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Back for seconds

A landmark returns to Ybor City after being driven out by rising rent. Now connoisseurs can get what many still call Tampa's best Cuban sandwich.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published January 31, 2007


A funny thing happens when people discover the Silver Ring Cafe is back in Ybor City.

First they argue it can't be the real thing because they remember the place being down the street. Where were you the past decade, they ask? And what about the old men who make the Cuban sandwiches?

"The last one died," said Kellee Booth, 46, who tag-teams with her husband, Tom, 48, bantering with doubters while smearing cold cuts with mayo and mustard.

Finally, skeptics spot propped up by a window the familiar, sun-bleached sign that had hung low over a Seventh Avenue sidewalk since 1947. They learn this is the Silver Ring's third home in Ybor. Doubts fade when they gobble a sandwich unchanged in 61 years.

"I've been coming to the Silver Ring since I was 15, so I was heartbroken when they closed. I presumed they went out of business," said Otha Lockett, 55, wolfing down what he calls "still the best Cuban sandwich in town."

Many people who left town have put this revived hole-in-the-wall at 1430 E Seventh Ave. back in their ritual revisit to old haunts. Some drive right from the airport.

The Silver Ring story is another cautionary tale about Ybor City. Tampa's once teeming Latin Quarter is always trumpeted as right on the cusp of a renaissance, then stumbles in the excesses of its own entrepreneurial hubris.

Witness the recent foreclosure sale of Centro Ybor, an entertainment complex that opened in 2001 supposedly to symbolize the start of Ybor's gentrification period.

Ybor is no shopping mall where a lone landlord picks the stores and strictly rules the place. This is a place of wild and woolly commerce with some long-running stalwarts. It burns through new ventures like a grass fire. As a historic district, the more Ybor changes, the more it stays the same.

The Silver Ring retreated in 1996 as Ybor's Bourbon Street South era first began to teeter and the gentrification crowd first appeared. The Booths had overexpanded the original Silver Ring with a sit-down restaurant next door and a house band. Their network of six Silver Ring stores imploded. They found refuge downtown after their Ybor landlord doubled the rent a second time.

"We made a lot of mistakes expanding too fast," said Booth, who found his way back at about the same rent he was paying a decade ago. "We're back home where we belong."

Silver Ring franchisees survived in Riverview and Lakeland, but this frozen-in-time restaurant's return fills a gaping hole in Ybor memories.

This piece of Tampa retail history was created by Angel Cacciatore, who's still kicking at 89, but in 1985 trained and turned over the keys to Booth, the son of his meat supplier.

The menu is utter simplicity: Cuban sandwich or deviled crab. The lone concession to changing tastes: a few soups added in the 1980s. A living testament to Ybor's diverse past, part of the charm is a parade of truck drivers, hipsters, politicians, tourists and street people who flock there for a Cuban sandwich fix.

For street festivals, the Booths set up a sandwich assembly line that once cranked out 1,200 Cuban sandwiches in one day.

The formula worked downtown. But making a living off lunch is hard. Sales tailed off thanks to an exodus of downtown workers. Then Booth's route supplying sandwiches to 35 bait and tackle shops from Sarasota to Steinhatchee dried up in the condo boom.

The Booths, who work 70-hour weeks, did the fix-up themselves. They stripped the last remnant of a Goth club, the black paint hiding the Spanish tile walls. An ancient Coca-Cola ice box was scrounged from a warehouse loading dock and painted with Rustoleum. The family photos and bar memorabilia are real, even Cacciatores' tickets to see a pal's son, Lou Piniella, play in the 1977 World Series.

There's work left. A beer and wine license is coming. The sign over the door is for Euphoria, another forgotten Ybor club. The Silver Ring sign, its neon smashed long ago by kids who ran by and leaped to smack it, awaits a permit to rise again over the sidewalk.

"We're survivors, so we'll adapt to whatever it takes to stay in business," said Booth. "But we will never change our sandwich. I can make it in my sleep."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727893-8252.

Fast Facts:

 

About the Silver Ring Cafe

Location: 1430 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City

Proprietors: Kellee and Tom Booth

Specialty: Cuban sandwiches

Founded: 1947