In The Garden

An old favorite adds new dishes

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My aunt Willie Lou remembers living near Valencia Garden, just after World War II. She and Uncle Hatcher, newly married, lived in an apartment a block or so away, and they remember looking across the street at the big, busy restaurant, as they boarded the trolley that ran down what is now Kennedy Boulevard."We couldn't afford to eat there," she said with a laugh. It wasn't expensive; they just didn't have much money. But on special occasions, they would stop there for a sandwich or a cup of soup.

More than 50 years later, I took them there again during a family reunion.

"It hasn't changed very much," she said as we sat with a few dozen relatives at the restaurant, which is one of the oldest in the city, operated by the same family in the same building since 1927. (The Columbia is the oldest, however, dating from 1905.)

I guess that's why Valencia Garden holds such a special place in the hearts of native Tampa residents. It's survived economic booms and busts, trolleys disappearing and reappearing, wars raging and ending, and neighborhoods succumbing to urban blight and regenerating.

Founded by Manuel and Rose Beiro, it has long been a fixture in the city's social, political and culinary life. The restaurant is now operated by the couple's grandson, general manager David Agliano.

"It's incredible we've stayed in business as long as we have," said Agliano.

The food is traditional Cuban-Spanish fare, but the restaurant last fall hired a new chef, Pedro Colon, formerly of the now-defunct Café Creole, and some new, more eclectic dishes have found their way onto the dinner menu, such as Moroccan grouper and stuffed filet mignon with mushroom bordelaise. Still, there are plenty of Cuban-Spanish standards.

The restaurant is in a transition period, attempting to offer a few continental-style dishes that are more attractive to modern diners, Agliano said. In my visits there, I found the service exemplary as always, but some of the basics need work, like limp salads, bland soup and amateurish dessert presentation.

Still, even with its faults, you'll eat reasonably well there, particularly at lunch. Plus, at noontime, you can hobnob with Tampa's power elite, who, like their predecessors over seven decades, plot the city's future over hot cafe con leche and flan. Sometimes you'll see Mayor Dick Greco, businesspeople, lawyers and judges, or perhaps someone like the inimitable Helen Gordon Davis or Hillsborough School Superintendent Earl Lennard.

On the night I visited, only a few tables filled by family groups or couples occupied the front dining room, but the banquet rooms in the back were noisily busy.

My meal began with red wine sangria ($4.50 glass, $14.25 pitcher), its deep burgundy brightened with orange slices and a cherry. Its dramatic, rich taste helps you slide slowly from the frantic pace of the day into a mellower frame of mind.

There used to be a half-dozen appetizers on the dinner menu, but now there are only two, a dated shrimp cocktail ($7.95) and fresh black mussels ($6.95), neither of which I wanted. So, I ordered a dish I knew was available but no longer listed on the dinner menu: caldo gallego, soup made from turnip greens, potatoes, rounds of the spicy Spanish sausage called chorizo, and bits of ham.

It was not up to snuff; the broth was flat, and the meat had been heated too long, diminishing its flavor. Other soups we could have ordered but that did not appear on the dinner menu included Spanish bean, black bean, vermicelli and Indian (split pea base with seafood). They do appear on the lunch menu (cup, $2.95, bowl, $4.25). The restaurant should add a few more appetizers to its dinner menu, and reprint it to reflect what really is in the kitchen.

A basket of fresh, hot Cuban bread and cold butter is still one of Tampa's great joys. The salads accompanying the entrée needed work; the greens looked as if they had sat too long in storage and had become unappetizingly dog-eared and limp.

For my entree, I tried the classic, roast pork Cuban style ($12.95) marinated in sour orange sauce. It was served with a heaping side of black beans, yellow rice and a couple coins of fried plantain. The meat was fragrant, fork-tender and delicious, but the black beans were too bland; they could have used a shot of good- quality sherry and more seasoning. The plantains were undercooked, minus the crackly, crusty exterior that, when they're properly fried, makes them so delicious.

Another disappointing entree was chicken salteado ($11.95), fresh boneless chunks of chicken sauteed with Spanish sherry, plum tomatoes, hickory smoked ham, diced potatoes and mushrooms. It was downright greasy.

However, at lunch one day, I ordered a dynamite ropa vieja (special of the day, $8.25), which translates from the Spanish to mean "old clothes" to describe beef that is slow-cooked in onions and a tomato-y sauce and shredded, the way old clothes might fray. It was tender and delectable.

Key lime pie ($3.95) set in a sorry crust and splashed with creme de menthe proved to be a weird combination. The liqueur overpowered the delicate Key lime filling, and its kelly green color clashed with the natural green of the sliced lime decoration.

Another night, we ordered guava and cream cheese ($2.95), which tasted fine but looked unappetizing — a long messy slab of fruit, resembling a piece of raw liver — and bits of cream cheese set around it in ragged knots.

Cuban cafe con leche ($2) is as good as ever, but a decaffeinated version would be nice.

All in all, the restaurant still is a favorite for sentimental reasons, but its transition to a 21st century incarnation appears to be a rocky one.

Food critic Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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