Cuenelli’s Peruvian Restaurant revisited

I spent many days in South Korea dreaming of the delicious chicken sandwiches at Cuenelli’s. I even visited a Peruvian restaurant in Seoul hoping for a similar dining experience, but failed to find anything like it. Now I’m back in Tampa and can enjoy Cuenelli’s once again! I ran into the owner a few weeks ago and she invited me in for a complimentary dinner on the house. I, of course, accepted! The new location is still a bit of a hike from my house in a suburb of Brandon, but I’ll take it over it being halfway around the Earth.

We started our meal with two appetizers: the Papa a la Huancaina and the Ceviche. The first to arrive was the Huancaina. The name of the dish comes from the Peruvian highland city of Huancayo. The potatoes and sauce were excellent! I’m happy to say that the spiciness always perfectly hits the tongue. I have never been adverse to the taste of this delicious appetizer. I need to learn how to make this delicious salad someday.

The Peruvian Ceviche arrived next. Filled with my favorite vegetable: onions.ūüôā The Peruvian version of this popular dish is spicy and brings a whole new level of flavor that I personally enjoyed. The pumpkin and corn served with it was a great addition. Fun fact: Peru has a national holiday declared in the honor of ceviche.

My friend and I disputed whether we should have the unique Cuenelli’s chicken sandwich or a steak. After a few minutes we decided to order both and split it between the two of us. Indeed, we had quite an appetite for some tasty Cuenelli’s food. Both arrived together to the table.

The chicken sandwich was exactly as I remember. Moist on the inside and packed full of flavor in a way that few places I have visited can hope to replicate. The yellow spice sauce they serve with it makes it even better. The homemade-style fries are always a nice finish to this dish.

The Bistec a lo Pobre was a great finishing to our meal. Egg yolk and plantains are always a good combination with rice and beans (a staple for Puerto Ricans). The steak itself was tender and flavorful. During days when I felt down or unwell, this meal was always a great pick-me-up and helped me feel energized again. If the meal proves to be too much for one sitting, a reheated version is just as good (some people might even say better).

Overall, it was great to taste the dishes at Cuenelli’s again and I am happy they are finding success in Tampa. I hope they have many more years of success and I look forward to returning for some delicious entrees in the near future and introducing more friends to Peruvian cuisine.

Cuenelli's Peruvian Style Rotisserie Chicken on Urbanspoon

Restaurant name: Cuenelli’s Peruvian Restaurant

Cuisine: Peruvian

Neighborhood: Northwest Tampa

Address: 4801 W. Hillsborough Ave. Tampa, FL 33416

Phone Number:  (813) 888-8790

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Cuenellis

El Puerto Argentinean Grill

El Puerto Argentinean Grill may be the first Argentinean restaurant I have dined at in my life and I was completely impressed with the food at this hidden gem in Ybor City. The restaurant is found on 5th Avenue near a cigar shop and various housing, nestled away behind the 7th Avenue strip. My family was originally out to have some Japanese cuisine, but after a mention of El Puerto as we drove on Adamo past Ybor, my family immediately made a detour.

The restaurant has a modest look, clearly a hole-in-the-wall with one dining room and a bar. Two main entrances. The smell outside the restaurant was fantastic and when we entered the restaurant, the pleasant aromas only became greater. We sat ourselves and within about ten minutes our waitress arrived at our table. Like many hole-in-the-wall restaurants the service at El Puerto could have been better. Many have noted the servers don’t seem primarily happy to be working and as long as my food comes out hot and flavorful without any rudeness, I can live with that. The wait time on the food is lengthy as well, don’t come in if you aren’t willing to wait more than an hour to receive your food.

The waitress understood English, but it was clear Spanish was her preference. I had an Inca Kola and the waitress was quick to bring our drinks. She dropped off some bread and then the wait began. We had plenty of time to talk about anything and everything, each time the waitress came in with a huge plate of meat we became more excited for what was to come. El Puerto gives you a bang for your buck, the dinner entrees range from $10-$20, but can feed 2-3 people.

