Only a few weeks after we moved down here, I noticed one morning a bright, yet lonely, food truck parked in the Shell station lot (northeast corner of Sheldon and Waters) on the route to Hackknifette's preschool. The truck sported a lakeside mural depicting a curious assortment of forest creatures not normally associated with the Tampa area (chipmunk, moose, geese) and was named "El Truck Del Rincon Criollo" (translation - Creole Corner Truck). Interest piqued, I watched out for the truck every day on the way to and from school and eventually realized that it never moved from its perch (at least not during daylight hours). With signs advertising Latin food to go and "The best Cuban sandwich in Tampa" (which, of course, every restaurant from New Port Richey to Sarasota professes to have), I vowed to stop in for lunch someday before the school year concluded. Hackknifette brings her lunch to school on Wednesdays, so I picked last Wednesday as my day to check out El Truck.
Judging from the photo above, you'd never realize that you're about to dine in a gas station parking lot (or, for that matter, next to a Hillsborough County waste treatment plant - luckily, the nasty effluent fumes seem to drift northward away from the site). For being a food truck, the list of offerings was surprisingly large (empanadas, hot and cold sandwiches, croquettes, breakfast dishes); however, I decided to put to the test their claim of having a superior Cuban sandwich. Just to spice things up a bit, I also ordered something called a deviled crab and an unusual soda called Ironbeer (original 1917 flavor!) to accompany my sandwich. Little did I know how much culinary gusto I managed to pack into one modest lunch.
Let's first discuss the deviled crab. Looking like a small fried football (see photo above), I discovered upon subsequent research that this is actually indigenous Tampa street food, first sold out of pushcarts in Ybor City to feed striking cigar factory workers in the late 1920s. The original idea was to take cheap, plentiful blue crab meat, mix it with leftover Cuban bread crumbs and a spicy relish (like a Spanish sofrito - onions, garlic, chili peppers, and tomatoes sauteed in olive oil), and fry it to make something like a hand-held crab cake (useful if you're a hungry striking cigar roller needing your other hand to loft a protest sign). I wasn't crazy with the deviled crab at first, but it grew on me as I reached more of the good stuff (i.e., the crab and the relish) in the middle and now I'm anxious to seek out more of them around town. Since the sofrito gave my edible football a little bit of an edge, I was happy to have the Ironbeer to wash it down. An interesting story in its own right, Ironbeer was invented in Cuba in 1917 and allegedly became the pre-revolution soft drink of choice there, moving to its new home in Miami once the Castros assumed power. The current version has little connection to the original (it's still produced in Miami) and has a flavor described as a "fruitier Dr. Pepper", although I would say it reminds me more of a Fanta (maybe Strawberry?).
As good as my crab and soda were, the clear star of the show was the Cuban sandwich. When the man says he's got the best in town, I would hazard to dare that he might actually be right (I'm aware that my sample size is limited - I've only been here 3 months). The bread slices were fresh and beautifully crunchy (grilled to absolute perfection), between which were nestled tasty shredded pork, oozing Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, and ham, with a tiny slab of chicharron (fried pork skin) on top for good measure. Large, inexpensive (about $5), and damned delicious, I've fantasized about this beast ever since and can't wait go back for another (the owner's son also suggested I try the steak sandwich - if it's half as good as the Cuban, I'll be a happy boy)....