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The world & a cup of coffee

A tour of 35 Tampa coffee shops reveals: Cafe con leche is the town's bestselling beverage.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 15, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Alfred Torrens takes a sip of cafe con leche served at La Ideal Cafeteria. Torrens drives from his Town 'N Country home three or four times a week to the restaurant for the specialty coffee.
Pope John Paul I once said there were two things he could never find in the Vatican: the truth, and a good cup of coffee.

If only the pontiff had come to Tampa. You can't cruise two city blocks in the Big Guava without passing a coffee shop or diner that offers up the city's unofficial, official nectar, cafe con leche.

The espresso and steamed milk concoction has long been part of a balanced Cuban breakfast, especially when coupled with pressed and buttered Cuban toast.

Given Tampa's largely Cuban heritage, it's no surprise that the popularity of cafe con leche quickly spread into the mainstream. Now, whether you're in a West Tampa greasy spoon or a SoHo cappuccino house, you're likely to find cafe con leche on the menu.

Tour 35 coffee shops, as City Times did for this story, and one truly gets a sense of what makes Tampa percolate.

Old men spend decades of their lives planning their weeks around bull sessions at their favorite coffee dives. Politics, sports, spouses, the weather -- if the topic can support two opposing viewpoints, odds are the conversation will feature both.

The debates are impassioned, endless and always fueled by a hot mug of cafe con leche. Sip and eavesdrop long enough, and you'll find the two things His Holiness couldn't.

The truth -- and a good cup of coffee.

* * *

IN THESE MODERN TIMES, it's easy enough to brew your own cafe con leche. Microwave a mug of milk, add a spoonful of sugar and a shot of espresso, and slurp away.

But to do things right, head to a nearby coffee shop, as the workers in Ybor City cigar factories did a century ago. During their work weeks, a mid-morning cafe con leche -- a nickel a shot -- was part of their daily routine.

"Most kids were born drinking milk out of a baby bottle," says Richard Gonzmart, who along with his brother Casey is co-heir to the Columbia Restaurant throne. "I was born drinking cafe con leche."

The Columbia started out in 1905 as a cheap coffee bar for local cigar rollers, who almost always ordered toast with their coffee.

"That's what I consider a true Ybor City tradition, Cuban toast and cafe con leche," Richard Gonzmart says. "You've got to dunk it in, and the bread absorbs the coffee. God, that's great."

Ray Cuttle, co-owner of La Tropicana in Ybor City, says it would be unthinkable for any local restaurant to leave cafe con leche off its menu.

"I don't see how any place that says it has any type of Latin flavor to it wouldn't have cafe con leche or Cuban toast," Cuttle said. "It's just a staple. It's almost like a cheeseburger and French fries."

* * *

Mario Aguila Jr. serves Cuban coffee to a group of men at La Ideal recently. The group, which meets daily, includes, from left, Ralph Granada, Louis Marchetta and Alexander Torres.
THE FUN NEVER STOPS at La Ideal Cafeteria. Neither does the business.

Mario Aguila Jr., the cafe's ebullient superball of a manager, spends up to a dozen hours a day bouncing from kitchen to customer to coffeepot to cash drawer. If the Latin music playing over the din of the customers strikes him just right, he'll stop in his tracks and start dancing.

Aguila serves his cafe con leche in two parts: one mug of steamed milk, and one tiny shot of espresso.

"Some people like it dark, some people like it light," he says. "We serve it like that and then people can feel at home and serve it the way they want."

It makes a difference. The coffee has as much kick as the atmosphere.

"We use the real stuff, you know what I'm saying?" he says. "That's really the secret of it.

"And besides that," he says with a grin, "it's served with a lot of . . . ." He begins to shake his hips and laugh.

In West Tampa, choosing your favorite coffee joint -- if not La Ideal, then maybe El Gallo de Oro or West Tampa Sandwich Shop -- is like marrying into a family for life.

As soon as El Gallo de Oro opens its doors at 6:30 a.m., the regulars file in to talk politics over Cuban toast and coffee. There's no need to see a menu. Waiter Gus Orama just brings it right out.

"If you come in regularly, you don't order," says Henry Appleby. "You just go in and sit down."

"It's a family atmosphere, you know?" adds his coffee buddy Louis Figueroa. "If a stranger comes in, right away he becomes a friend."

* * *

IF YOU HAVE A FRIEND who's hooked on West Tampa cafe con leche, never, under any circumstances, take them to a South Tampa coffee shop.

There's good Cuban coffee south of Interstate 275, no doubt about it. But as you drive south on Howard Avenue, you'll notice your friend wincing, then cringing, then hailing a cab back north.

This is, after all, a place where you can get iced cafe con leche at Bean There, cafe con leche dispensed from a machine at the Old Meeting House, and something called "Caffe Misto" at one of several Starbucks.

Traditional, it isn't. Still, it deserves a mention, especially if you're looking for someplace a little more low-key.

Steaming mugs of cafe con leche wait in the kitchen window at El Gallo de Oro on N Armenia Avenue.
For example, La Fonda Deli Cafe on S MacDill Avenue seems a bit prickly at first. The diner's stark orange walls are much brighter than its closet-like lighting. The restaurant closes for 21/2 hours every afternoon, and on overcast days, the half-shut window blinds give the impression that La Fonda is squinting at the world.

But with coffee this silky and milky, La Fonda is the perfect place to defrost on a chilly afternoon.

If you're looking for a place to listen to John Mayer while adjusting your black-rimmed glasses, skip chain coffeehouses like Starbucks and Black Hawk Coffee Cafe in Old Hyde Park Village.

