Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cigardian Angels

How was your February? Me, I spent the last month living in a hotel in Tampa. Though I enjoy clean sheets and free continental breakfasts, I'm glad to be set up now in a house in the Gulfport/Pasadena area, just blocks from the beach.

I admit some trepidation about leaving the lap of luxury that Tampa is for a cigar enthusiast - where does one possibly go from there? After wasting many an afternoon lolling around sidewalk tables in Ybor City at joints like King Corona, Tampa Sweethearts and Nicahabana, I thought I'd gone about as fer as I could go. Most of my experience with tobacconists on the other side of the bay were underwhelming, very underwhelming.

I did find a swell liquor store called Jasmine Beverage and Tobacco in Pinellas Park, with nice stuff in stock like Jaime Garcia, Cuesta-Rey and Pinolero, and once while utterly lost driving around in that no man's land I found a place who had a name (I've forgotten) but its sign out front said only Liquor & Cigars. They also had a decent humidor, but my enthusiasm was quickly dulled by the one-two punch of realizing that most of the other customers in the store were dangerous shady characters counting out nickels and pennies to buy the tiny airplane-size bottles of booze, and then I saw a syringe on the sidewalk out front.

And then there was the liquor store on Ulmerton Road whose awning said CIGARS but their unhumidified humidor was almost totally empty except for a few overpriced Cohibas and some seriously dried-out-to-hell Romeo Y Julietas.

Depressing. But my depression was short-lived.

Right along that amazing strip called Central Avenue near peninsula's end, I found three amazing smoketerias. Cigar Loft in St. Petersburg, Habana Cafe & Cigar Factory in Gulfport, and La Habana Cigar Club in Pasadena. Taken together these three represent an unbeatable triumvirate in my daily rounds hustlin' sticks. I'd previously discovered another St. Petersburg cigar bar called Central Cigars during a book-tour visit, but after a couple of egregious lapses in customer service (by the same employee in both instances), it's no longer at the top of my to-do list.

La Habana Cigar Club provides me with my beloved Nat Sherman Timeless Collection, Drew Estate Liga Privada No. 9 and also introduced me to a stick I'd been seeking but unable to find till now: the Drew Estate Herrera Esteli, which is a new instant favorite and, some say, the closest one can come to tasting what a true Cuban cigar of the 1950s was like.

At Habana Cafe I get another new Drew Estate, Nica Rustica, which is not only shocking in its unique flavor, but in its low price as well. There's really no reason Drew Estate couldn't have slapped a Unico label on it and released it as a limited edition super-pricey item; we all would have bought it regardless. They deserve kudos for keeping a stick of such dark spicy Undercrowny goodness among the cheaper-tier price-point part of the shelf.

Cigar Loft, meanwhile, is keeping me well stocked on such items as Nish Patel's Bold which now eclipses the XEN as my fave Rocky Patel spin-off.

All three of these places, I might add, have a much friendlier, warmer and more welcoming community of good fellows than I've experienced elsewhere, and that even includes Ybor. Although my interest in cigars is approaching a decade now, I'm still just a noob in many ways, and it's refreshing to hang with a bunch of laidback guys (and gals!) who aren't playing the "who's the biggest cigar stud in the room" game.

Since I plan on sticking around this area for quite some time, you'll be seeing a lot of these same three places in my tweets - especially Habana Cafe & Cigar Company, which serves a mean sangria and is staggering distance from my house.

Life? It's good.

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