ZEPHYRHILLS — Mike Mira, who professes a passion for Cuban cuisine, has opened a new Zephyrhills restaurant to serve family recipes that date back 125 years.
His passion for Cuban food may surprise those who know him as the owner of the popular Zephyrhills seafood restaurant Maine-ly New England.
But Mira, 47, a Tampa native, has a family history that qualifies him for his new venture that opened last month.
“My great-grandmother was born in Ybor City in 1882,” Mira said. “My dad’s family came from Spain — Seville, Spain — and went to Cuba in 1840, and by 1880 they had moved from Cuba to Key West and Tampa, so we were actually in Tampa before Tampa was even a city.”
“My great grandparents opened a bodega, which is a Spanish grocery store, and they started cooking meals for the factory workers in the cigar factories,” Mira said. “They cooked Cuban food and the recipes they had were the recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation in our family and they are the recipes that I still use today. It’s something that I’ve grown up with my entire life.”
The Mira family history reflects the history of Cuban food.
“Most of the Cuban food influence is from Spain,” Mira explained. “So a lot of their recipes originated in Spain and went to Cuba and they tweaked them in Cuba and made them a little different, but they are very heavily influenced by Spanish people.”
Mira said people often have an inaccurate impression about Cuban food.
“A lot of people think that Cuban food is like Mexican food — spicy hot — and Cuban food is not; it’s flavorful spicy — lots of garlic, peppers, onions and those types of flavors go into almost every Cuban dish.”
Mira opened the Café Madrid in the Kmart Shopping Center in Zephyrhills about 20 years ago, but he thinks the community wasn’t ready for it. He closed the café and 15 years ago he bought Maine-ly New England. Now he thinks the climate is right for a Cuban restaurant and his opening days seem to be bearing that out, he said.
Mira has decorated the restaurant with a red-brick motif as an homage to the factory workers who his grandparents served with the recipes he now uses. The tables feature Spanish tiles and he has hired experienced Cuban cooks to help in the kitchen.
“Our most popular dish is our Cuban roast pork — mojo pork accompanied by yellow rice and black beans,” Mira said. “It’s just the most outstanding meal.”
Picadillo is a house specialty and a recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation in his family.
“The one my family makes is kicked up a notch from the traditional Ybor City one that you get nowadays. The Ybor City recipe has about eight ingredients, ours has about 14 ingredients. It’s the best thing you could ever do to ground beef,” he said.
Mira goes back to the basics for the Cuban sandwich.
“The Cuban sandwich originated in Tampa,” Mira said. “It was never in Cuba. The original Cuban sandwich is ham, salami, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickle on fresh Cuban bread. We actually bake our own hams in house and use the freshest Swiss cheese, the best Genoa salami and the best Cuban bread in the world, which comes from Le Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City.”
They do offer the Cuban sandwich “dressed,” with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.”
“We also make handmade devil crabs, which was a mainstay in Ybor City, as well as the stuffed potatoes, Spanish (garbanzo) bean soup.”
The restaurant will have daily specials that will include non-Cuban fare. “Friday we will have a fish fry,” Mira said. “For dessert we have a flan, which is a traditional Spanish Cuban egg custard and we have tres leches, which means three-milks, which is a Cuban cake that has condensed milk evaporated milk and whole milk; we make those fresh here.”
“They say you have to be crazy to own a restaurant,” Mira added, laughing. “You gotta be an idiot to own two restaurants but I’m up to the challenge. My grandfather, Beningo Fernandez, was a big player in the food scene in Ybor City back when being a waiter was a profession. It was an art form, you’d wear a white tuxedo and work at the restaurants like the Columbia and Las Novedades.”
Island Breeze is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. They do dine-in, carry out and catering. The restaurant is located at 5518 Gall Blvd., or as Mira says “between Kentucky Fried Chicken and Little Caesar’s Pizza.”