La Imperial Bakery and Cafe Mixes Cultures Tastefully

guava pastryLa Imperial Bakery is more than a bakery. There, I said the cliche sentence; but if you have been to the new cafe at 830 E. Main St., you know it’s true. When you walk in, you see the back wall is painted blue like a sky, and the halo glow below is the bakery case in all its glory. The whole scene is all warm and welcoming. 

Editor’s Note:  Karyn Johnson is a mom and a paralegal who has lived in Lakeland since she was 3. For 15 years before she started in the legal field, she learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business as a server at restaurants ranging from diners to fine dining.

As you look to your left, there are a couple tables big enough to seat eight people. Looking straight again is the main dining room, where you see standard four tops, two tops, and a couple six tops. If you look behind you toward the door you just entered, there is a little bar on the entrance wall with about four to five stools.

The tables are made of what looks like a raw hunk of wood in the shape of a rectangular table, polished to a high shine. The chairs are wooden also, but with leather seats. With the wood paneling halfway up the walls and-sand colored tiles, the bottom half of the restaurant looks very organic.

Your eye is drawn to the lights above; half the lights are in a metal pendant in the shape of a shallow lamp shade and the color of pewter, and the other half is this cluster of metal piping of some kind that are shaped into a ball, about 2 feet by 2 feet, and are a little lighter in color compared to the pewter. It is a modern, industrial look contrasting the earthy floor below.

The menu (view it here) is on a digital board on the blue wall. The pictures change, but the writing doesn’t. Here is where you begin to understand why this isn’t just a bakery.

The menu starts with breakfast. There is a breakfast special that is eggs and bacon, there is an omelette, and then the rest are sandwiches or bread. And there’s cafe con leche. Mmmmmmmm uh yesssssss.

My heart broke a little, though, when they served me the sugar on the side. But, like with all heartbreak, I learned something. First I learned cafe con leche and Cuban coffee are not the same thing. Cafe con leche is an espresso that is served with steamed milk, usually on the side so you can choose your desired color, and no sugar at all. Cuban coffee is an espresso mixed with sugar and then beaten fast and hard using a metal spoon until there’s a thick and frothy foam-like substance, or what they call “espumita”.

Last, I learned a cortadito is this sweet espresso (Cuban coffee) mixed with warm milk. They also have a colada on the menu, a regular espresso, American coffee, and hot chocolate. Next time I will order the cortadito and hopefully I will be hit with the sweet taste that is synonymous with Cuban coffee.

LUNCH

lunch

The lunch menu is filled with savory meats, starting with the roast pork, rotisserie chicken (you can even buy a whole chicken!), beefsteak, shrimp, and the traditional mofungo (fried plantains, smashed in a ball with oil, garlic, and salt, here served with broth and a salad). There is a King’s Lunch, and a Chef’s Special that changes daily.

There is also a sandwich menu that is listed at both breakfast and lunch. This of course starts with the Cuban. Next is a Tampa Cuban . A Tampa Cuban is what most historians consider the original, but of course Miami disputes the sandwich, saying salami has no place on a Cuban. The history is that when Cubans came to Tampa they mingled with the other cultures, namely Italians, and out of their friendship came a new lunch item – The Cuban Sandwich. This version is sweet ham, roast pork, salami, mustard, and pickle on Cuban bread. I personally like the Miami style (the exact same except no salami) but I was born in Tampa so I’m a little conflicted…

Next on the list of sandwiches is the Medianoche; “midnight” in Spanish. This is my favorite sandwich. It is a Cuban sandwich but instead of Cuban bread, it uses an egg bread that is oh so soft and oh so sweet (their breads are all homemade daily, and they are all available for sale by the loaf). They also have a Tripleta, which is a Puerto Rican sandwich. Like the Cuban sandwich, it is also roast pork and ham, but they add chicken and cube steak, and top it with Swiss cheese, then ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, cabbage, tomato, and/or onion. The sandwich list keeps going and it includes a roast pork sandwich and a mortadella sandwich.

DESSERT

Make sure you leave room for dessert. I know, every server says that at every restaurant, but this place has “bakery” in the title. Dessert is not a suggestion, it is a must. As I mentioned above, the bakery case was all aglow, beckoning me to come stay a while. Ok, if you insist… They have “Quesitos” which are cheese-filled twists of pastry. They are often filled with fruit as well as the cheese, most commonly guava. They have a golden, flaky exterior, but with the cheese and fruit, there is nothing dry about them. Let’s just inhale that smell for a second… Ahhhhhhh. They also have guava and cheese pies or what some would call a French Turnover.

The rest is a pantheon of cupcakes piled high with rich icing, creatively decorated sugar cookies, traditional donuts with a good layer of sugar and so fat and fluffy, and whole cakes made to order. Their website says their specialty is a buttercream cake soaked in either rum, brandy, or almond.

The multiple signs on the walls give it a homey vibe, like “This is my Happy Place”, “Eat, Drink, and give Thanks:”, and “If you feed them, they will come”. There is also a sign on the wall that gives direction to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Miami, and Kissimmee.

Both Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are offered at La Imperial Bakery, as well as a splash of American. It is nice to see cultures come together and share their own unique dishes and flavors.

Photos by Yasira Adams