For all of its history, Tampa boasts plenty of new cultural institutions swept in by the latest immigrants. Restaurants offer an especially vibrant view of these new cultures. For the most recently imported delicacies, try taking a drive down Armenia Avenue. Recently nicknamed “The Latin Corridor,” Armenia between Waters and Sligh is studded with Peruvian, Chilean, Colombian and Puerto Rican restaurants and bars. On the other hand, Columbus Drive, or “Boliche Boulevard,” serves as the home for Tampa’s more traditional Cuban/Spanish restaurants such as the Lincoln, Arco Iris, and La Teresita.
My favorite of the new Latin wave is located on Columbus and Howard. It is called Antojitos, or “Little Cravings,” and serves Colombian cuisine. You will notice several things when you arrive. First, the place is quite popular among the Latin population. Cubans and Puerto Ricans flock there along with South Americans. The only thing as packed as the parking lot is the dining room itself.
Not to worry, just have a seat at the counter. Service is a little faster there, and you have a better chance of talking to a server who speaks a little English, if you prefer. You’ll notice the hot case at the counter, brimming with all kinds of exotic-looking treats. Arepas are a Colombian snacking mainstay, an unleavened corn cake often topped with thick slices of a mild, white farmer’s cheese. Eat your arepas immediately, as they are practically bulletproof after they’ve cooled.
I cannot recommend their empanadas enough. I thought Jamaican meat pies were the best finger food ever created until I had an empanada at Antojitos. A thin layer of corn crust surrounds shredded beef and diced potatoes. The flavor is nearly perfect, and if you want perfect, it is not far away. Just ask for some aji, pronounced ah-hee, a minced green salsa of onions, cilantro, chilies, and lime juice. The aji provides a spicy and salty counterpoint to the hearty empanada. Another appetizer, the red sausages are a larger, richer, moister version of chorizo.
A great accompaniment to these tasty appetizers is a fruit shake. While piÃ±a and papaya may sound familiar, many of the flavors available have no equivalent here in the States, such as mamÃ©y and curuba. You can order the shakes made with water or milk. At Antojitos, I order my fruit shake con leche,”with milk”, as a water-laced shake is not an option.
Antojitos may mean “little cravings,” but entrees come in portions that are anything but diminutive. The beef stew is a substantial choice, with large chunks of beef, potato, yucca and corn cob. They have fried fish and various steaks, but my favorite dish is the formidable pork chop. The edges hang off the plate. They take a pork chop, de-bone it, pound it out thin like palomilla, bread it and fry it to a golden brown. The meat alone would be enough to satiate Paul Bunyan, but there is more. A small oil and vinegar salad, white rice and long strips of fried plantains share the limited plate space. Just for good measure, they bring out a large bowl of red beans cooked with fatback. The other steak dishes are equally large. On Saturdays, they serve a special fish stew they call “Viagra Soup.”
The only thing as good as eating at Antojitos is getting the check. I looked at my ticket and thought between groans, perhaps I could manage another empanada.
Contact Antojitos 2302 W. Columbus Drive 251-9688
Contact Andrew Huse at email@example.com. Check out Feed Your Head again on Feb. 5.