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Restaurant review

Mexican food with a rich accent

The homemade corn tortillas at La Cabana del Tio transport diners south of the border.

By TOM SCHERBERGER
Published February 8, 2007


There’s no mistaking the homemade tortillas at La Cabana del Tio in Clearwater. Corn tortillas have a richer, chewier texture and are slightly thicker than flour versions.
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[Times photos: Jim Damaske]
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Estela Romero places a ball of dough on the press, just one step in the many necessary to create fresh tortillas.

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Estela Mayor, left, and Estela Romero make fresh corn tortillas at La Cabana del Tio, a tiny restaurant where the activity in the open kitchen is a source of entertainment.

CLEARWATER

When the cost of tortillas sparked protests in the streets of Mexico recently, prompting President Felipe Calderon to impose price controls, many Americans must have wondered what all the fuss was about.

A political crisis over tortillas?

A visit to La Cabana del Tio offers some clues about the Mexican passion for fresh corn tortillas.

At noon on a recent weekday, a line of customers snaked outside toward the coin laundry next door. Inside, two women behind a Formica counter rolled small balls of fresh masa from a huge mound, flattened them on a small aluminum press, cooked them quickly on a hot skillet and placed them on an ever-growing pile.

Some were passed to a cook who filled them with sizzling, chopped meat. Others were put aside to sell by the pound.

It's a small place, just seven stools around an L-shaped counter, with three small tables and 10 chairs. So the line is a product of cramped quarters as well as the popularity of the delicious food Jeronimo Salvador has been serving his largely Mexican clientele for four years.

With its pumpkin-colored walls adorned with paintings of Mexico, a TV tuned to a Mexican wrestling match, a refrigerated cooler filled with Mexican soft drinks and large families crowded around the tables and counter, you might think you have stepped through a portal into a neighborhood taqueria in Hidalgo, the town from which Salvador and so many other members of Clearwater's growing Mexican community hail.

Salvador is proud of the humble food he serves, recalling Sundays back home that always included steaming bowls of menudo the hearty beef tripe soup, not the band and lamb barbacoa (the Mexican version of barbecue). Both are regular Sunday specials at La Cabana del Tio (loosely translated as My Uncle's Cabin).

But the fresh tortillas are the real draw. They are everywhere in Mexico, from sidewalk vendors to high-priced restaurants, but rare in el Norte.

La Cabana del Tio may be the only restaurant in the Tampa Bay area making fresh corn tortillas every day. "It's too much trouble for the other restaurants," Salvador says.

But you can taste the difference with the first bite. A fresh corn tortilla - like most Mexican restaurants, no flour tortillas here - has a richer, chewier texture. It also is slightly thicker than a packaged tortilla. These are warm and charred brown, with the slightly misshapen look of something handmade.

They form the perfect vehicle for some of the best tacos around.

The menu is simple and the prices dirt cheap. Tacos ($1.50 each) come with a choice of beef, pork, lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (yes, that's steer head), chicken or steak with cactus (don't be afraid; it's like tender green pepper without the bitter bite). Each is served in the classic Mexican style: with a wedge of lime and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro. The meat is uniformly juicy, tender and rich with flavor.

Gorditas are served open-faced on slightly crisp, oval tortillas, smeared with refried beans and topped with crumbly white Mexican cheese.

Tacos come with a complex, flavorful dark salsa made with tomatoes and chili de arbo and a hint of fruit that Salvador won't reveal. Tamarind, maybe?

Salvador smiles and cocks his head to one side. "My own spices. I can't say."

Tom Scherberger is an editor at the Times; he can be reached at scherberger@sptimes.com Until a replacement for Chris Sherman is named, Weekend is featuring guest restaurant critics.

Review

La Cabana del Tio

1709 Drew St., Clearwater

Phone: (727) 466-0504

Hours: 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Details: No credit cards, no reservations, no smoking and no alcohol.

Prices: $1.50 to $5.

[Last modified February 7, 2007, 09:02:47]


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