I was particularly hungry and ordered their $2 Empanada Argentina (Argentine-style beef turnover in a fluffy pastry shell) in addition to the $12 Lomo Saltado (strips of skirt steak sautéed with red onions, served with French fries and white rice) as my main course. The waitress brought us some bread and butter to start our meal.

The bread was soft and the warm. The pieces were large enough to help hold over the wait.

The Argentinean empanada arrived. Different in appearance from the Puerto Rican empanadas I am used to. The shell was soft instead of crunchy. The meat inside was seasoned well and full of flavor, it did not need cheese or any additions. The empanada also came out hot, clearly fresh. It did not take long for this empanada to disappear from my plate.

About an hour later the Lomo Saltado arrived.

The steak came out sizzling hot. The rice warm and soft. There was so much steak that I had a whole portion to take home after eating. The red onions on top were juicy and crunchy, only adding to the steak. The steak needed no sauce, it was perfect just the way it was made. It has been quite a long time since I had a steak this tender that was cooked all the way. The steak just melted in my mouth, there was no need to cut it down into tiny pieces. The French fries were fantastic, and I would go as far as to say this Lomo Saltado was the best I have ever had.

The silence at the table spoke for the excellence of the food. The wait was worth it. I haven’t eaten that much in a long time and I credit the excellent flavors of El Puerto Argentinean Grill. There were many things I saw on the menu that interested me for future visits. My parents rave that El Puerto has the best chicken they have ever had. The Chicharron de Calamar, Baby Churrasco, and Peruvian pastas were just a few of the entrees I contemplated having during my visit. El Puerto also has a lunch menu with a modified menu and sandwiches/burgers that I would like to try as well. I am sure I will be back.

El Puerto Argentinean Grill on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: El Puerto Argentinean Grill

Cuisine: Spanish, Argentinean, Peruvian, Seafood

Neighborhood: Ybor City

Address: 1623 E 5th Ave. Tampa, FL 33605

Phone Number: (813) 248-8222

Website: http://www.elpuertoybor.com/

La Guaguita – Puerto Rican Cuisine Food Truck

A friend and I went on a ethnic market hunt and just as I started complaining that there are basically no Puerto Rican food spots in Tampa, I turned around and saw a food truck called La Guaguita waving a Puerto Rican flag. My friend and I decided to investigate.

Click the photo for a larger version of the menu.

A quick look at the menu and I saw many favorites such as mofongo (flavored mashed plantains), alcapurrias (a fritter dish), pastelillos (empanadas), tostones rellenos con pulpo (stuffed fried plantains), arroz con gandules y pernil (rice with pigeon peas and roast pork), tostones (fried plantains), and also various sandwiches. All choices were at reasonable prices (~$8 for a full meal, $1 or $2 a la carte), this truck doesn’t over-charge for ethnic food. They also had various refreshments, including my personal favorite: Malta India. Malta has a sweet, refreshing taste to it and is essentially¬†a beer that has not been fermented. Malta India is made in Puerto Rico.

I decided to order their arroz con gandules y pernil or rice with pigeon peas and roast pork ($6.00), which was fantastic! It only took a few minutes to come out and I would say it was as good as a home-cooked meal (sadly my family doesn’t cook much Puerto Rican food these days because they became lazy in recent years). The rice was moist and the peas also had an authentic taste. The pernil (roast park) was also excellent and really hit the desired taste perfectly, the fat was rich with succulence. Normally I only have this dish during the holiday season, so it was nice to enjoy it for an afternoon lunch for a change. It also came with small salad that had plenty of flavoring from some salt and pepper.

A great deal for $6!

The employees were friendly with us and the crowd was welcoming, both helpful in explaining any menu concern we might have. Many people came and went which was a good sign about the food. They accept major credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard, so you don’t have to worry about keeping cash on you as well.

I am really happy to have found a Puerto Rican food truck and hope to come back to their empanadas and mofongo in the futureūüôā. They also cater if you’re interested in having some Puerto Rican food at your event.

