3 out of 5 stars
16411 N. Florida Ave., Lutz. Appetizers: $5-$25; entrees: $13-$30; desserts: $7.50 - $8.25; beer and cocktails: $4-$9.75. 813-374-8514; layuma.net.
As you enter the spacious, redesigned and welcoming patio off Florida Avenue and head inside La Yuma, what strikes the eye is the tranquil turquoise water theme and tall cushy booths with logo upholstery. What's not readily apparent is that the restaurant's name is Cuban slang for the U.S. Indeed, the decor and theme are based on the journey to freedom that Cuban refugees took to reach our shores.
More importantly, you'd never know that chef-owner Jose “Pepe” Diaz learned to cook as a political prisoner in Castro's Cuba. After a year behind bars and four more in a concentration camp, Pepe was released and found his way to Key West, where he met his wife Tania and went into the restaurant business. Flash forward to 2017 and the Diaz family, including the next generation, is bringing Cuba's culinary heritage to Lutz in the form of a ravishing new upscale restaurant that retains homestyle family recipes.
We start with a terrific mojito, which expertly balances mint and lime over a core of Bacardi Light, plus goblets of delicious sweet red sangria garnished with beautiful ripe fruit.
The Cuban bread is also terrific, with a crackling crust and light billowy interior that's absolutely delightful dipped in the mojo sauces — one with a bit more heat, yet both full of flavor. One of my companions almost always skips bread, but this time goes back for seconds with a sheepish smile. It's just too good not to indulge.
Our first courses arrive from our friendly server with an impressive flair. Tamal Cubano's succulent roasted pork and tamale corn sit on an undulating base of crisp plantain chips, cut lengthwise, with an architectural construction worthy of Frank Gehry. All that next to a molded square mound of yellow rice with a lone plantain chip on point, reaching skyward. We're in love.
Sopa de Pollo con Fideos features the most delicious, rich, flavorful golden chicken stock I can remember. There are chunks of meat, carrot and bits of onion as well as some noodles, but the broth is purely and simply divine. It's served with a side of white rice that you may add to taste. This one's unmissable.
Also lovely is camarones al ajillo with succulent pink shrimp glistening in a white wine, garlic and parsley glaze that enhances, rather than overwhelms, the natural juices. My table is all smiles after this blast of excelencia Cubana. So far, we're blown away and eagerly anticipate what may follow.
The Completa Grande platter gets our entree courses off with an bang. The traditional trio of Cuban meat treats bursts with flavor. First, there's Picadillo al Habanero with ground beef in a spicy tomato base, along with olive and capers for bite and raisins for a touch of sweetness. Then the classic ropa vieja of shredded beef with tomatoes, peppers, onions and red wine is equally tasty. And last, but not least, is lechon asado, slow-roasted marinated pork exploding with flavor. The combination of herbs, led by cumin, paired with ample garlic and citrus (notably sour orange and lime) melds with pork fat to coat your tongue with lingering goodness. It's arresting comfort food that defies adjectives — an eyes-closed, guttural, exhaling "mmm" will suffice.
Unfortunately, our other two entrees fall short. They're carefully plated and pleasing to the eye, but the Pescado del Dia — in our case, grilled grouper — is underseasoned and a missed opportunity. The beautifully crisp pollo al ajillo also falls short of the juicy, tender, flavor-packed benchmark set by the lechon asado. Everything heretofore was so scrumptious that we feel slightly deflated; our march toward four stars has been derailed.
The desserts sadly plateau instead of serving as a springboard to relaunch the meal's trajectory. Flan Casero is not one typical round molded serving, but rather a square cut from a larger pan. Though the thin, dark caramel sauce is sweet and as expected, its custard is particularly dense and not as appealing. The traditional tres leches cake has a lovely open crumb, yet the "three milks" glaze doesn't register. This one lacks the seductive sweet moisture of the most successful versions of the postre.
However, the Diaz family knows La Yuma represents the American dream. Their daughter and co-owner, Thania, summed it up nicely for Bay News 9: “In current times when people talk about refugees or immigrants in such a negative light, I want to remind people this is an immigrant story. We are as American as any American can be."
Lutz, and the area north of Tampa, is on a culinary roll as of late, with several recently opened restaurants of note. So many of La Yuma's dishes soar that my hope is that the rest of its menu can be tweaked, upping the ante to a standard of excellence worthy of the splendid decor and the glorious Sopa de Pollo.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.