmark District, and the Columbia followed suit by updating its famous kitchen.

    The Columbia Restaurant
   2117 E. 7th Ave., Tampa, Fla.
   (813) 248-4961
        The restaurant has been in continuous operation since it was opened in 1905 by Casimiro Hernandez Sr., whose family still runs the famous site. Its durable reputation among locals, snowbirds and summer vacationers has turned it into an institution with four more Florida locations, in St. Augustine, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

        For novices, the Ybor City site is the must-see destination. Based in a block-long complex decorated with bright blue-and-yellow Mediterranean tiles, the restaurant encompasses a cozy, dark-paneled bar and cafe, plus large dining spaces, room for parties and an inviting tropical courtyard.

        Monday through Saturday nights is the time to catch a show featuring spicy flamenco music and dancing in the show room. Cover charge is $6, and reservations are highly recommended. The cigar bar features live music 8 p.m. to midnight Thursdays through Saturdays.

        With or without music, meals are the heart of the Columbia experience, for lunch or dinner. The star of the menu is the savory paella, served in two traditional Spanish forms, one in which shellfish share platter space with roasted sausage, chicken and other meats, the other an all-seafood version.

        Also on the hard-to-resist list is a selection of fresh fish — meaty local grouper and red snapper being perennial delights. The restaurant's juicy roasted pork and grilled steaks are every bit as popular as its seafood selections.

        Beverage selections include pleasant domestic and imported wines, the sugary Cuban rum-mint-lime concoction called a mojito, and addictive red or white sangria made with fresh fruit.

        Appetizers resemble tapas, the Spanish-style nibbler plates that make for excellent communal tasting. Selections include tempting vegetable preparations and shrimp al ajillo, prepared in an intense garlic sauce only a few steps less concentrated than the kind served at cafes along the Costa Azul. Equally tempting are chorizo sausage, Cuban black bean dip as well as traditional black beans and rice, gold gazpacho soup and crisp salads featuring the family's renowned garlic dressing.

        That dressing and other gustatory souvenirs can be purchased in the gift shop next door, alongside a small cigar shop complete with an old-timer who hand-rolls stogies on the spot.


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