Ask Casey Gonzmart, fourth-generation owner and operator of Ybor (EE-bore) City’s Columbia Restaurant what to order and he’ll answer “The Cuban.” This is the now famous and widely imitated sandwich that, Casey explained during his StoryCorps recording, is not so much Cuban as it is Tampa. The sandwich itself embodies some of the history of Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood where the MobileBooth has been recording stories for the last month.
Little more than a hundred years ago, Ybor was mostly swamp until Cuban cigar factories set up shop. Casey’s great grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez, quickly opened up the Columbia in 1905. Back then it was a working man’s lunch counter serving up “the taste of home” to factory workers, including arroz con pollo, plÃ¡tano frito, ropa vieja, and eventually the “Cuban.” The sandwich layers smoked ham, pork and swiss cheese with salami (a nod to Ybor’s Italian immigrants), German pickles and mustard on freshly baked bread the Columbia gets fresh every day from the same bakery it did more than a century ago.
In the past hundred years, a lot has changed in Ybor and at the Columbia. Six-lane highways roar through Ybor and the Columbia, a one-time humble lunch counter is now a dining palace with multiple elegant rooms and franchises in several other cities. But the menu, down to the recipes themselves, remains largely unchanged. “When we want to go forward, we usually look back,” says Casey. The cigar factories and social clubs may be gone but it is still possible to taste old Ybor.
After Casey’s StoryCorps recording, the MobileBooth East team headed to the nearby Columbia to check things out. And it was bien rico.