Restaurant Review: Columbia Restaurant, Tampa, Florida

First of all, happy new year! Can you believe it is 2011? A new year, a new decade. May the new year bring you much inspiration, happiness, health, and peace of mind, and in doing so, allow you to heal the world and bring joy to those around you in small ways everyday. We all have the power to make positive change this year, for ourselves, for each other, and for our planet! here's to a great 2011, for all of us.

Now, let's talk about food. Really good Spanish food, to be exact.While in Florida for Christmas, my parents and I went to the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, the historical neighborhood located in the city of Tampa, Florida.  The Columbia Restaurant was founded in 1905 and is the oldest restaurant in Florida and the world’s largest Spanish restaurant. 


Founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., it began in Tampa’s Ybor City, as a small corner café known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, frequented by the local cigar workers. Over the years, the restaurant has grown. It expanded to five other locations in Florida: St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, the Historic District in St. Augustine, The Pier in St. Petersburg, Sand Key on Clearwater Beach, Central Florida’s town of Celebration, and the Columbia Café at the Tampa Bay History Center, Channelside. All Columbia Restaurants are owned and operated by 4th and 5th generation members of the founding family (read the entire history here).  The Columbia has been named an All-American Icon by Nation's Restaurant News, one of only fifty restaurants in the U.S. chosen for this honor.

The Tampa location is lovely to behold. The exterior is covered in Spanish tile, a reference to the Moorish tiles of Southern Spain. Inside, there are multiple opulent dining rooms, each offering a different environment and feel. After glancing in the old café room, and walking through the richly decorated Don Quixote dining room (outfitted with a large crystal chandalier and dark woodwork), we were shown to the Patio Dining Room, a sunny and bright room designed to mimic the patios of Andalucia. It was built in 1937, and I felt as though I were being transported back in time. Waiters busily hurried about the dining room in black tuxedos, scraping bread crumbs off tables and adjusting the folded cloth napkins. Large green palms dotted the room, providing lovely contrast to the white marble floor, crisp white tablecloth, and white walls. A fountain in the center provided the soothing sound of running water. Holiday greenery tastefully hung from the railings of the second story, providing a festive touch. 

IMG_0370IMG_0371The Patio Dining Room - the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely lunch.

Soon enough, we met our server Jim, who was a kind and knowledgeable, and looked sharp. After I asked about whether or not certain menu items were gluten-free, our server announced that he had a gluten-free menu and ran off to grab one. My mom (who is now avoiding gluten, dairy, and sugar) and I were delighted to be presented with both a gluten-free menu and a lactose-free menu. A little cross-referencing allowed us to easily figure out items that were both GF and LF, and our server Jim was happy to answer any other questions I had regarding other ingredients. We placed our orders and conversed while the kitchen prepared our food. 


First, I enjoyed a cup of Spanish Bean Soup, called out on their menu as "the soup that made the Columbia famous". Curious by such a lofty statement, I knew I needed to order. And truly, after eating it, I could see why it is so highly regarded.  This delicious soup is comprised of tender garbanzo beans, Spanish chorizo, smoked ham, and potatoes in a salty, rich chicken and ham broth, seasoned with Spanish paprika. I normally avoid potatoes, but I got the soup anyway, and I only saw one little chunk of potato in the whole bowl!  So I didn't feel bad about picking it out and carrying on with my soup.  I can still taste that soup in my mind, and am going to be attempting a recreation of this soup over the long New Year's weekend.


For my main entrée, I had the Mahi-Mahi "Cayo Hueso", a lovely fillet of grilled citrus-marinated Mahi Mahi. It was perfectly done - when my fork pierced through the crisp, golden crust, it met a light, flaky interior. The flavor was bright and fresh, and it was neither too dry nor underdone. The fish was served with yellow rice, sweet fried platanos, and onions marinated in a garlicky mojo. I'm fairly certain the mojo had white vinegar in it, but I let that one slide.  The presentation was very nice, the portion size was generous, and the overall flavor was divine.