Tucked away in a S MacDill strip mall is Caffe Latte, an espresso house that truly knows trendy. About 11 people can comfortably squeeze into the shop, and there's a shelf of Details magazines and world music CDs in the corner.

"Everything I have here is the way I like it," said owner Christine Pringle, from the menu to decor that's a mix of the hip and the homespun. The indigo velvet tableclothes say Seattle, but the throw pillows scream Little Rock.

Make no mistake, though, Caffe Latte's Cuban toast and rich cafe con leche are proof that this coffee shop knows where it is.

There are other gems in South Tampa. Like Caffe Latte, Little Monkeys on West Kennedy serves primo Cuban coffee in a quirkily decorated pad.

If you're looking for cafe con leche on the go, head to Interbay Meat Market, Indigo Coffee, or the best of the drive-through bunch, Cafe Con Trey.

And if you think tradition is all but dead, visit Blanco Catering and Restaurant on West Cypress Street. It's the only joint in town that offers complimentary Cuban toast with your coffee.

* * *

THE SILVER RING CAFE has been a favorite watering hole for lawyers and city officials since it was still an institution in Ybor City.

Its downtown location, just south of the County Center, still boasts its "award-winning Cuban sandwiches," and, of course, its cafe con leche.

The price for a cup: $1.07. Don't try paying with a twenty.

"That's all you got?" asked the man behind the bar, Rolando Padgett. "Ain't got no change for that, brother. It's on me."

At the Silver Ring, the coffee and milk sit out for you to pour yourself. At 8 a.m. this particular morning, the diner's only patron is sipping his cafe con leche right next to the coffeepots.

"I don't drink beer," says Johnny Fredala, who's been coming to the Silver Ring nearly every morning for five years, "but damn if I can't stop drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes."

So how does Fredala rate the Silver Ring?

"It's got the best personality, I tell you that," he says. "There's a lot of places that might be fancier than this, but we got the original atmosphere of how a client should be treated."

In the end, it all comes back to atmosphere. There are maybe 100 places in Tampa that serve cafe con leche, maybe 25 where you can get the good stuff, and maybe a handful where both the feel and the taste of a Cuban diner come together perfectly.

Frank Cunningham nurses a cup of Cuban coffee at the Silver Ring on Morgan Street, a favorite of lawyers and city and county officials in downtown Tampa. At the Silver Ring, the coffee and milk sit out for you to pour yourself.
Put it this way, says La Tropicana's Cuttle. "The founder (of La Tropicana) was born and raised here," he says. "All the people that are coming now grew up with that person. Now they're older, and their children are having children, and they're still coming in.

"It's all based around the cafe con leche. That's where everybody goes to gather and have their coffee and just share their lives."

That really is the essential draw of cafe con leche in Tampa. Who's to say whether the cafe con leche is better at Bern's Steak House or Super Mario's Gas?

The regulars, that's who. And to them, whether they're at El Gallo de Oro or Caffe Latte or even Starbucks, what they say is more than personal opinion. It's honest-to-goodness fact.

There, Your Holiness, is your truth. And your good cup of coffee.

Have a cuppa

Sampling the cafe con leche at 35 coffeehouses in three days is like rollerblading in an earthquake. It wouldn't be so bad if you could just stop shaking.

But that's just what St. Petersburg Times staff writer Jay Cridlin did while researching for this story. Of the 35 coffee joints sampled throughout West Tampa, South Tampa and Ybor City, a few stand out as having superior cafe con leche -- among them West Tampa Sandwich Shop, Caffe Latte, and the four La's: La Teresita Restaurant, La Fonda Deli Cafe, La Ideal Cafeteria, and La Tropicana Cafe.

Still, the others are worth a try. Here's the list:

South Tampa

  • Don Pan International Bakery
  • Havana Village Sandwich Shop
  • El Fogon
  • Tito's Latin Cafe
  • El Pilon Cafe
  • Mike's Pies and Coffee Shoppe
  • La Fonda Deli Cafe
  • Caffe Latte
  • Starbucks
  • Old Meeting House
  • Hugo's Spanish Restaurant
  • Blanco Catering and Restaurant
  • Alessi Bakery
  • Black Hawk Coffee Cafe
  • Bean There
  • Cafe Cohiba
  • Interbay Meat Market
  • Valencia Garden Restaurant
  • Cafe Con Trey
  • Little Monkeys

West Tampa

  • Vienna Bakery
  • Indigo Coffee
  • Super Mario's Gas
  • El Gallo de Oro
  • La Ideal Cafeteria
  • Florida Bakery
  • La Teresita Restaurant
  • West Tampa Sandwich Shop

Ybor City/Downtown

  • La Tropicana Cafe
  • El Molino Coffee Shop
  • Columbia Restaurant
  • Silver Ring Cafe
  • Spain Sandwich Shop
  • Ovo Cafe
  • Latam at the Centro Asturiano

City Times: The rest of the stories

  • The myth of Ybor all wrong
  • South Tampa a bicyclist's challenge
  • The world & a cup of coffee
  • A new flavor
  • A mini-mart pioneer, who served the suburbs
  • TECO chief, community leader
  • About nothing? Not exactly
  • SoHo pub offers Irish ambience
  • Cleanup's goal is to revitalize landmark
  • After a long run, out of gas
  • Improving Kennedy is goal of planners
  • West Shore work to unclog traffic
  • Neighborhood Notebbok
  • VillaRosa home is fit for a King
  • A new Florida resort?
  • Communities fill need for after-school care
  •  
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