Felicia “Phe” Lacalle has the quintessential look of boss lady chef. In a black uniform with her hair pulled taut, she is imposing, even at five foot one. Within minutes of sitting down at Hemingway’s, her modern cuban stall at Heights Public Market, it’s clear she has the energy and laser focus of someone who is serious about food.
Before coming to Armature Works, she perfected her skills at highly-regarded local establishments like Bern’s Steakhouse, Roy’s, and Samba Room. She even launched a meal prep service in recent years, per trend, only to return to her cooking roots with Hemingway’s.
Phe is a Tampa native, with the requisite family ties to Cuba and a lifetime of multigenerational sharing of recipes and best practices. She’s also visited Cuba, an experience she says she’ll never forget. Unlike her neighbors in the market, she has the added pressure of interpreting what is Tampa’s fiercely-defended native cuisine.
Cuban food in Tampa is like bagels in Brooklyn—everyone has a favorite and is happy to passionately discuss why their preferred spot is the best. What isn’t debatable is where the bread comes from. (La Segunda bakery in Ybor City, of course.)
The menu at Hemingway’s includes expected staples like the Cuban sandwich and salchipapa, only with reimagined flavor pairings and the highest quality ingredients, almost entirely made fresh daily.
Many of Tampa’s most popular and historic Cuban joints keep prices low by using preserved, frozen meats and cheeses, and aioli made from mayonnaise.
Real aioli, I learned, is actually a blend of garlic and oil, with egg as an emulsifier. Similar to mayonnaise, but best when made every morning for the day’s orders of chicharrones and steak sandwiches.
And that saffron in the spicy saffron aioli? It’s made from real saffron threads, plucked and dried from crocus flowers, among the world’s costliest food seasonings.
Chef Phe’s passion for high-quality food is clear from her insistence on the best ingredients and a concise but thoughtful menu. As her first baby, Hemingway’s has to reflect all she loves and cares about.
That includes the name: Hemingway’s. As in Key West, Ernest Hemingway left an imprint on Cuba, writing some of his best works while splitting time between there and his other residences between 1940 and 1960.
When Chef Phe visited Cuba, she shopped the public market in Havana for fresh produce and ate at “the original” Hemingway’s restaurant. There, she met a encountered a character, as one does on the great sidewalks of the world. The mature woman dressed every day in white linens and colorful head scarves, greeting those coming and going, often with a cigar in her hand and smile on her weathered face.
Back at Armature Works, if you sit at the bar of Hemingway’s, you might notice the portrait of “La Doña” to your right, the spiritual figurehead of the brand and an inspiration for Chef Phe.
One of the best parts of Heights Public Market is the diversity of our fourteen food vendors, each with a unique life story and attitude toward hospitality.
What they all have in common is a passion for good food and a bullish outlook on Tampa’s burgeoning food scene. As a resident of West Tampa, Chef Phe has no plans but to expand her modern Cuban cuisine concept and spread the homemade aioli wherever she can.
Soon, Hemingway’s will begin serving breakfast to the larks (early birds) of urban Tampa, with a similarly classic-with-a-twist Cuban menu of options. The addition requires some careful shuffling of prep and storage areas, and perhaps a limited daily supply of menu items.
But, as a city that is sometimes called “militantly fit,” often having sweated before 10AM, I imagine breakfast will be a big success, as it has already been for other vendors like Graze 1910, with even more adding breakfast to their offerings.
While we chatted, I had to ask. Where does one go for Cuban food in West Tampa? Chef Phe’s favorite spot for traditional fare is Aguila’s Sandwich Shop on West Hillsborough Avenue. So much so, she wants to adopt one of its items for Hemingway’s: the mamey shake. “A sort of blended creamsicle drink” made from the flesh of tropical pouteria sapota fruit.
I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds amazing.
I grew up eating lychee nuts, another tropical fruit, because my mom grew up with them in her backyard, but they aren’t super common, even in Florida. After spending time in Italy, though, I’m more aware of all the different fruits and vegetables available around the world that we are deprived of in the normal course of food and beverage.
The trick for Hemingway’s may be getting fresh and ripe mamey on a regular basis, in order to provide something not made from frozen and preserved produce.
It will be exciting to watch the progression of Chef Phe and her Hemingway’s brand. Future locations, a full-line restaurant? Catering? Perhaps world domination through exporting Tampa’s most authentic cuisine style?
Whatever it is, expect it to be tasty along the way.
Stay tuned for next weeks vendor as we feature Inside the Box.