My mom also found good choices on the menu. She first had the lactose-free version of Columbia's Classic 1905 Sala, comprised of iceberg lettuce, baked ham, tomato, olives, and a wickedly garlicky homemade dressing (garlic, oregano, wine veingar, and olive oil). They also sprinkled on a bit of Lea & Perrin's Worchestershire Sauce over the salad, which is gluten-free but contains corn syrup and other additives. If you are avoiding such things, make sure to ask for it without the Lea & Perrin's. It is brought to the table in a large bowl, and the the dressing is poured over the top right at your table and tossed - so it is very easy to omit an ingredient if you need to. I couldn't resist trying a wee little bite of her salad, despite the red flag ingredients, and was impressed at the bold flavor and fresh, crisp ingredients.


For her entrée she had the Roast Pork Loin "A la Cubana".  It was a large portion, especially for a lunch entree - two thick slices of moist, roasted pork, a gluten-free rich gravy, and a large pile of black beans, white rice, and sweet fried platanos.  I tried a bit of the pork, and enjoyed the moist texture and great flavor. I avoided the gravy, as I'm almost certain it was thickened with cornstarch, so I would recommend asking if you avoid corn and will be going to the restaurant. My mom wasn't concerned about it, so we didn't ask.  The black beans were great, and I wanted to order a whole bowl of that!  She enjoyed this entree immensely, and finished it down to the last grain of rice.


My dad was the sole gluten-eater of the group, and he found lots of great things on their expansive regular menu. He got a mini loaf of hot Cuban bread and butter that smelled amazing and looked like the perfect little loaf of bread (I don't think that gluten-free, yeast-free bread will ever be like that). He ordered a locally made beer and Empanadas de Picadillo to start the meal. The empanadas looked awesome, lovely little pastries filled with ground beef, olives, raisins, and fragrant spices. For his entrée, he got a half Cuban Sandwich and a half order of the 1905 Salad.  We were all stunned that what was called a "half order" looked like enough to share between two people!  He said the Cuban was one of the best he's ever had, and that the bread was perfect.  While I know that isn't very helpful for those of you who are gluten-free, you can be certain that your gluten-eating friends will discover really good gluten-packed food at this place.   For dessert, he ordered the Café Adela, a steaming cup of Cuban coffee spiked with Kahlua and Amaretto and topped with whipped cream and cherry. It was beautiful, smelled amazing, and his eyes rolled back after the first sip. He looked as though he was in absolute rapture. Now, while there were too many ingredients in there that I couldn't eat, those of you who are gluten-free but can eat dairy and drink alcohol could enjoy that beverage with a smile. 


For all of this food, our total bill only came to a measly $67. I was shocked! I felt amazing after the meal, despite my small cheats here and there with the white vinegar and the potatoes and probably a little orange in the fish marinade. My system was able to handle it, and I felt energetic and satisfied the rest of the afternoon. In fact, we all felt great, and raved about the restaurant for the rest of the day. 

If you are vegetarian, I think this restaurant would still provide a lot of great options. Scanning the regular lunch menu, it seems as though the Black Bean Soup (served with rice), the Gazpacho Andaluz, the Queso Fundindo served with fresh bread, Beefsteak Tomato Salad with Cabrales cheese, the Classic 1905 Salad, the Black Bean Cakes. and the Eggplant "Riojana" should all be vegetarian. Pescatarians would have a very easy time finding an option, as the menu is loaded with delightful seafood and fish items. However, if you are vegan or gluten-free in addition to being vegan/vegetarian, it may be more challenging, but still could be worth a shot in my opinion.   The kitchen seems friendly to special requests, and there is always salad with black beans and rice, right? 

This was one of the best restaurant experiences I've had in years.  The service was excellent, the food was delicious, and the environment was classy and unique.  I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for an allergy-friendly, high-quality, delicious meal.


The Columbia Restaurant