photography by John Kazaklis
A tour of some of Lakeland’s finest Latin food offerings
Lakeland’s abundance and caliber of Latin cuisine is one of our city’s greatest assets. From street tacos from La Michoacana to capachas from the Arepazo Grill, there’s an array of diverse food offerings to help satisfy any Latin food craving. Here are a few of our favorites.
Holding tacos up outside of La Michoacana on US 92 at 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, I wonder how I, Tara Campbell, a white former baker, have landed writing the Latin Food Tour for The Lakelander. John Kazaklis is helping photograph these tacos. Half Bolivian, a Spanish speaker, and well traveled, John is my good friend and guide. I suggested the restaurants because they’re some of my favorites, and John helps me order because my Spanish is functional at best. I can understand more than I speak (at one restaurant, I knocked something over with my elbow and John told some ladies nearby that I was drunk already at 9:30 a.m. — I heard you, John), and he is a big help by making sure that we get the best representation of authentic and
popular dishes. As I hold up these carnitas and Al Pastor street tacos, I remember that I’m doing this because I suggested it. We have an incredibly diverse Latin food community in Lakeland, and it’s something I really appreciate about living in Florida.
Originally from Arizona, and now Central Florida, I’ve always been used to having good Mexican food nearby. Currently, my next-door neighbors are from Mexico, and they love to throw parties. Tamales abound and life is good. Living in Central Florida though, it’s not just Mexican food. Puerto Rican food, Cuban food, Peruvian food, and other choices from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America can all be found within a few miles of each other.
We often take for granted how lucky we are to have this type of culture nearby. In my travels, I’ve tried to find good tacos in other parts of the world. Other places seem to believe that they know good Latin food, but it’s always just … wrong.
In New York over Thanksgiving I had a conversation with a Dominican couple that had transplanted to the city from South Florida, and we lamented over how we couldn’t find any good Latin food unless you were in someone’s home and it was being made by their mom or grandmother. London was even worse. It’s my favorite city in the world, but wandering into the Mexican
restaurant down the way from our hotel ended up being one of the funniest experiences of our trip. I’m British, and I can say, without a doubt, don’t let Brits near your Mexican food. Watery guacamole and cactus tacos are not high end; they’re a letdown.
If living in Florida has affected my life in any way, it’s that I’m used to the heat, not used to the cold; I eat tacos once a week; and I have a strong opinion on what makes a good Cuban sandwich. There are so many restaurants in town that we had to create a sidebar to name all the ones we think you should visit.
So, again, why am I, a white former baker, writing an article about Latin food for you? Well, it was my idea, but more importantly, we live in America, and we’re lucky to have such a diverse mix of culture in our country. Several of these restaurants are so good that I took several people with me and we rotated plates. It’s worth trying. All of it is. Everyone in town has their opinion on which are the best, but we’re lucky to have them here, and they all deserve your time. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
1725 w. memorial boulevard
To say I’m a fan of La Michoacana is an understatement. Every few years, I make my way to southern Mexico, and the tacos at La Mich (as my friends and I call it) remind me so much of the food that is always so lovingly made for us by families in the small villages of Chiapas.
And it’s cheap.
A friend and I ate our fill, got a large horchata, and paid a combined $13. That kind of cheap.
I love the big-plated, authentic Mexican meals that you get at places like Mega Mercado and Tapatio’s, but I can’t eat that way every day. However, I can eat $1 street tacos with meat, cheese, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime every day, ordered à la carte, as many or as few as I like.
This little taco truck sits on the side of W. Memorial Boulevard near Kathleen High School. In order to pay, you have to walk into the small Mexican grocery store next to it. All of the Bimbo snacks, Manzana cokes, and Mexican candy add an extra level of authenticity to the La Mich experience. It feels like being in Mexico. Go for the Al Pastor. You won’t regret it.
check Facebook for location
This Venezuelan food truck pulls inspiration from other Caribbean food and is home to the only arepas in town — and definitely the best. They use simple ingredients (corn, meat, cheese, and avocado) and make an incredible authentic meal.
If you’ve never had an arepa, it’s a flat, corn bread filled with your choice of meat and cheese. It is a staple of Venezuelan and Colombian food. Arepazo also serves capachas, flat corn pancakes filled with cheese and meat, and it’s my personal favorite.
The owners of Arepazo are friendly and welcoming, and brought us a free order of tequeños, a breaded and fried cheese stick. I love being able to give a boost to someone running a small business. Arepazo’s food is worth your time, worth your trip, and worth your money.
la imperial bakery
830 e. main street
The charm of La Imperial is its family-run atmosphere. Lakeland has been in need of a daily bakery for a long time, and La Imperial’s rows of pastelitos, pies, and desserts do not disappoint. Neither do their sandwiches.
According to La Imperial’s website, they love creating “Comfort food with a Latin twist.” On rainy days, my go-to meal is their mofongo with broth on the side. If you’ve never had mofongo before, it’s plantains that have been picked green and then fried. I’ve also had it made with cassava, and it is often either topped with meat or has meat in it. La Imperial’s has little chunks of pork in it. It’s not the best mofongo I’ve ever had, but it’s the perfect amount of food and warmth for lunch on a rainy day.
The staff is friendly and helpful as well. The morning John and I visited, I asked them to make me something that they suggested. It’s not on the menu, but they pressed a sandwich on pan de agua (a bread) for me that had ham croquettes, ham, and provolone that was absolutely perfect.
My favorite thing at La Imperial are the guayaba and queso pies. I don’t like to be skimped on my filling, and these are oozing with guayaba. It’s a sticky, delicious mess that I eat in its entirety no matter how full I am every time I order one — which is every time I go.
La Imperial is an excellent place for breakfast or an easy lunch. The family-like atmosphere and bakery make it a welcome addition to Lakeland’s food scene and a great place to try something new.
3123 us 98 north
I’ve heard the hype about Brasa Latina for a while. The Lakeland Food Facebook group raves about their food, but until this article I hadn’t actually been … and it’s an absolute shame. This Puerto Rican restaurant is known for some of the most impressive food in town, and it did not disappoint. I took two of my coworkers with John and me, and they allowed us carte blanche to order for them. Thanks to their lunch special, we all ate like royalty.
Their two for $20 lunch special treated us well:
Ribs with a side of mofongo, half of a chicken with yucca fries, pastelon de amarillos (sweet plantain lasagna) with a side of rice and beans, and ropa vieja with a side of sweet plantains.
We came hungry, and we did not leave disappointed. As we rotated our plates around the table, we ate as a community picking off of each other’s plates and sharing our favorite dishes.
The ropa vieja was a definite win. Perfectly seasoned and cooked, it was the table favorite. I preferred the pastelon de amarillos, a lasagna made out of sweet plantains, ground beef, tomato sauce, and cheese; and their mofongo is the best mofongo in town.
Brasa Latina is a great place for a sit-down meal with a foodie friend or someone who wants to venture out and try something new. It’s all good.
Other Restaurants In Lakeland To Try
Note – The Cuban sandwich was created in Tampa and South Florida by Cuban immigrants and not in Cuba itself. The Tampa Cuban also has salami on it, an influence from the Italian community of the time.