The first time I had black beans and rice was in Ybor City not long after I’d graduated from college in upstate New York. It was a revelation. I had no idea that a pile of beans, whatever their color, could be — I dunno — exciting. That they laid atop a bed of flavorful yellow rice, also new to me, probably had something to do with my infatuation.
It wasn’t long before I added Cuban-style roast pork to the regimen. I’d go out of my way to have the combo dish whenever I visited Tampa from my home in St. Pete. This was the late ’70s, when Cuban food was very much a Tampa thing.
Over the years, Pinellas has developed a few worthy Cuban restaurants, so for this week’s Food Fight it seemed fitting to pit Tampa vs. St. Pete in a cross-bay battle. I chose two eateries that ranked very high on various online surveys: Pipo’s Restaurant, located on a busy section of Hillsborough Avenue in Town ‘n’ Country, and Bodega in St. Petersburg’s Edge District.
In the first week of April, I’d ordinarily relish dining al fresco on a sidewalk at 2 p.m. Not Tuesday. Amid a stretch of record-setting high temperatures, we beelined to the indoor dining room after placing our order at the outdoor walkup window.
I ordered the Lechon Plato: slow-roasted mojo pork with grilled onions, a side of beans and rice, and maduros (fried sweet plantains).
Bodega’s indoor dining room is a strictly no-frills space: a few tables with plastic chairs, unfinished floors and an S-shaped bar with fixed stools.
An upbeat server brought our meals out a few seconds after our butts hit the chairs.
A workmanlike presentation: a white plate piled high with the stuff promised on the menu. The rice was white not yellow, the beans looked like they might be starting to congeal, the onions appeared limp and the plantains looked as unappetizing as all the other plantains I’ve seen.
But when it comes to this dish, I knew better than to pass judgment based on appearance.
Texture and Taste
Bodega’s Cuban-style roast pork didn’t have as much mojo working as others I’ve tried. It was short on citrusy tang and could’ve been saltier. The meat was tender and moist, save for a few bites that landed on the dry side. Overall, though, I would’ve liked more zing.
Same with the black beans (too soft) and rice — not quite bland, but standard-issue stuff.
Sorry to say that there will be no report on the quality of the plantains. I’ve never liked them. But for due diligence’s sake, I took one small bite. Still don’t like ’em.
In the mid-’90s, I had a short-term copywriting job in an office down the street from Pipo’s. A few colleagues and I ate lunch there regularly — sometimes two, three times a week. I don’t recall ordering anything other than roast pork with black beans and yellow rice.
And then at a certain point we reached burnout and stopped going. Before I could let my burnout cool and go back for more, I had found another job. I haven’t been back to Pipo’s since, and am very curious to see if the dish casts the same spell as it did nearly 30 years ago.
We pulled up at 2:30 on Wednesday to an ugly green building. Bonnie expressed some trepidation, but I told her not to worry. (I hoped I was right.)
We grabbed trays and walked down the cafeteria line. The roast pork and the yellow rice laid conveniently next to each other.
The enormous helping, which nearly overflowed the plate, cost $6.95.
… Six dollars and ninety five cents. Was it 1994 again?
We sat at a small table. A terrestrial radio station, commercials and all, came out of tinny speakers. I really could’ve done without Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.”
Man, it looked really, really good — just as I remembered. The dish came with a couple slices of Cuban bread, wrapped in white paper — same as decades ago.
Texture and Taste
Man, it tasted as great as it looked — just as I remembered. Pork marinated to perfection: the citrus was there but not overbearing, spot-on saltiness and a hint of pepper. Every bite was sublimely moist and tender.
The beans were just the right level of firm. The rice, it was yellow. And flavorful.
You know those times when you keep eating well past sated, just for the taste of it? “One more bite,” I said to Bonnie — three or four times.
We still took a decent-sized portion home.
And the Winner of the Roast Pork with Black Beans and Rice Contest Is …
Hey, there was inherently nothing wrong with Bodega’s dish. But it was up against the champ.
Pipo’s is all about serving authentic, expertly prepared food in large portions for a ridiculously low price. You don’t go there for the ambience. The restaurant may be in a fatigued building in a drab section of town, but if you find yourself in the area, and you like legit Cuban food, you’d do well to stop in.
Let me take this time to thank the management at Registry Tampa Bay for giving me this gig. Without it, I probably never would’ve eaten at Pipo’s again, and got to revel in exquisite food with a side of nostalgia.