La Guaguita Food Truck on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: La Guaguita

Neighborhood: Town N Country

Cuisine: Puerto Rican, Spanish

Address: Hillsborough Ave & Sheldon Rd. Tampa, FL 33615

Phone Number: (813) 965-0086

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/La-Guaguita/126037044109027

The Columbia Cafe

My family and I dined at The Columbia Cafe tonight. It is located next to the Tampa Bay History Center.¬†The outdoor patio doesn’t seem to be part of the restaurant at first glance. A branch of the famous Columbia chain, this cafe offers are more simplified menu and a beautiful waterfront view of Tampa Bay.¬†Channelside is just a few minutes away from Columbia Cafe so we walked over from Channelside in just under 10 minutes. I honestly don’t think the restaurants in Channelside are appetizing so I think with some promotion it wouldn’t be difficult for The Columbia Cafe to steal the thunder for Channelside restaurants. Harbour Island restaurants are far superior to anything at Channelside.

Like many restaurants in this area, live music is available on Friday and Saturday nights (6-9PM here…an earlier show than some other places in the area, such as That’s Amore). Tonight there were two Spanish performers, a man running the instrumentals and a woman singing several covers of popular Spanish music, such as Olga Tanon and Celia Cruz. Her voice was pleasant, but more of a backdrop to make the mood then a show.

The waiter was quick to come and get our drink orders. He took a couple of minutes to bring us our drinks and then took our orders. We put our orders in. I decided to try their Chicken Salteado ($9.95).¬†The food came out quickly and was on our table in less than 20 minutes. The waiter seemed pre-occupied for a portion of our meal, and just when I was starting to think that the waiter should come and check on our drinks he appeared and refilled my drink (almost like he read my mind or something). The restaurant was moderately busy, but there was still plenty of empty tables for Friday night. I don’t think many people are aware that Columbia Cafe is located here.

The warm Cuban bread at The Columbia is one of the reasons people love it so much and The Columbia Cafe does not disappoint. I negotiated with my little cousin and was able to have both my bread and hers, it’s just that good.

The menu reads the Chicken Salteado is “inspired by the Chinese who lived in Cuba in the 19th century, a very hot iron skillet with extra virgin olive oil is used to saut√© boneless pieces of chicken, onions, green peppers, fresh garlic, mushrooms, diced potatoes and chorizo, splashed with a hearty red wine. Served with yellow rice”. The dish was still warm when it arrived on my table. The chicken was a little rough, but flavorful. The potatoes were great as were the vegetables. I was surprised that I actually did not like the chorizo on my plate (since I’m a fan of chorizo), perhaps it was just the way it was cooked. The yellow rice was moist, but a little plain. It might have been a little better with a side of black beans. I added some sour cream to give it a little more flavor. Overall, the dish was average but I probably would not order it again because it was just average. My Step-Dad had the 1905 salad which looked amazing. Maybe I will have that in the future.

One particular problem I identified during our visit was the portion of their children’s menu. My sister ordered my nephew chicken tenders and chips. They only gave him 3 pieces of chicken strips. We asked the waiter about the order and he confirmed that this is the standard…I honestly don’t know how they can even call this a meal. It was a good thing my six-year-old nephew was not hungry because it would have then taken two children’s menu items to fill him. My seven-year-old cousin had their macaroni and cheese, which was a more appropriate portion for a child.

Overall, The Columbia Cafe is a nice spot in Downtown Tampa. The view outside is fantastic at night (and I’m sure it is also great on a beautiful sunny Florida day). The menu leaves a little to be desired, but has the classic Columbia choices. There is a full bar and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. If this restaurant was open a little later and promoted better it could be a popular spot for the night scene in the area and easily dominate the area with its signature Spanish dishes.

Columbia Cafe on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Name: The Columbia Cafe

Cuisine: Spanish

Address: 801 Old Water Street #1905 Tampa, Florida 33602

Phone Number: (813) 229-5511

Neighborhood: Downtown Tampa

Website: http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/cafe.asp