In Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood is a small café, long and narrow and comfortably furnished with booths and wooden chairs and tables. On the wall are colorful, eclectic artworks displayed for sale by local artists. It's called The Stone Soup Company, but you'll find much more than soup in this friendly neighborhood dining spot.
The soup is good, though, featuring recipes engineered by Owner Ilya Ben Goldberg. This is Goldberg's second career, after a prior incarnation as an industrial engineer.
True to his roots, he brings a process-oriented approach to developing recipes, painstakingly reverse-engineering classics and putting them back together again, just as good but with a delicious twist.
The Stone Soup Company offers a friendly, comfortable spot for a casual meal in the heart of Ybor City — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
The soup also garnered reader’s choice awards in 2013 and 2014 for "Best Soup in Tampa Bay" by a local publication. However, these are not Goldberg’s only awards; Stone Soup has also won first place awards at the last three Cuban Sandwich Festivals held in Ybor City, the birthplace of this beloved local sandwich.
There are very few foods found in Tampa that incite as much hometown fervor as the Cuban sandwich. In fact, the Cuban sandwich is the official sandwich of Tampa, by City Council decree.
Since its invention in the mid-1800s, this grab-and-go lunch item has been a staple of both local meals and local culture, customarily found in restaurants that serve Cuban food.
Yet Goldberg feels an affinity with the sandwich, as a Russian Jewish immigrant himself. To explore what makes Tampa’s Cuban sandwich so uniquely indigenous, Goldberg offered to share a few of the sandwich’s secrets.
He explains how the Cuban is uniquely reflective of the immigrant cultures who arrived in Ybor City to take advantage of the employment opportunities provided by the new cigar industry. The growing workforce needed a fortifying lunch food to eat on the go when they were at work.
Tampa's famous Cuban sandwich uses ingredients provided by several of its immigrant cultures — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
Necessity became the mother of invention, and the Cuban sandwich was born, with several cultures contributing to the iconic lunch-able. The mojo marinated pork and Cuban bread came from the Cubans, salami from the Italians, ham from the Spaniards, Swiss cheese and mustard from the Germans and, to top it all off, Kosher dills were provided by the Jews.
Goldberg stays mostly traditional in his presentation, veering only in his unique mojo pork marinade and mayo-mustard spread. The sandwich is finished under a flat press, cut a non-traditional lengthways and served with a delicious mojo dipping sauce for the twist.
Despite his success in branching out from soup to sandwiches, entrees and such, Goldberg’s first love is soup. For him, soup means home, a nourishing meal, comfort. And he's on a mission to share with those in need.
Ilya Ben Goldberg, aka the "Soupman," shows off his award-winning Cuban sandwich — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
His mission is two-fold. First, The Stone Soup Company contributes soups made from leftover ingredients to the homeless twice a week. In partnership with Tampa Bay Harvest, Goldberg’s restaurant has contributed over 55,000 cups to date!
Second, he wants to hold workshops to teach people how to make soup for themselves. It's a simple but diminishing cooking skill that he feels could replace bad eating habits with a nourishing, healthy meal that's both easy and economical to make.
The next time you find yourself in Ybor City, make sure to stop by and say hi to the "Soupman."
Enjoy your soup and sandwich and feel good about knowing that your appetite is helping Goldberg to pay it forward and feed many more.