Jeremy Eaton

Classic Cuban

Like many writers, I've often wondered how I would make my mark. Would it be via the most heart-wrenching poem ever written? The ultimate Great American novel? Maybe a truly astounding piece of journalism, enough to win -- gasp -- a Pulitzer?

Nah. Nein. And definitely not even close. But apparently I'm already remembered for something: my highly critical review of Victor's Café.

Victor's Café was a long-time Cuban restaurant, a sibling to the one in New York, and considered by most food aficionados to be something of a landmark around these parts. I used to love the place's innovative take on classic Cuban and Spanish recipes, as well as its interior, which I remember for its high ceilings, its balustrades, its cool tiles. But the original proprietors sold it several years ago, and when I went back to re-review, I found the restaurant had declined greatly under the new ownership. In fact I found the dishes to be putrid, quite literally -- both the wine and the seafood we had requested were spoiled -- and the service inexcusably rude. (The waiter at first indicated that he couldn't speak English, and then when one of my party, a Peruvian, spoke to him in fluent Spanish, he claimed -- in English, mind -- that he couldn't understand her accent.) At the end of the meal, we were charged for a dessert we hadn't ordered because, the manager told us, we had sent back too much food.

Naturally I gave the place a good, and in my opinion well-deserved, thrashing. Not trashing: I was seriously justified in my complaints, as my companions could attest. But it didn't matter to the management, who started libel proceedings against me, and to Victor's patrons, who initiated a letter-writing campaign. The lawsuit, of course, was dropped -- you can't sue a person for her opinion (unless in this current political climate it's anything even vaguely construed as anti-American). And not only did the letters eventually cease to arrive on my editor's desk, Victor's Café closed down a few months later. Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought something was fishy in Miami-Dade.

Yet it appears, as a result of the incident, that I've earned myself a rep as a Cuban-food hater. Which is so not true -- some of my best friends are Cuban foods, particularly arroz con pollo, vaca frita, and yuca con mojo, generous fellows who always manage to comfort me when I'm down. But years later I still occasionally get the following reaction when I meet someone for the first time: "Oh, you're the [bleep] who closed down Victor's. You're the [bleeping] one who doesn't like Cuban food."

None of this nonforgotten controversy has made me gun-shy of giving bad reviews -- though I no longer write anonymous reviews in Miami-Dade County, I do it weekly for New Times Broward/Palm Beach. And I don't hold fire when negative comments are warranted (as in, earned by shoddy restaurants). But I have become even more leery than I was of visiting so-called institutions. I'd much rather ferret out an untried cafeteria, for instance, than hit up Versailles for a cortadita.

Which is probably why my initial reaction was a resounding NO! when I was repeatedly asked whether I was going to dine at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City when I was there recently. "The Columbia," as it is called -- much like a majestic ship, it has a title that requires a certain respectful intonation when you say it -- now has six locations all over the coast of southwest Florida. But the original one in Ybor City, founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., in 1905, is where serious travelers go.

The elaborate eatery, which seats 1660 people in eleven rooms, takes up an entire city block. It is known as the oldest Cuban-Spanish restaurant in America run in the same location by the same family: Casimiro's fourth-generation descendants Casey and Richard Gonzmart are now the primary operators. And like any good tourist trap, the restaurant markets itself through a cookbook, written by third-generation Adela Hernandez Gonzmart and on sale at the restaurant. Also up for grabs: "Columbia's own black bean soup," "frozen Cuban bread," and locally rolled Gonzalez y Martinez cigars, to name a few items. You can even, if you order sangría, "keep the handpainted pitcher for only $19.95," the menu notes. As for those menus, a server stands at the main door handing them out like souvenirs as people leave (a practice I wish other eateries would take up, to tell the truth, so I could stop my necessary petty thefts).

Is it any wonder I was a touch reluctant?

But fate, as so often happens, played an obvious hand: As we started back to Miami on our way home from Tampa, we inadvertently passed right by the Columbia. Call me curious, skeptical, or just plain in the mood for some black beans, but I couldn't not stop for a meal. And to my surprise, it turned out to be a really good one.

The Columbia, rightly so, has some signature items, including private-label wines like the "Bin 11: CR Especial Reserva Tinto, 1990," which hails from Cariñena, Spain, and sells for $30 per bottle -- the most expensive on the menu. Indeed the dinner items, while not what one would call cheap, aren't overpriced either. The "Original 1905 Salad" costs $7.95 and easily feeds two. Tossed tableside, the crisp iceberg is garnished with julienne of ham and Swiss cheese, diced tomatoes, olives, grated Romano cheese, and a pungent dressing comprising wine vinegar, Spanish olive oil, oregano, and so much fresh garlic it's probably best to armor yourself with Pepcid beforehand.

If you'd rather forego the greens in favor of a heartier starter, go with the empanadas de picadillo. I'd pit these flaky pastries, stuffed with juicy, spiced ground beef and served with roasted corn-black bean salsa, against any Miami has to offer. The same goes for the red snapper alicante, baked in a casserole dish with Spanish onions, green bell peppers, garlic, olive oil, and sauterne. The fish, succulent in the resulting rich brown gravy, is topped with sliced roasted almonds and partnered with delicate fried eggplant rounds. Moist yellow rice is served on the side, rife with green peas and pimientos. But if that isn't enough condiments for you, allow me to suggest "La Completa Cubana," a sampler platter that includes the rice along with beautifully caramelized platanos maduros, perfectly seasoned black beans, tender yuca, and an empanada. Slices of roast pork, which were slightly dry, and eye-round of beef stuffed with heady chorizo are laid over the top.

Portions like those on the completa Cubana are generally so large that you hardly need the excellent side dishes, let alone a dish of crèma catalana for dessert. But café con leche is an absolute, especially if you're faced with a road trip back to Calle Ocho territory. Our server made us doubles without even asking and packed us extra bread to nibble on the way home, kindnesses that abound at the Columbia and almost make me want to say, "Yes, Victor, there is a landmark that is worth the trip -- even a five-hour one."


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