Toronto Star: Tampa's Hidden City

March 15, 2016

Toronto Star: Tampa's Hidden City

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TAMPA-Roosters strut around Ybor City, congregating in the public parking lot, loitering in the park, cock-a-doodle-dooing like they own the joint.

They do, actually.

These privileged chickens are descendants of the backyard birds raised by the neighbourhood’s first residents — the melting pot of immigrants that started arriving in the 1880s to work in cigar factories.

Ybor City is now a National Historic Landmark District and, somewhat oddly, a bird sanctuary.

Roosters and hens are officially protected. They’re charming, photogenic and “the only living creature that connects us to our past,” proclaims Wallace Reyes, a cigar maker, historian and Cigar Industry History Tours guide.

“They lay their eggs in the park. There’s a Florida state park ranger that protects them. Even the cats don’t mess with the chickens.”

Little Miami and New Orleans’ Latin Quarter know how to market themselves, but Ybor City (named for Vicente Martinez Ybor, who bought swampland here in 1885 and started building cigar factories) is just starting to tap into its tourist potential.

The neighbourhood, connected to downtown by a retro streetcar, was once the cigar capital of the world.

“Cigar City” is the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich and home to Florida’s oldest restaurant. It boasts a multicultural heritage (Cuban, Spanish, Sicilians/Italians, Jewish), still sells hand-rolled cigars and even has a mafia tour.

Let’s eat first.

The Cubano was invented here, not in Miami like people think, and it’s the city’s official sandwich.

Cigar workers needed something portable for lunch in the late 1800s and so the mixto (“the mixed”) was born. The combination of Cuban bread and pork with ham (for the Spaniards), Genoa salami (for the Italians) and Swiss cheese, kosher pickles and yellow mustard (for the Germans) is now called the Cuban sandwich.

At the Columbia restaurant, Andrea Gonzmart Williams, one of the 5th-generation owners of the family-run business, takes me into the kitchen.

Columbia — which started in 1905 and is the state’s oldest restaurant — makes its own sugar-glazed ham and mojo-marinated pork and gets Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery twice a day.

“My father (Richard Gonzmart) is a firm believer that if you don’t layer the meat in the proper order, it won’t hit the palate properly,” says Williams.

Ham goes first, then pork, then salami. Salami “is the difference between a Tampa Cuban and a Miami Cuban.” One big slice of Swiss goes next and two pickles. Mustard gets slathered on the inside of the top bun. Eat it cold if you must, like the factory workers used to, but it’s infinitely better buttered on the outside and pressed until the cheese melts and it gets crisp.

“Mayo’s great but I’ve never had it on a Cuban, though — my father would kick my butt,” allows Williams, who likes her sandwiches extra crispy and sliced on the diagonal.

You don’t have to look hard to find Cubanos in this town, but locals swear by the perpetually packed Brocato’s Sandwich Shop, and U.S. President Barack Obama visited the West Tampa Sandwich Shop and inspired the Honey Cuban Obama Sandwich.

Another Ybor City hot spot is Carmine’s, where Leon Boone has been making sandwiches for 21 years.

“I make about 100 a day, on Saturday I make like 200 and the most I ever made is 600 in a day. I’ve made billions and billions. I’m like McDonald’s.”

Boone doesn’t eat many of his creations (occupational hazard), but he “makes ’em good.” Ask for yours “all the way” and you’ll get mustard, mayo, lettuce and tomatoes.

“You’ve got to put love in there” is Boone’s final word on the subject.

Like Columbia, Carmine’s gets its Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery, which has been around since 1915. Come here for pastries, bread, Cuban toast and sandwiches and coffee.

Third-generation co-owner Anthony Moré takes me in the back to see how Cuban bread is baked. It’s shaped like a baguette but uses a slightly different recipe.

His late grandfather moved to Ybor City from Catalan after fighting in the Spanish-American War in Cuba. “We think he learned some of this in Cuba, especially the palm leaf part of it,” says Moré.

Fronds from the palmetto tree are split, sanitized, dried and laid on handmade baguettes that are flipped and baked. As the bread goes into the oven for a rapid rise, the fronds cause a crease along the seam. Customers like the inedible greenery left on.

“It’s a pretty unique process and pretty much only in Tampa,” boasts Moré.

The cigar industry may have gone bust, but at one point there were about 230 factories here employing 12,000 cigar makers and producing 700 million cigars a year.

Cigar culture is still a unique part of Ybor City (which is pronounced e-bore, by the way). Monica Barbie makes purses from vintage cigar boxes, while her mom Rose Barbie sells framed or unframed vintage cigar labels, bands and posters. Watch cigar makers at work in shops on the 7th Ave. commercial strip where you can have a smoke and drink Cuban coffee.

Reyes, the tour guide, shows people Ybor City Museum, a community in the throes of revitalization and Nicahabana Cigars. His most unique pitstop is Parque Amigos de José Marti, one of two Cuban-owned pieces of land in America (the other is the embassy in Washington that reopened last summer).

People come to see a statue of the poet, journalist and Cuban national hero who visited often in the 1890s to raise money and support from the cigar workers to help free Cuba from Spanish rule.

The tiny park is fenced, locked at night and under Cuban rule.

“There’s nothing quite like Ybor City,” says Reyes with a proud smile.


Jennifer Bain’s trip was sponsored by Visit Tampa Bay, which didn’t review or approve this story.


When you go

  • Ybor City: visittampabay.com/unlock-tampa-bay/districts/ybor-city/, yborcityonline.com
  • Cigar Industry History Tours, Ybor City: yborcitytours.com
  • Columbia restaurant (with local branches in Ybor City, Tampa International Airport, Tampa Bay History Center): columbiarestaurant.com
  • Brocato’s Sandwich Shop, Tampa: brocatossandwich.com
  • West Tampa Sandwich Shop, Tampa: westtampasandwichshoprestaurant.com
  • Carmine’s restaurant, Ybor City: carminesybor.com
  • La Segunda Central Bakery, Ybor City: lasegundabakery.com
  • Nicahabana Cigars, Ybor City: nicahabanacigar.com
  • Ybor City Museum: ybormuseum.org
  • Parque Amigos de José Marti (José Marti Park) is at 1303 E. 8th Ave. at the corner of N. 13th St.

For more, explore Visit Tampa Bay (visittampabay.com).

  • There are several hotels in Ybor City, including the Ritz Ybor, Hilton Garden Inn Tampa Ybor Historic District and Hampton Inn & Suites Tampa/Ybor City/Downtown.