Traveling through tastes & time

Ybor City food tours offer rich history and cuisine.

click to enlarge DISHING ABOUT CULTURE: Rice and beans from Gaspar’s Grotto. - Jared Leone
Jared Leone
DISHING ABOUT CULTURE: Rice and beans from Gaspar’s Grotto.

When Vicente Martinez-Ybor came to Tampa, it was a sleepy seaside town.

But after he brought the burgeoning cigar industry to Tampa in 1885, building the largest cigar factory in the world in what is now known as Ybor City, he ushered in a new era of development for Tampa, whose population ballooned from 800 to more than 5,000.

The new Ybor City Food Tours begin near a bronze statue of the district's founding father, and take folks on journeys through history, culture and cuisine.

“The history here is so rich,” says Nadina Taylor of why she started the tours.

Spanish, Cuban, Italian and Jewish immigrants contributed to Ybor's ethnic mix. The three-hour Original Historic Ybor City Food Tour offers tidbits about their contributions, with stops at notable sites throughout the district. Other tours include a dog-friendly version, a Cuban sandwich-centric tour and a dessert walk. Cooking classes led by area chefs will start in January, Taylor says.

The historic tour ($59 per person, with tastings included in the price) stops at seven restaurants, including Tampa Bay Brewing Company for cider-battered wings, Stone Soup Company for Cuban sandwiches and Gaspar’s Grotto for rice and beans.

Eateries were selected based on taste, culture and history, Taylor says. Key lime pie and Cubans had to be incorporated.

“Those are the two things people come here and say they can’t leave without trying,” Taylor says.

But it’s not just about the food. The tour is filled with visits to city landmarks.

We wind west on Ninth Avenue for more history and a ghost story about the Don Vicente. The inn was a social club that provided camaraderie and healthcare services to members, says Vince Rosales, our tour guide. The building’s time as a hospital may have spawned some ghosts.

A trolley thunders by as we walk past Ybor Square to the Mirta Hook and Ladder Volunteer Fire Station, established in 1888.

The tour continues to Marti Park, which contains soil from Cuba. Revolutionary Jose Marti sought refuge at a house that once stood there. Rosales stops at the steps of the cigar factory (now known as Ybor Square) where Marti gave an impassioned speech helping spark America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War.

Ybor employed a strategic approach to recruit hundreds of cigar rollers for work, Rosales tells us. With roosters crowing in the background, he indicates a row of three white houses built by Ybor and sold to workers for $400, essentially the cost of construction, to ensure employee retention.

We visit the Columbia Restaurant, not to eat but to talk about its status as the longest-running Spanish eatery in the country, then move on to our final stops: Carmine’s for a slice of key lime pie and to Nicahabana Cigars for café con leche.

“They will feed you,” Taylor says.

With food and history.

For more information, go to YborCityFoodTours.com.