What’s great about the Bay area’s restaurant scene is diversity. You can opt for finesse and white tablecloths, with the price tag that premium ingredients and complicated techniques demand. Or you can chow down at a mom-and-pop food truck, luxuriating in juicy tidbits bursting with flavor for a few bucks. Plus, all of the world’s great cuisines are at your fingertips.
Café Martí Tropical Cuban Grill, which opened its brightly colored space recently in a small shopping center on Gandy near Dale Mabry, is a great example of these cultural gastronomic riches. The menu melds “the strong flavors of paprika, garlic and oregano from Spain with the tropical products of sour oranges, cassava and black beans” — resonant of the Hispano-Cuban cultural mix in Tampa that produced fusion cuisine long before the term became popular.
Croqueta de jaiba, a Cuban crab croquette starter, is huge. The soft center is almost paste-like and it packs plenty of spice; no hot sauce needed here. Historically, the deviled crab was shaped like a potato so that workers in the Ybor cigar factories could eat with one hand. In the same vein, a bit smaller (but still ample) is the papa rellena, a potato stuffed with Cuban ground meat (picadillo), breaded and fried. The flavors here are much milder, but still loaded with savory goodness.
Martí’s fried empanadas are offered with meat, chicken or cheese fillings. We choose the chicken, which is moist and flavorful, and the large, flaky pastry fills the plate; these are meat pies on steroids.
And you can’t argue with the price. One reason is that each of the reasonably priced entrées not only includes your choice of soup or house salad, but also two of the ample side dishes. Each entrée on the menu lists the traditional accompaniments recommended by the chef, but diners may mix and match to suit their personal tastes.
The simple romaine salad has crisp Cuban bread croutons and a nice citrus dressing. The black bean soup is fine with no surprises, and the gazpacho, while coarsely textured, is balanced and full of flavor. I usually make a chunky version at the height of tomato season, but also love the smoothness of a purée option that comes from the high performance of a Vitamix and a pass through a chinois; Café Martí’s rustic version is somewhere in between.
Lechón asado is a Café Martí specialty. Fresh ham is marinated in sour-orange mojo, then dry-rubbed with salt, garlic and oregano, and slow-roasted to perfection. A huge mound of moist, shredded pork is served with white rice, black beans and sweet fried plantains. It’s straight-forward, tasty and sticks to your ribs. The same is true of the pechuga de pollo “Café Martí,” a seared chicken breast with rosemary-garlic white wine sauce. The meat is juicy, and the sauce provides a great hit of acidity. We opt for an accompanying mountain of savory yellow rice colorfully garnished with diced red tomatoes and green peas — it’s like Christmas.
A bit more delicate is camarones al ajillo — jumbo shrimp sautéed in olive oil with a bracing lemon-garlic fusion. The shellfish are succulent and the sauce provides a hint of brightness on the palate that brings a smile; it’s lip-smackingly good.
You can feel the connection of these family-style dishes to the traditions of the owners’ great-grandparents, who came to Cuba from Spain and then settled in Florida in the 1880s. This is “Tampa Cuban” rather than the cuisine of exiles escaping Castro in the 1960s. The café is named for José Martí, a hero of Cuban independence who mobilized cigar workers, “with fiery speeches against the tyranny of Spanish rule.”
The desserts feature a guava cheesecake and key lime parfait, but we settle on a slice of flan de queso, a Spanish caramel custard with added cream cheese that is rich, rich, rich and floating in thin, dark caramel typical of this confection. Even better, to my taste, is the piña colada cake. It’s a huge chunk of light “tres leches” cake dotted with tropical pineapple and coconut that is just plain yummy. Less successful is the Cuban espresso chocolate cake with rum frosting. The cake has nice flavors, but it’s wet in places instead of just moist, and the frosting is dense rather than creamy — like a buttercream that needs to soften, although this is at room temperature.
Still, Café Martí delivers value and flavors that reflect a distinct “Tampa Cuban” heritage. Diversity — it’s a good (and tasty) thing.