Café con leche is one of those magical beverages that is widely underappreciated in the English speaking world, much like Caipirinhas and Vinho Verde. Simply “coffee with milk” in Spanish, this café drink is so much more than a humble drip coffee with a splash of 2%, or a pretentious yet still disappointing latte from Starbucks. This drink is bold, yet smooth, strong, yet sumptuous. Something about the pull of the espresso, the scald on the milk and the perfectly proportional one-to-one ratio of those two liquids makes this hot beverage the perfect drink to start out any morning, satisfy an afternoon craving, or finish up any hearty dinner. Basically, you can have it any time. It is always a good choice.
The great plague of this drink is its under-appreciation – it can be difficult to find it on café menus. Fortunately for those who live in Tampa, the Cuban influence is strong enough that there are several spots around the bay forgoing fancier espresso drinks and blended nonsense in favor of this classic cup.
Below are the three best café con leche spots in Tampa, in no particular order.
#3: Gio’s Cuban Café
Tampa veterans may recognize this better under its old name – Pipo’s The Original Cuban Café. Apparently, a man named Gio purchased it several years ago, but only recently got around to putting his name on the sign. This no-frills Cuban eatery has several locations across Tampa Bay – all of which are dishing up some seriously delicious café con leches.
Here’s what Gio’s has to say about themselves:
“Over three decades ago The Hernandez Family opened their first Cuban Cafe in Tampa Bay. Focused on staying true to the tradition and authentic flavors of Cuban cuisine, they committed to use only quality ingredients and proven family recipes to build their menu. That dedication continues as the Hernandez family delivers authentic Cuban taste to satisfied patrons throughout the Tampa Bay region. Whether you choose the award winning roast pork, the mouth-watering black beans and Spanish rice, or a rich Cuban espresso, you are guaranteed to experience the vibrant, diverse flavors and aromas of authentic Cuban cuisine.” (source).
Here’s what happens when you walk in: Skip the food ordering line and go right to the cashier (that is, unless you want some food. The grilled palomilla sandwich with the works is highly recommended). You have a choice of small, medium, or large in your café con leche, and you can elect with sugar or without. You will be rewarded with a steaming Styrofoam cup filled to the brim with the most delicious coffee beverage you have ever tasted.
This is another no-frills eatery dishing up delicious Cuban food (sensing a pattern here?). In fact, they make a bold claim right on their website, the claim that they offer the best Cuban sandwich and Cuban coffee in Tampa, FL. The competition in that category may be stiff, but this humble shop located a stone’s throw from Raymond James Stadium absolutely has the goods to back up their claim. This restaurant has more than 33 years of experience and is considered an icon in its neighborhood.
Each cup of café con leche is ground fresh, the milk is steamed as needed, which mean it is always piping hot and incredibly smooth. You can choose to dine in at one of their cute little café tables or at the counter, or you can take your drink to go (para llevar, en español). Don’t be put off by the outside of the restaurant or the bars on the windows. Places like this are nearly always hidden gems, and this one is absolutely a diamond.
Locals have reported that the best way to order your café con leche is with milk and with a ceramic cup alongside your Styrofoam. That way you can enjoy your drink out of a real mug, but the Styrofoam will keep any leftovers you have warm and ready for you. Do not miss this coffee.
#1 Café Hey
This eclectic little shop is not a Cuban eatery, but rather an independent coffee shop that held down a spot in Tampa Heights years before it was new cool spot to be. This unpretentious but painfully cool café sits on the corner of Franklin Ave and Kay Street. It is only a few blocks from Foundation Coffee and the Hall on Franklin but feels like a totally different world. Their menu includes basic café creations, not-so-basic café creations (case in point, the Red Hot Latte is made with cinnamon, chili, and chocolate), and some simple lunch and breakfast fare. This is the only place on this list that offers both hot and iced café con leches.
In addition to pouring some truly excellent coffee (made with Buddy Brew beans, another local company), this café can be quite the hangout. Every Thursday is Open Mic night which welcomes poetry, live music, and spoken-word performances. Additionally, the café is always seeking submissions for art to hang on their walls. They don’t even collect a commission when a piece sells! They also offer events like vegetarian brunches and an art night called “drink and draw”. If you are intimidated by the Cuban eateries, and would rather venture into a hippy-run and incredibly inclusive coffee house, then Café Hey is the spot for you.
Grab a book or a laptop (since they also offer free wifi), choose a spot to park it and enjoy your warm, delicious beverage while soaking up the off-beat side of Tampa culture.
So the next time you find yourself jonesing for a caffeine hit, close the Starbucks app and head to one of the places listed above. Enjoying a café con leche is a right of passage in Tampa – so join the coffee appreciation club, and try not to be too sad when someone offers you a boring latte or a cardboard tasting cappuccino in the future.