Saturday, January 20, 2007

Tampa's Cuban Food: Red Snapper "Alicante"

Columbia Restaurant Red Snapper Alicante
Columbia Restaurant's signature dish.

Anna over at Anna's Cool Finds came up with a really neat idea: food bloggers from around the world should each blog about a terroir. Except while the term is normally applied to wine or coffee, we shall apply it to food. Read Anna's A Taste of Terroir post for a wonderful definition of the term and how it can be applied to food. Basically, we are encouraged to describe a food or recipe local to the part of the world in which we live. Her inspiration came from the foods from around the world which were listed on Food & Wine's 100 Tastes to Try in 2007.

I live in Tampa, Florida USA. I have lived her just under two years so some things are very new to me. Grouper is the most popular fish here because it is caught in the Gulf of Mexico. A grouper sandwich can be found on the menu at almost every restaurant. It is as common as hamburgers in the rest of the United States. We have "seasons" for lots of foods like crab and strawberries. And when people think of THE food from Tampa, it is a Cuban sandwich. That surprised me because I always thought of Cubans in Florida being in Miami. But Tampa has a rich and important Cuban history.

In 1886 Vicente Martinez Ybor established a cigar factory in Tampa. From the steps of Ybor's factory, José Marti, sometimes called the George Washington of Cuba, exhorted the cigar workers to take up arms against Spain in the late 1800's. Hispanic culture enlivens Ybor City, which covers about 2 square miles between Nebraska Avenue, 22nd Street, Columbus Drive and East Broadway.

I did not choose the Cuban sandwich to represent a terroir of Tampa. Without fresh Cuban bread and a sandwich press you can not recreate the authentic version. Instead I went with something deeper. It is a recipe for Red Snapper "Alicante" which is the signature dish of the famous Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Ybor City is the historic Cuban district in town. Cuban cigar makers brought their leaves from Cuba to this part of Florida and assembled their "Cuban cigars" for the United States in their cigar factories located in Ybor City. The factories are now long gone and the area reminds me of a toned down version of the French Quarter in New Orleans. There are lots of old buildings where many bars and restaurants have opened up. And Columbia Restaurant is the cornerstone of Ybor City.

One of the first things you will notice about Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City are the hand-painted Spanish tiles that decorate the outside of the building. Some are even laid in the sidewalk. Once you step inside you will immediately feel that you have entered a place that has captured a snapshot in time. There are several different connected dining rooms each expressing a slightly different feeling. In the middle of them all is a two-story atrium featuring a large Spanish fountain. Each night there are two Flamenco shows in the main dining room. There is also cigar bar in the cafe and a shop where you can buy several Spanish items and Columbia Restaurant souvenirs.

The day I signed the papers for my new home down here, I asked where we should to to celebrate. Everyone I talked to recommended Columbia Restaurant as the place to go for a special dinner. We got a great spot so that we could see the Flamenco dancers and enjoyed all the courses. The Ybor City location is the original Columbia Restaurant but they have opened other restaurants around the Tampa Bay area. I have also been to the Columbia Restaurant in St. Armand's Circle on Longboat Key off of Sarasota, Florida. That one has the same traditional design, but it has a much more casual feel because it is all open air and near the beach. The food is the same and you still can get all the yummy classic Spanish dishes.

The seafood at Columbia is amazing. And if you order the Caesar Salad they mix it all together for you table-side. They do the same with their amazing mojitos and sangria. Those are really nice touches. It is really fun to get your pitcher of drinks made right there. You can get tapas at Columbia as well but I usually find them very rich due to their heavy use of Spanish olive oil.

Tonight I made the Red Snapper "Alicante" for myself and two friends. The recipe was very simple to make. All you need to do is slice some onions and peppers and into the oven it goes. For some reason the cooking time included in the recipe did not get my fish cooked thoroughly. Maybe it was because the red snapper filets I had were thick, but I cooked it for an additional 15 minutes. Breaded fried eggplant is a garnish that I suggest you take the extra time to make. The crispy eggplant was a wonderful compliment to the snapper and was actually our favorite part.

