Our friends (and L.A. fixers) Jaime and Lydia were in town recently to experience for the first time the magical wonder that is Disney World (and experience it they did - I don't know of anyone that covered as much ground at the parks as they did in a single trip). While stopping over in Tampa for a few days, they also wanted to sample the finer points of our local cuisine (namely Cuban food) - I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to visit one of the few homegrown places in the Bay Area that is striving to elevate its profile to the national level. Brocato's Sandwich Shop has been serving up Cuban sandwiches, devil crab, and something they call stuffed potatoes since 1948, with their current operation just a stone's throw from I-4 near Columbus Drive (5021 Columbus, to be exact) on the near east side of the metro area. I've zoomed by this exit on the interstate countless times without ever once stopping off to test out Brocato's claim of having the best devil crab (you may recall an earlier posting about this unique local favorite, loose crab meat mixed with sofrito and bread crumbs, shaped into a mini-football, then deep-fried) in Tampa, but, this day, I would wonder no more.
We quickly discovered that if you go to Brocato's, lunchtime on Saturday is probably not the best time to show up. The unpaved parking lot was a jumble of vehicles somewhat haphazardly abandoned and the order lines extended out the door, not the type of situation we normally encounter around here (I took this to be a good sign). The wait gave us plenty of time to inspect the operation, which includes covered outdoor seating, a separate prep shed where teenaged employees appeared to be cranking out tray after tray of devil crab and stuffed potatoes, and vivid, ubiquitous signage that might even give Donald Trump pause.
Once inside, we found the ordering process to be slightly haphazard. After about 15 minutes, I finally reached the cash register and placed our order with a cashier speaking in broken English. When that portion concluded, I slunk over to the right half of the building where most people seemed to be awaiting food (the traffic flow and layout was a little confusing). A few more minutes passed before I decided to park myself at the metal counter in front to better increase my chances of getting my tray when ready (servers called out names that had been semi-legibly scrawled out on tickets, sometimes successfully, sometimes not).
I had about 20 minutes to observe the workers assembling orders before the food arrived and I was stunned by the volume of business being run through the kitchen. Clearly, the operation makes a fair amount of dough in spite of the primitive order delivery system - my man Jaime (himself a process engineer) had re-jiggered the whole business in his head and was making them millions more by the time I finally arrived at our table with lunch.
What you see above are the 3 aforementioned marquis items on the Brocato menu (the devil crab is on the left, in the black container). First off, I agree that their devil crab is the best of the 3 or 4 different kinds I've tried in Florida, not to mention the largest - the portion sizes appear to cater to the famished solo diner or families splitting plates. Only slightly less good was the stuffed potato, which we discovered is more like a potato croquette, a mound of mashed spuds surrounding a wad of picadillo (seasoned ground beef) and then deep-fried. I have to say that I was let down by the Cuban sandwich, mainly because the haste of the prep process leaves no time for the bread to be pressed, which is a key element of what makes a Cuban unique. Brocato's does heat up the sandwich in a counter oven before serving, but without the buttery, toasted exterior that pressing provides, their Cuban is mostly just like a warm hoagie. I have no problem returning here for a devil crab sometime (as long as I have friends to help me eat it all) or even shipping them cross-country (as the website advertises), but for the best Cuban, I'll skip Brocato's in favor of my friendly neighborhood Cuban food truck, El Truck Del Rincon Criollo...