Things seen from an outdoor table at Carne Chophouse: a half dozen, howling skateboarders kick-flipping their way down the middle of Seventh Avenue, a man pushing two giant boa constrictors in a baby stroller and a sidewalk preacher ordering a drag queen to “repent of your wicked heart of unbelief” through a bullhorn.
That was all before we’d ordered our entrees.
As part of the Ybor Centro entertainment complex, Carne Chophouse is in a prime location for people-watching on the neighborhood’s eccentric, party-hearty main drag, but walk up the century-old stairs leading inside the expansive steakhouse, and it’s all old-world class.
The restaurant, open since April 2012, is inside the historic El Centro Espaņol de Tampa building, built in 1912 as the clubhouse for a social club for Spanish and Cuban immigrants. Most recently it was the Olivier Restaurant & Cabaret, but it has also been a furniture store and a burlesque club over its 101 years, our server informed us.
Seated in the dining room on a busy Saturday night, you get the feeling the cigar-puffing, dominoes-playing ghosts of Ybor’s past would approve of the lively, modern-day scene.
A musician seated near the entrance plucks at a guitar as you enter the large, open dining room, romantically lit and separated from the bar by a large wine cellar in the center of the room. Above are high, embossed-tin ceilings and below is an intricately tiled floor, charmingly worn out in spots from decades of feet. Colorful paintings by artist Ferdie Pacheco depict scenes of cigar factory workers, trolley cars and the Gasparilla festival. It’s one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the city, and no doubt the loveliest in Ybor.
The dining room is lined with wall-mounted LCD TVs between the huge windows looking out at the Centro courtyard. They let diners follow a ballgame if they want to, but they don’t dominate the space, allowing an atmosphere that’s upscale, yet comfortable and far from pretentious.
The menu is much the same. The dishes are unadorned classics, but presented with touches of fine-dining flair.
Red meat, of course, is the main attraction at Carne Chophouse. The menu includes a massive, 18-ounce cowboy ribeye ($30.95) and prime rib ($16.95, or $9.95 before 6:30 p.m.), roasted slow and low, but the most memorable entrees were the nonsteak specialties, particularly the chicken pot pie and the ropa vieja.
The pot pie ($14.95) was large with a crust that had a flaky outermost layer that gave way to a doughier inside. The vegetables still had a fresh snap, and the bottom of the pie was filled with deliciously creamy mashed potatoes. The ropa vieja ($14.95) was exceptionally flavorful, with pork and beef so tender it was cut with a spoon, and a nice, spicy kick. The large portion of white rice helped with the spiciness.
There’s a great selection of starters, all served in generous portions. Our favorite was the cheese fries poutine ($6.95). One order of the crispy Yukon gold fries topped with a runny fried egg, bacon, brown veal gravy and cheddar sauce (in place of the traditional cheese curds) would make a hearty (and messy) meal for two people before, or after, some serious cocktail intake at one of the nearby bars or clubs.
The Carne oyster rockers ($9.95), their version of oysters Rockefeller, made with andouille sausage, smoked corn, and Colby jack cheese, had an intense, savory flavor and a bit of a crunchy crust. The tasty deviled eggs were topped with bacon that tasted fresh and crunchy.
When it came to the aforementioned steaks, our experience was inconsistent. The sirloin au poivre (9-ounce, $16.95) I had on my first visit was really lacking in flavor and crust, and didn’t get much help from the sauce served over it.
The filet mignon (7-ounce, $22.95) I had on a return visit, on the other hand, was flavorful, tender, seasoned right, and seared perfectly on the outside. You’d be hard-pressed to find better for the price. The Parmesan-crusted roma tomato half that’s served with the steaks was super sweet — a nicely done detail.
The Caesar salad, served as an uncut head of romaine, comes with large Parmesan crisps rather than the standard grated cheese, whole anchovy fillets (optional), and pepper-season crouton spears — again, little details — which kicked a standard, pre-entree salad up to something memorable.
For sides, the green bean almondine, sauteed with onion and crisp bacon, was recommended by both of our servers, and didn’t disappoint for fans of garlic, bacon and LOTS of almonds.
If you’re looking to dine in Ybor, Carne Chophouse is a must-try. For a price only slightly more than a chain steakhouse in the vein of Outback or Longhorn, you’ll get a meal that’s vastly more memorable.