Columbia Restaurant – Tampa, Florida
With Tropical Storm Isaac expected to sweep near Tampa last Monday, the Republican National Convention was postponed for a day. With nothing to fill a wide open day that was expected to be filled with meetings and speakers, Missouri party officials did some quick switchups to our schedule and took the delegation to the historic Columbia Restaurant a day early.
Located in Ybor City – the old ethnic epicenter of Tampa Bay – the Columbia restaurant is a landmark that draws visitors from far and wide.
This place was beautiful. Old chandeliers, beautiful wood, hand painted tile and formal family photos adorned this century old space. Opened in 1905, the Columbia served the immigrant community of Tampa. Even today they claim to have better Cuban sandwiches than Miami because this one comes with salami, a contribution from the Italian community.
We began our adventure, in a beautiful inner courtyard with intricate tile work, archways, and palm trees. As we arrived, the chefs began sauteing the garlic in butter at a temporary cookstand. The aroma of the garlic filled the room and soon you could hear the sizzle of large cold shrimp hitting the pan. Boy….did they lived to the dramatic lead-in. Wow, every bite was sweet, succulent and a burst of juicy flavor! Waiters passed trays of sangria and mojitos in beautiful thick glasses with cobalt blue rims. Passed hor d’oeuvres included black and green fried olives with manchego cheese, bacon wrapped scallops, lamb skewers with mango bbq sauce, lobster potato croquettes with lobster bisque dipping sauce and chorizo puffs.
The main course was presented on two buffets with the Columbia’s famous 1905 salad (a bottle of which I brought home), rice and beans, slice pork and of course paella. A new experience for me was the roasted yuca. With a texture like potatoes, it had quite a pungent flavor. A few bites was plenty. I went back for more of that fantastically flavored paella and the delicious shellfish.
I’m not sure which was the better after dinner treat, the gorgeous and talented traditional flamingo dancers or the tour of the restaurant. We saw the huge kitchen and a wine cellar holding part of the largest collection of Spanish wines in the US.