Mi Ranchito: Lunch, pets and an oil change

At this unique Tampa spot, the buffet isn't the only attraction.

One of the most underrated aspects of living in Tampa is its affinity for the absurd. It's easy to be surprised here, but every now and then you find yourself in the middle of a Carl Hiaasen novel come to life, where something so ridiculous occurs that you're not really sure if it actually happened or if you imagined it.

Sometimes, you just can't make this shit up.

Such is the case with Mi Ranchito, a Cuban restaurant/auto repair/pet store on Columbus Avenue. Really. So theoretically, you can stop in for an oil change, grab some lunch and buy a goat all in the same place.

I stop in for a tour of the joint from Agustin Llombart, the owner. A transplant from Guantanamo, Cuba (the town, not the prison), he shows off his place with the enthusiasm of a proud proprietor.

"I've created a bit of Cuba right here in Tampa."

I can only assume that he's right. Mi Ranchito has a palpable authenticity; it's the type of establishment that is exactly what it is and makes no attempts to be anything else.

We start with the pet store, which is an outdoor side lot lined with cages. Llombart loves to talk about his animals, and shows particular affinity for a guinea hen and an albino ferret whom he accuses of being lazy. There are chickens, of course, goats, giant fowl-tempered geese (get it?), a snapping turtle and a bunch of other surprises that you'll have to see for yourself.

Next we go out back, where I discover what makes this restaurant model work: whole roast pig. Every day Mi Ranchito roasts a whole pig, chops it up and uses it in almost everything they serve — which is an awesome way to do things. On weekends the backyard morphs into a sort of family fun day, with a play area, music and even a pony — I assume for riding (because I don't want to assume that "having a pony on Saturday" means that thing goes on the spit along with the pig).

Inside there is a small dining area with half a dozen tables, a sandwich counter and a buffet line. The buffet is a great deal at $5.99 and offers traditional Cuban fare, most incorporating the roast pig, though there is a salad section, too. The buffet is fine, but the restaurant's finest offering is the Cuban sandwich, which incorporates big chunks of whole roast pig. Second best are the fresh-made juices, which are available in nearly a dozen varieties and are a great deal — you get about a pint for $2. After only a few visits, I found myself regularly craving a Mi Ranchito Cuban and a fresh mango juice. I'm actually craving them right now.

So sometimes what seems to be ridiculous can work just great. Mi Ranchito has pulled off a business and restaurant model that seems incongruous — but maybe it's not.

Mi Ranchito, 2901 W. Columbus Drive, Tampa, 813-872-0462

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