No place like Tampa's Pueblito

A culinary tour of Colombia awaits at West Tampa’s Mi Pueblito.

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It’s easier to get lost in this town than you’d think — to enter an entirely foreign reality where you (despite spending your entire life in Tampa) are just a visitor.

Since early September, Mr. Doom’s Chilean grandparents have been visiting Tampa Bay for the first time in several years.

Their trip will soon draw to a close, so we decided to spend Sunday hunting down ingredients to make Doom’s beloved Chilean empanadas. (Look for the recipe in an upcoming column.) We found ourselves inside La Teresita’s grocery buying meat, onions, raisins, olives and dough. Doom’s aunt suggested we pit stop for a small bowl of soup called “Sancocho” at a nearby Colombian restaurant after the shopping was complete.

There is no such thing as a small bowl of anything when it comes to Latin food.

Once inside Mi Pueblito Restaurant & Bakery, it’s clear we’ve entered a different world. Everything is written in Spanish, everyone around us is speaking in Spanish, and even the sign for the ladies' room reads “damas.” Our server, sensing my white-girlness, turns to Doom’s aunt to take our order in Spanish.

For drinks, Mr. Doom gets an Avena, a Colombian drink made with oatmeal, milk, sugar, cloves, cinnamon and water. I order a mango juice, which can be made with milk or water, depending on your preference. Aunt V. also orders a basket of Colombian bread called pandebono; it’s a savory roll made with cassava starch or yucca flour, cornmeal, cheese (either queso fresco or quesito) and eggs.

It’s sweet, warm and utterly delicious. Mi Pueblito bakes everything on-site, including the sweets in the endless glass case up front.

Our “small bowl” of Sancocho arrives shortly thereafter.

Sancocho is a Colombian stew made with meat, plantains, potatoes, cassava, corncobs, cilantro and other veggies. Traditionally, it’s served with a pico de gallo (sans tomato) and a plate of rice. Chileans love it because it bears a striking resemblance to their own stew, Casuela, made with roughly cut root vegetables and big-boned pieces of meat and fat.

We split a large order of soup, thinking it’d be just enough for two. What showed up was a huge bowl of beautiful bright green broth, simmering with cilantro, spices, chicken, corn, potatoes and more. It came with a platter of white rice, sweet plantains, fresh chopped salad, and a massive chicken leg covered in sweet and spicy roasted peppers and onions. How much did this unanticipated feast set us back? Just under $8 for soup and accouterments.

If there’s a hangover/flu/cold cure in a bowl, Sancocho is it. Nourishing, mildly spicy, and packed with meat, potatoes and fresh veggies — hell, it could probably cure anything. And when topped with the homemade hot sauce, Sancocho will purify your body of toxins with a nice old-fashioned sweat session.

As Mr. Doom and I moan and groan from this hot bowl of unexpected ethnic goodness, his aunt and grandmother dig into their Sanchoco like it’s just another Sunday. For them, Mi Pueblito’s flavors are like a passport back home. Luckily, tourists like us are free to move about the menu, too.

Mi Pueblito Restaurant & Bakery, 5802 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa, 813-874-0770.

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