From Boliche Boulevard to The Latin Corridor
About a year ago, I was looking for something different. After spending several delicious years in Tampa, I found myself hitting the Cuban ceiling: one can only eat so much Cuban food before one grows tired of it. Dont get me wrong, I love Cuban food, but at a certain point, it all tastes rather the same. It is not a unique phenomenon: all Thai tastes the same after a while. But in Tampa, Cuban food is so inescapable. Even our so-called Spanish food is heavily influenced by Cuban cuisine. Correct me if Im wrong, but I cant think of a specifically Spanish restaurant in all of Tampa. If you want Spanish food, you are better off going to a Basque restaurant.
Or perhaps you want something new. For all of its history, Tampa boasts plenty of new cultural institutions swept in by the latest immigrants. Restaurants offer an especially vibrant view of these new cultures. Columbus Avenue, or Boliche Boulevard is the waning concentration of down-to-earth Cuban food. For the most recently imported delicacies, try taking a drive down Armenia. Recently nicknamed The Latin Corridor, Armenia between Waters and Sligh is studded with Peruvian, Chilean, Colombian and Puerto Rican restaurants and bars. One can find familiar and unusual dishes, all in the same restaurant.
Interestingly enough, my favorite of the new Latin wave is located on Columbus and Armenia, or at the closest point between Boliche Boulevard and The Latin Corridor. It is called Antojitos, or Little Cravings, and serves Colombian cuisine. It was originally called Antojos de mi Tierra, or Cravings from my Land. The Latin proclivity for renaming treasured things in the diminutive dictated the obvious nickname, Antojitos. When they relocated to the present location, the nickname became official. You will notice several things when you arrive. First of all, the place is really popular among our Latin population. Cubans and Puerto Ricans, just as interested as I in some new Latin food, flock to the place along with South Americans. The only thing as packed as the parking lot is the dining room itself.
Before I begin my description in earnest, a couple pieces of advice are in order.
· Stay well away from this restaurant if youre on a diet, are picky, or have other dietary restrictions.
· It helps to know a little Spanish if you want to get what you order. You wont insult them with bad pronunciation. In fact, theyre often delighted that you try at all.
· Dont be shy, this stuff is cheap. So what if you dont like your dish? It was only $6! Try something else!
· Lastly, arrive hungry and eat slowly. Trust me, youll have a full plate.
When you arrive at the dining room, chances are it will be crowded. Not to worry, just have a seat at the counter. Service is a little faster there and you have a better chance of talking to a server who speaks a little English. Youll notice the hot case at the counter, brimming with all kinds of exotic-looking treats. Arepas are a Colombian snacking mainstay, an unleavened corn cake often topped with farmers cheese. The white farmers cheese is thick and mild. Eat your arepas immediately, as they are practically bulletproof after theyve cooled.
I cannot recommend their empanadas enough. I used to think Jamaican meat pies were the best finger food ever created. That was until I had an empanada at Antojitos. A thin layer of corn crust surrounds shredded beef and diced potatoes. The flavor is nearly perfect, but if you want perfect it is not far away. Just ask for some aji, roughly translated as hot sauce. The green aji provides a spicy and salty counterpoint to the hearty empanada. The red sausages are a larger, wet version of chorizo, very rich. There are also black blood sausages that I havent tried yet. If you try them, let me know how they are. There are several other baked goods in the hot case that I havent tried. A great accompaniment to these tasty appetizers is a fruit shake. While piña and papaya may sound familiar, many of the flavors available have no equivalent here in the states. I myself have never heard of Curuba, but it tastes pretty good. You can order the shakes with water or milk. By the time I get to Antojitos, a water shake is not an option. Curuba y leche, por favor, I say.
Entrees all come in portions that are beyond hearty. Perhaps they call the portions macho but I think gordo (fat) is more appropriate. Everything is served piping hot from the kitchen. Colombians love piping hot food. Always have a couple appetizers around to eat while you wait for your entrée to cool. The beef stew is a very hearty affair with large chunks of beef, potato, yucca, and corn cob.
They have fried fish and various steaks, but my favorite dish is the formidable pork chop. It is as big as your head. No, reallythe edges hang off the plate. They take a pork chop, de-bone it, pound it out thin, bread it and fry it to a golden brown. The meat alone would be enough to satiate Paul Bunyan, but there is more. A small oil and vinegar salad, white rice, and long strips of fried plantain share the limited plate space. Just for good measure, they bring out a large bowl of red beans cooked with fatback.
Heres another important pointer: only Colombians can finish an entire meal at Antojitos, or at least they seem to have an advantage. Ive seen several brave Colombian men gorge themselves on steak, salad, beans and rice, only to order an empanada, a shake and some beef stew to wash it all down. I felt quite humbled by contrast of his empty plates with mine, still laden with beans and rice. Ive reached my limit. When the waitress stops by I only say, No mas, no mas, yo gordo. (No more, no more, Im fat) The only thing as good as eating at Antojitos is getting the check. I looked at my ticket and thought between groans, Perhaps I could manage another empanada.