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RESTAURANT OF THE WEEK
I've been dining at this Tampa tradition in the Latin Quarter of Ybor City for longer than I'd like to admit. As a little kid going down there in the late 50s and 60s, this was a must visit. And I'm a rookie diner there compared to the many who have frequented the restaurant since the doors opened way back in 1905.
The restaurant is lined with colorful tile as you enter and it has several rooms that are open and airy.. One thing that I got a kick out of as a kid but now find obnoxious is their floor show. Dancers in Spanish costumes strut their stuff.
When I go to the Columbia, I go for the good -- Spanish food. Two suggestions for tasty starters. Their Cuban black bean soup served over yellow rice is traditional and wonderful. Make sure to put some chopped onions on top and many like a drizzle of olive oil on the soup. My other favorite appetizer there is the blue crab croquette. It is deep fried and traditionally served in hot sauce. Delicious! They have other fancy appetizers but these are traditional and have been on the menu for decades.
For my main course, Red Snapper Alicante is hard to resist. It comes in a casserole dish teaming with Spanish flavors. Another favorite is Grouper A la Russa. This is a simply fried piece of grouper fresh out of the Gulf of Mexico served with lemon butter, parsley and chopped, cooked egg.
Friends of mine love the Pompano en Papillot. Pompano is a wonderful Gulf fish and while it's very good, I suspect my buddies like it equally for the presentation. It is baked in a parchment paper bag and is cracked open table side. The steam pours our and smells terrific. It is stuffed with seafood prior to going into the oven.
For meat lovers, Columbia has you covered, too. Their chicken Valencia style is great. Simply sautéed bone-in chicken with various veggies and herbs served with yellow rice. If you'd like to try a true Spanish steak (popular in most Spanish restaurants in the Bay Area) go with the Palomilla preparation. It's a thin piece of meat quickly sautéed and topped with onions, parsley, lime juice and--as I recall--olives and tomatoes.
Are there better Spanish restaurants in the Bay Area? I'd have to say yes. But there is nothing close to the Columbia when it comes to tradition and history, in my opinion. Give it a shot!
The Columbia now sports several "satellite" locations but the Ybor City location is the original and therefore the one you should try first. For directions and additional information, check out their web site here.