Twists on tradition: A garlicky Cuban at Michelle Faedo's and a water-based ice cream at La Unica Michoacana offer varying rewards 

When CL moved its offices back to Ybor last year, we asked a whole host of locals for their favorite spots in the area. One name that kept popping up was Michelle Faedo's, mostly because of its popular Cuban sandwich. Several people told us it's their favorite example of this pressed piece of Ybor's culinary heritage, even though the restaurant's location a dozen blocks north of I-275 puts it well out of Ybor's otherwise walkable dining district. They were willing to drive just for a taste of this semi-legendary sandwich.

It's a good sandwich, to be sure. But calling it the best Cuban is a stretch, for a variety of reasons.

The first will hit you in the face the instant you step into the humble interior of Michelle Faedo's: garlic, and lots of it. The heady and pungent aroma of the stuff permeates the air here, sweet and earthy — a familiar smell at a beans and rice joint, perhaps, but not at a place that specializes in sandwiches and devil crab. According to owner Robert Faedo, he and wife Michelle started smearing an herb and garlic paste on the outside of their pressed sandwiches over a decade ago, to help them stand out from the multitudes of Cubans ubiquitous in the area.

Impregnating each bite with the nutty, pungent flavor of semi-cooked garlic does make a difference. Good or bad? Depends on whether you want tradition, or whether you love garlic.

Get past the accented bread and you'll find a hugely overstuffed sandwich that looks more like a deli sub than a typical Cuban, with piles of thinly sliced ham that overwhelms the roast pork and salami. Perhaps because of its massive proportions, it seems barely pressed, the bread barely toasted, the thick slice of Swiss cheese as solid as it was when pulled from the fridge, the meat still cold throughout.

Good sandwich, sure. Great Cuban? Not so much.

Michelle Faedo's does a better job with other local Cuban treats, like croquettes covered in a crackling crisp shell that hides gooey chopped ham salad inside. Empanadas here are gorgeous, the pastry shell glossy, golden brown and flaky, but solid enough to hold a decent ground beef picadillo with just enough sweetness.

Devil crab is Michelle Faedo's other specialty — produced wholesale in a building behind the restaurant — and these are more true to the historical mark. They're big, like the sandwiches, the ball-like shell of breading thick enough for a crunchy exterior and an herbaceous layer inside, with a core of tender crab.

The restaurant also sells a litany of other deep-fried snacks — from mushrooms to okra — along with a respectable burger.

Go for the devil crab and croquettes, the meat pies and burgers, sure. But if you're headed to Michelle Faedo's for a Cuban, expect something tasty, but ultimately untraditional.

Water-based ice cream doesn't sound terribly appealing, especially next to the array of rich, full-fat flavors listed on the board at La Unica Michoacana on MacDill. For anyone unfamiliar with the tradition of fruit-based Mexican "ice cream," just think French. It's sorbet.

Not that you'd go wrong with one of the traditional ice creams at La Unica. Everything, from the large variety of individually wrapped popsicles piled in the freezers off to the side to the rich, cream-based frozen treats in the display cases, is made in-house. Still, you can get typical ice cream anywhere.

La Unica's water-based ice cream is built on a foundation of fresh fruit, with a final flavor and texture much different than the sorbet you might find at the grocery store. Strawberry is icy and sweet, with a floral aroma that's more reminiscent of a fresh-picked Plant City pint than industrial food flavoring. Mango is rich and smooth, with strands of fruit that managed to survive the churn but melt instantly in your mouth.

There are also traditional flavors drawn from the Mexican culinary palette, like tamarind and soursop. The banana ice cream feels like biting into a just-peeled fruit that's just shy of ripe, tangy and sweet and incredibly fresh.

Popsicles here are more rustic than they look, La Unica's water-based ice creams given solid form. You'll find the same flavors and textures as in the ice cream case, albeit with more discrete chunks of fruit frozen into the icy bars. One flavor stands out — tamarind and chile — both because of the novelty and because it just works so damn well. The tamarind is bright and tart, with just enough earthiness to complement the feeling of toasted chile heat that spreads throughout your mouth, the coolness of the popsicle an inadequate salve if you munch through it too quickly.

La Unica also makes an array of fruit-flavored agua fresca, the light fruit drink that should have swept across this country as a refreshing fad years ago. With little sugar and massive fruit character, it's a perfect alternative to both soda and those chemical-laced "fruit waters" that line convenience store shelves.

And that's ultimately the appeal of a place like La Unica. Frozen treats, both water- and cream-based, have become the purview of food scientists and large manufacturers. That's true on the grocery store shelves, sure, but also at most independent, neighborhood ice cream shops.

Stop by La Unica, and you'll immediately be able to taste why that's such a tragedy.

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