10 Things No One Tells You About … Tampa

Feb 10, 2018

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Tampa is taking off with its Riverwalk, a seemingly endless array of restaurants and tempting watering holes. The onetime sleepy Florida town, which not long ago only boasted the sun and its proximity to both the Gulf beaches and Disney World, has upped the ante so much that it’s one of Florida’s top destinations.

1. You Can Take a Step Back Into the Roaring ’20s

Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club is difficult to find, but perhaps that’s the point of such a joint. We arrived at Howard Avenue and Bayshore Boulevard, the site of the nightclub, but there was no sign posted. When we did happen upon Ciro’s, which quietly operates on the first floor of an apartment building, we were asked for a password, which you obtain by calling the establishment ahead of time.

The folks who run Ciro’s are serious. There are certain rules to abide by: no excessive noise. It’s verboten for gentlemen to initiate conversations with unescorted ladies. The staff must dress Prohibition-style.

It was well worth the trouble after a few sips of the Georgia julep. There’s also a secret room behind a bookcase, but don’t let them know we let you in on the secret.

(Photo courtesy Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club)
Photo courtesy of Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club.

2. You Can Follow a Cuban With a Napoleon

La Segunda, which means “the second” in Spanish, is tops when it comes to Tampa’s signature sandwich, the Cuban. Columbia, an exceptional restaurant, gets the most notice when it comes to Cubans (kind of a grilled, pressed sandwich with cured meats, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles), but La Segunda absolutely nails it. The bakery’s bread and preparation make the sandwich.

The baked goods are nearly as impressive. Try the guava tart ($1.55) or a massive Napoleon ($2.50). La Segunda’s sublime Cuban bread is crunchy and chewy. No wonder more than 15,000 loaves are baked each day.

3. There’s Another Sort of Cuban in Ybor City

For many, “a Cuban” means a cigar. But you don’t have to leave the country for an amazing cigar, thanks to a bunch of Cuban masters who roll handmade cigars in Ybor City. Many Americans have no idea of the quality that has been churned out in Tampa for the last 130 years. The cigar industry put Tampa on the map and continues to flourish under the radar in a variety of shops in Ybor City.

4. It’s an Offer You Can’t Refuse

Mob author Scott Deitche leads Mafia tours in vibrant Ybor City. It’s all on foot, since the sites are within blocks of each other. See where George “Saturday” Zarate was shot and Charlie Williams was gunned down. Deitche’s 90-minute tour is informative, amusing and inspired the film “Live by Night,” which Ben Affleck directed in Tampa.

5. Oxford Exchange Is a Lesson in Tampa’s Evolution

South Tampa was fading into oblivion until a few years ago. The site currently occupied by Oxford Exchange was vacant for decades. The combination of retro and contemporary works, high ceilings, marble, brass and black-and-white-checkered floors is appealing. The building features a small bookstore, a coffee stand and a gifts-and-housewares store.

But the centerpiece is the fabulous Oxford Exchange restaurant. The Benedict is left of center but delicious. The poached egg sits on a griddled biscuit, along with house-made chicken sausage with black-pepper-caraway creme and microgreens. The main course, accompanied by home fries and a Bloody Mary, makes for a fine start to the day.

(Photo courtesy Oxford Exchange)
Photo courtesy of Oxford Exchange.

6. Microbrews Flow Like the Hillsborough River

According to USA Today, Tampa is the No. 3 beer city in the country. There are more than 40 craft breweries in town, and Cigar City Brewing is the go-to watering hole. Try El Coco, a coconut-flan-inspired brew, which screams Tampa. The variety is staggering, which is apt, since you’ll be staggering well before last call.

7. The Hippest Hotel in Town Is Worth a Stay

There are a number of popular, venerable hotels in Tampa, such as the Floridan Palace and Le Méridien. However, if you’re looking for something completely different, check out the swanky Aloft, a Tampa boutique hotel at the epicenter of town and just off the Riverwalk. The hotel, which opened in 2015, features comfortable rooms and a lobby with plenty of space to lounge. The sleek deck features an infinity pool that overlooks the scenic Hillsborough River with a view of the Moorish minarets on the bucolic University of Tampa campus. It’s a scene during the weekend, when a DJ spins just a few feet from the cozy cocktail lounge.

(Photo courtesy Aloft)
Photo courtesy of Aloft.

8. Man Bites Gator

The alligator hushpuppies (gator with ham, bacon and jalepeños!) at Ulele are a must. It’s difficult to choose at one of Tampa’s brewery-restaurants. Should you try the pan-seared pompano or the one-of-a-kind gouda grouper? The Florida jumpers, aka crispy fried frog legs, and the lobster-claw cocktail are tasty appetizers. Wash them down with house-brewed honey lager. It’s a striking structure, a historic, repurposed pump house.

9. It’s Like Cuba Without Leaving the States

There’s no need for a passport to visit Cuba as long as you stop by Jose Marti Park in Ybor City. It’s the only piece of Cuba-owned property in the United States. The park, which is protected by an international treaty, was the site of a boarding house where Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Marti was nursed back to health after an assassination attempt. The little pocket is a bright, airy park where you can hang out and relax.

10. Ramen Isn’t Just Meant to Be Eaten From a Cup

Tampa is finally down with the ramen trend, which is raging across the country. Ichicoro, Tampa’s first ramen house, is worth sampling. Inventive Chicago-born chef Noel Cruz has taken ramen in another direction with such dishes as the grilled chasyu, which is rendered in the “Tampa style” (roast pork, citrus hoisin) and the smoked brisket rice bowl, which is braised in Kirin and gochujang.

Feature photo by CHBD/Getty Images

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