Columbia, a Spanish-themed Restaurant, is a celebrated icon in Tampa, Florida’s Ybor City. It has been in business since 1905 when Casimiro Hernandez opened a small corner café. Most of the patrons were local folk, workers in the cigar factories. Casimiro emigrated from Spanish-Cuba to America and perhaps the nickname of America, Columbia, Gem of the Ocean, inspired Casimiro’s choice of a name for his restaurant in the new land he now called home.
Five generations of the Hernandez-Gonzmart family have carried on the dreams of Casimiro Hernandez and the Columbia Restaurant has grown in size and number; now with seven locations across Florida. The Hernandez-Gonzmart family members work diligently to preserve the legacy left to them by Casimiro.
Kinfolk from Tennessee and Kentucky had trailered their motorcycles south to Florida; a week-long snow bird adventure for them. We agreed to meet them in Tampa for lunch. At last I had my opportunity to sample the famous Columbia Restaurant cuisine I had h
eard so much about.
The Ybor City restaurant in Tampa is large. It has several spacious dining rooms. The largest features a small stage where Flamenco dance performances are offered nightly except Sunday. All is in the Spanish-Moorish style with lots of attention to tile work and ornate windows. One dining room features a large chandelier while another features a fountain and green plants. If you arrive at a busy hour, there is a spacious cocktail lounge separate from the dining areas and makes for a pleasant interlude.
Renowned for its paella as well as other dishes, we all chose, what is probably the Columbia’s m
ost famous offering, the Cuban sandwich. The “Cuban,” a pressed sandwich, is popular all over Southern Florida. It is a loaf of Cuban bread, a bread similar to French or Italian bread but made with lard, sliced in two lengthwise. A generous dollop of yellow mustard on both sides is flowed by stacking thin sliced ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and slices of dill pickle. Most would agree that this is the classic Cuban sandwich. However, Casimiro’s customers were the workers in the cigar factories of Ybor City. In the early part of the twentieth century there was a large influx of Italian immigrants to the area. To accommodate their tastes Genoa salami slices were added to the classic recipe and the Columbia Cuban was born. In addition, the sandwich is toasted on a hot griddle that is also a press called a plancha. The resulting sandwich is much thinner than before
toasting. The bread has a dense texture and a crispy crust. The cheese and other fillings had fused together. It is remarkable how differently it tastes after toasting rather than easting it untoasted, like a submarine sandwich.
The Columbia offers two menus, one for lunch and one for dinner. We ordered from the lunch menu. Our cousins ordered the original Cuban sandwich, whick comes with plantain chips, and a cup of black bean soup, the combo at $9.95. My wife and chose the Half and Half Combo, a half of a Cuban sandwich and a small sized bowl of salad or soup, the combo at $8
.95. We chose the Spanish bean soup, also a noted item on the Columbia menu. The soup is prepared from garbanzo beans simmered with ham, potatoes and chorizo sausage. While waiting for our order, the neatly uniformed server brought us our beverages and hot Cuban bread and butter. The first round of bread was quickly eaten and the server promptly brought us another. The server that day did yeoman service, courteous and friendly, she was able to be there when needed and not hovering the rest of the time. The ambience of the physical plant and the poise of the server added to the enjoyment of our meal.
The Cuban sandwiches were excellent. The bread was crispy to the bite without being dry or t
ough. For a light lunch, the combo is just right. The cousins took half of their sandwiches home in doggie bags. It is a very good sandwich because you can taste the individual elements that make it but it is so much better as the pressed, toasted and melted combination.
The cousins praised the black bean soup. The Spanish bean soup was very good, a soup you can a meal of. The blandness of the garbanzo beans highlights the spice of the chorizo sausage, all in the thick, rich ham broth. The soups and sandwiches are very good combinations. For dessert we all shared a flan. An order is just la
rge enough for four to get a spoonfu
l or two. A nicely finished custard with a sweet sauce, it was an excellent counterpoint to the soup and sandwich.
If you are ever in Florida and are near a Columbia Restaurant (check their web site for locations), I think you would enjoy dining there. Their menu features food that have been keeping people happy and coming back for more for over a hundred years. It took quite awhile for my first visit but I will be back.