Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pitchers Full of Fun in Ybor City

The Columbia
2117 E. 7th Ave.
Tampa, FL

We suits almost always travel alone.

And I’m sure I would have had a thoroughly enjoyable meal sitting by myself at the bar watching the game, drinking beer and chowing down on the Columbia’s world famous Spanish cuisine.

As a Suit in Strange Places, I’ve repeated that ritual literally thousands of times -- in virtually every city in America.

But I’d have been missing out.

That’s because you don’t come to the Columbia just to grab a meal.

Dining here is an event.

An immersion in Spanish culture. Complete with flamenco dancers, elaborate Spanish artwork and table-side concocted pitchers of mojitos.

In other words, the Columbia is an experience best enjoyed with a large group of friends. Which is why I picked it for our group of five out on the town in downtown Tampa.

Pass the tapas and the rum drinks – this is going to be a fun night!

First of all, the Columbia is both old and huge. This is no Suits in Strange Places hole-in-the-wall. In fact, the Columbia claims to be oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.

I’m not going to argue with them.

Made up of 15 separate dining rooms, the place takes up an entire city block in the heart of Ybor City, Tampa’s historic-Cuban-neighborhood-turned-party-central.

Ybor’s cobblestone streets, where poor Cuban immigrants made their livings a century ago hand rolling cigars, are now patrolled by hammered 22 year old coeds in high heel boots and skimpy halter-tops looking for love.

Not that I’m complaining or anything.

But the moment you walk into the foyer of the Columbia you know you are in for something a little more special than another ubiquitous outpost of Coyote Ugly.

Thirty foot tall mirrors, elaborate chandeliers worth more than my car, lamps carved into the shape of naked maidens and regal paintings of the Old Country greet you upon arrival.

One notable painting by the hostess stand features a quite satisfied old guy with wine and feast splayed out before him smugly puffing on a big Cuban in front of a painting featuring even more naked maidens.

Nice! This is DEFINITELY going to be a fun night.

As with most things in life, the frivolity commences in earnest when the alcohol arrives.

Now days you can order a mojito at just about every bar on earth. Even the high school girl at the corner Applebee’s will make one for you if you tip her enough.

Mojitos are “in”. They are the new black.

But a good mojito is more than just mashing up some rum, mint and sugar cane. That’s why you want to order your mojitos at a place that’s been making Cuba’s most famous export since before mojitos were cool.

The Columbia leaves no doubt, because the waitress will whip you up an entire pitcher of mojitos right before your eyes.

As she mashes up the mint and drops in an entire bottle of rum into your own personal table-side pitcher, here comes that thought again.

Yeah! Pass the pitcher. This is going to be a fun night!

Each glass topped off with a fresh slice of lime and a stick of sugar cane, Columbia’s mojitos are the real deal.

Of course man can not live on rum drinks alone.

So I ordered an Estrella Damm with my meal, a beer imported from Barcelona, Spain.

As I discovered from reading the label, Estrella means “star” in Spanish.

Who says drinking beer can’t be educational?

A crisp, mildly hoppy pilsner, Estrella has none of that skunky Eurotrash funk typical of beers from the northern half of Europe.

Darn tasty, I ended up downing three or four before the evening was over.

Okay. So at I this point hopefully I’ve convinced you that the Columbia is good time, fun loving, sophisticated indulgence in Spanish culture.

I know what you are wondering.

What about the food, Suit757? What about the food?

Well, for some world famous tourist attraction restaurants, the positive reviews end when the food arrives.

Not the Columbia.

The Spanish and Cuban cuisine lives up to the atmosphere and hype.

I’m still dreaming of the chorizo appetizer. Thin sliced and bursting with moist flavor, the Spanish sausage came in a dish full of caramelized onions surrounded by crunchy round crackers. After a bite or two, I realized the sausage and onions were so good I needed to skip the somewhat distracting crackers.

Choosing a main course was maddening. The menu lives up to the Columbia’s claim to be the world’s largest Spanish restaurant. It goes on for page after page, describing in mouth watering detail every conceivable delicacy of Spain and Cuba.

Chicken, fish, rice, pork, beef. In every imaginable form.

I finally settled on the “Snapper Alicante” which was featured prominently at the top of the seafood page with the Columbia’s “highest recommendation”, whatever that means.

Let me just say, I wasn’t disappointed.

On the Columbia’s menu for generations, it was a perfectly seared filet of fresh Gulf fish drowning in a rich, nutty, dark gravy – almost like a mushroom sauce. It was topped with onions, green peppers and roasted almonds. On the side came an overflowing dish of rice and peas along with a pair of slices of fried eggplant topped with fried Gulf shrimp.

Unique. Delicious. And over-the-top.

Just like the Columbia.

On a night this fun, you order dessert – even though everyone at the table was bursting at the seams.

The Moros y Cristianos was a clay casserole of yin and yang sweet goodness. Half chocolate mouse and half Spanish custard, this dessert was all delicious. While decadently sweet, it was so light and smooth it managed to slide right down into my over-stuffed stomach.

All those naked maidens, priceless European antiques and pitchers of rum drinks set a high level of expectations. But the Columbia’s cuisine easily hurdles it.

No doubt about it. The Columbia is one fun night out.

Rating: Bought the Shirt!

Columbia Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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