Columbia Restaurant's Red Snapper "Alicante"
(Serves 4)

2 to 3 large Spanish onions, sliced into rings
2 pounds Red Snapper fillets
4 green peppers, sliced into rings
1/2 cup Spanish olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
3/4 cup brown beef stock gravy
1 cup white Spanish wine
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
Garnish recipe below (optional)

Place onion rings in bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2-inch casserole; place fish on top of onions. Place pepper rings on top of fish. In a bowl mix together remaining ingredients; pour over casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 25 minutes.

1/4 cup sliced toasted almonds
8 large shrimp, cooked and cleaned
9 pieces eggplant, breaded and fried
fresh parsley sprigs


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Kalyn said...

Sounds like a great restaurant. I've been to Tampa a couple of times, but missed this place. I do remember going to a Greek restaurant where their specialty was stone crab, big white building? Your version of this dish sounds great.

rachel said...

I have yet to have any Greek food in Tampa. I'll have to check it out. I cook and eat at home more than I go out, but I love to check out regional foods everywhere I go. I'm kind of spoiled from Greektown in Chicago. But I bet the Greek fish dishes will be great because we get so much fresh seafood down here.

The TriniGourmet said...

WOW :) that just made me hungry, and it's way too early (late?) for me to be hungry :D Do you eat this often? :)

rachel said...

I have ordered it from the restaurant but this is the first time I made it. I do try to eat fish often and I usually make red snapper veracruz or something like that. I absolutely love red snapper and olives together.

Lydia said...

Your post brought back very fond memories of a long lazy lunch and afternoon spent in Ybor several years ago. Now I regret that I didn't eat at the Columbia Restaurant.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rachel,
I really enjoyed your post about the Colombian restaurant and the red snapper recipe you so graciously included. It takes me back to the times I spent traveling and tasting all over Florida's coastlines.
I'd like to sign up to receive updates of your latest posts. I also invite you to check out my blog at
All the best,

yvonne said...

Hi Rachel,
I really enjoyed your post about the Colombian restaurant and the red snapper recipe you so graciously included. It takes me back to the times I spent traveling and tasting all over Florida's coastlines.
I'd like to sign up to receive updates of your latest posts. I also invite you to check out my blog at
All the best,

cuban cigars said...

I love everything Cuban especially Cuban cigars

Nick said...

Having lived in Tampa for a number of years, I can verify that there are several bakeries in town that produce genuine Cuban bread, and that the Cuban sandwiches at The Columbia, Tropicana, Carmine's, and La teresita (on Columbus Ave) all buy their bread from those bakeries. It's the bread recipe that's the deal--even down to using real palm fronds inserted into the bread surface when baking and remove afterwards to give the traditional slash to the top of the bread. You may have discovered this since the time of your posting--I haven't yet read your other posts. But even folks back in Cuba speak of Tampa and Miami's Cuban cuisine glowingly (especially since the emigre communities have access to foodstuffs that Cubans on the Island can not get because of embargoes).

ixfe said...

I lived in the Tampa area for 15 years but now live in Atlanta. I am always jonesing for the Columbia (and La Teresita for cuban sandwiches). I bought the Columbia restaurant cookbook and one key item that is not properly represented in your recipe is the beef stock. The restaurant actually uses a traditional brown sauce which makes a HUGE difference. Google for Brown Sauce (Sauce Espagnole) for a recipe. However, the Columbia doctors up the traditional sauce by adding smoked ham, flour, madeira wine, and beef drippings into the traditional recipe (onions, carrots, celery, flour (which makes the trappings of a roux) beef drippings (I used butter), tomato paste, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, tomato sauce, beef stock. Simmer for at least an hour, preferably 2, then strain and use in the Alicante recipe. can substitute other seafood if you don't have snapper (other firm fish, shrimp, calimari, lobster, etc. adjust cook times accordingly.