By Cerelina Rivera
Cuban culture infuses Ybor City’s dining scene, and located in the heart of all the action lies one of the city’s tastiest and oldest Cuban restaurants in town, La Tropicana Cafe.
The sprawling restaurant has been dishing up authentic Cuban food for more than 50 years and has earned its mark as the city’s iconic Cuban establishment. With so many places closing just as quickly as they open, La Tropicana Cafe renews the faith of foodies across town.
The charming local landmark first opened its doors right across their current location, back in 1963. In the 60s, the restaurant was well known for hosting new immigrants and allowing guests to partake in illegal “Bolita” games. Bolita (Spanish for Little Ball), is a type of lottery which was popular in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries in Cuba and among Florida’s working class Hispanic, Italian and African-American population.
It was in the early 1970s when La Tropicana moved locations, and they have not left since then. Conveniently located at 1822 E. Seventh Ave. La Tropicana Cafe is a staple in the heart of Ybor City with a loyal clientele, some of which have been coming to satisfy their Cuban cravings for over five decades.
“I have been coming to La Tropicana since I was a young child back in the mid-1980s. Their Cuban Sandwich and stuffed potato defines a level of excellence for me that few other Cuban restaurants have been able to match. One of Tampa’s best, you will not leave hungry or disappointed.” -Robert M.
Some of the staff members at La Tropicana Cafe have been working there for many years; such is the case of the current manager, Bobby Caballero. “I came from Cuba when I was a teenager. I did not know any English and didn’t know much about the restaurant business,” says Bobby. “I was lucky to have landed a job bustling tables here at La Tropicana Cafe over 30 years ago… and then… I never left.” Bobby is now a Jack of all trades at La Tropicana. You can see him preparing meals, cleaning tables, greeting customers, and overall making sure that everyone’s experience at La Tropicana Cafe is one to be remembered.
So what can you expect from one of Tampa’s longest-running restaurants? A timeless design and a delicious menu concept that’s built to last, a roster of famous clientele (often including former presidents, mob members, and celebrities), and a history that includes several different owners with similar goals and dreams.
“Let me give you the straight scoop on this place,” says frequent customer Eric L. “The food is excellent, authentic and priced very reasonably. The staff is amicable, courteous and prompt. The place is historic and mobsters used to hang out here, per TV documentaries. When you walk in, you almost feel you are going back in time…pretty cool. I’ve been coming here for over 20 years and when I want authentic Hispanic food or Cafe con leche with toasted, buttered Cuban bread, I make the 20-minute drive without a second thought. This place is so good that previous presidents of the United States have made a point to come here when in town…just ask Bobby Caballero to see the pics when you come in…try it and you will be hooked.”
Eric is right about a lot of things. But more than these quantitative characteristics, La Tropicana has lasted this long due to unique qualities that are much harder to define. It is not just the food, but the nostalgia and tradition that keeps people coming back for more.
Stop by La Tropicana Cafe early in the morning to see a fun, diverse crowd sipping cortaditos and enjoying a serving of Cuban toast loaded with butter. If you’re stopping by for breakfast, Bobby says “You have to get some toasty ‘Pan Con Mantequilla’ (Cuban Toast with butter) and a Cafe Con Leche. They have been the most famous breakfast items since the place first opened.”
You can enjoy traditional breakfast items such as eggs, hash browns, bacon, and some delicious omelets. If you have a big appetite in the mornings, make sure you get yourself a Cuban breakfast sandwich. This sandwich is made with three eggs on toasty Cuban bread, with your choice of bacon, sausage, chorizo or ham, and topped with melted Swiss or American cheese.
As the lunch hours approach, La Tropicana whips up a nice selection of Cuban-style sandwiches including their famous classic Cubano, the Media Noche, the Roast Pork Sandwich (thinly sliced with mojo sauce) or the Breaded Fried Fish amongst others.
Other lunch options include their famous deviled crabs, black bean soup, Spanish bean soup, roast pork, palomilla steak, ropa vieja and many more Cuban traditional dishes.
Some of the House specialties include Pork Tamales, stuffed potatoes (perfect match between picadillo and mashed potato) and the “Cuco Special,” a bowl of black beans and white rice or Spanish bean soup and a small “Bebe Special Cuban.”
“I absolutely love this place! My boyfriend introduced me to the manager, Bobby Caballero; he makes the best coffee ever, it is absolutely the best in Ybor City. The food is really good and affordable. Whenever we are in the mood for a fantastic Cuban Sandwich, a delicious deviled crab, or a stuffed potato, we always visit this cozy, no-frills restaurant. Service is friendly and they treat you like family! What else can you ask for?” Meg R.
The current owner, Gio Pena, suggests you stop by for the most amazing Cuban sandwich you’ll ever have. “We are proud of our Cuban Sandwich. It is one of the most popular lunch options and the reason why so many people come to visit us,” Gio says. The Cuban bread comes fresh daily from “La Segunda Bakery,” and it is loaded with baked ham, roasted pork, Genoa salami and Swiss cheese. You could have it the traditional way, or add a twist by ordering it with lettuce and tomatoes. “Make sure you start with a deviled crab,” Gio added. “They are the talk of the town!”
“In my opinion hands down the best deviled crabs and stuffed potatoes in Tampa!!! There is no other than the ‘Trop’ for deviled crab. Their Spanish bean soup is also so delectable it will leave you craving a second bowl.” – Richard R.
For dessert, you can indulge in some delicious guava pastries or more traditional options like flan or a homemade bread pudding.
Gio, Bobby and the entire staff at La Tropicana Cafe would like to thank everyone who has supported the establishment throughout the years.
“We feel incredibly lucky to have the community’s support. We couldn’t do this without you, so thank you, from the bottom of our hearts,” says Gio. “We hope to see you soon. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”
La Tropicana Cafe is located at 1822 E 7th Ave, Tampa, FL 33605. For more information and hours of operation visit https://la-tropicana-cuban-cafe.business.site/ or call (813) 247-4040.