Lo and behold. There’s more than one reason to visit Lakeland, Florida. We currently count three. No death defying jaunt down I-4 would be complete without a quick pit stop at Country Chicken ‘n Fish (Exit 31). Then there’s the joys of heckling Publix executives commuting to and fro: “Yo, cube jockey. Ever hear of shelf-stable probiotics? Celtuce? Cricket protein?! That’s right. Your stores suck!” Third and final reason? A legitimate downtown dining destination; Nineteen61 Latin Cuisine.
Lakeland is located smack dab between Orlando and Tampa, making it perfect for clandestine intercity meetups. In our case, it was a body drop. We needed to transfer a 5-year-old niece to a Gulf coast grandparent before her iPad batteries died.
There’s not a lot to like about Lakeland foodwise (Bonefish Grill, anyone?) but Google-brain seemed to be salivating for Nineteen61 so t’was where I set up the meet. I suppose with that first sentence, I also set up some blowback. Lakelanders: I prostrate myself before thee. Come forth and share your restaurants that do not suck (in our absolutely FREE comments section below – now gluten free!).
Lack of options aside, Lakeland couldn’t have looked lovelier. It was one of those gorgeous Florida days that non-Floridians imagine Floridians enjoy perpetually, but that I find all too rare. 73 degrees and sunny. No humidity. “Mediterranean,” as Munch would say. Type of weather that makes boot leather taste good. We opted to sit at a small outdoor seating area awash in greenery. Nineteen61 had us in the palm of its hand.
The menu offers a pretty diverse selection of Latin, Spanish, and Asian inspired tastes but the hub around which it all orbits is Cuban and Peruvian cuisine. A shared starter of tostones topped with ají panca marinated pork suffered slightly from less than crispy plantains, but only slightly. They were otherwise delicious, the pork paired with ají verde crema, pickled onions, and feta cheese.
Ají amarillo featured front and center in our other shared starter; a ceviche of corvina, tiger’s milk (leche de tigre), ají amarillo and puffed corn. Pure Peruvian gold. I enjoyed it. Great depth of flavor, winning texture, and a necessary bit of sharpness from red onion. Father-of-Chew-Chew and Munch didn’t find it as clean as they prefer. One man’s depth is another man’s fishy. Neither were accustomed to ceviche that uses tiger’s milk as its cook. Rather than the straight up cleanliness and bright acidity of lime, the milk mixes fish stock with citrus (among other ingredients) resulting in a less sharp and more layered flavor that’s naturally more piscine.
Whistle. Time out for a pedantic detour regarding the ajís; ají panca, ají verde, and ají amarillo. All are Peruvian. Ají verde is an all-purpose Peruvian green sauce (with variations galore but often involving cilantro, garlic, mayo) and it played well with the tender pulled pork atop the above tostones. Ají panca is a mild, fruity red pepper often dried. As the name implies, ají amarillo is yellow Peruvian pepper and one that we adore. It has a distinctive flavor and a bit of kick. We’ve purchased it fresh from Waterkist Farm at the Winter Park Farmer’s Market (the best way to buy it) and typically keep a jar in our cupboard for quick blitzing into sauces. Detour complete.
If you’ve ever eaten at a Columbia restaurant (Spanish-Cuban affair with locations throughout Florida), you may have had Columbia’s Original 1905 Salad®. Yes, that’s a registered trademark. On a salad. Random guess but based on the name and similarity of ingredients, it may be loose inspiration for Nineteen61’s 1961 salad. The 1961 is a chopped jumble of artisanal lettuce, manchego cheese, baby Swiss cheese, and olives, all tossed in a semi-sweet house garlic dressing. You can choose to add a protein (vaca, pork, chicken, or corvina). The Columbia version comes pre-proteined (baked ham), swaps manchego for romano, and adds a bit of tomato, but is otherwise pretty similar albeit with worse greens (iceberg). Father-of-Chew-Chew had the 1961 topped with chicken and Munch opted for the same with corvina. The corvina on the salad provided quick confirmation that the corvina in the ceviche was A-OK. End of debate. It was as light and delicately flavored as can be. There was a second debate as to whether the salad was overdressed, but ‘not overdressed’ took the day with a decisive 2-1 vote. Both salads were fresh and simple, well prepared and could easily do duty as lunchtime defaults if we were Lakelanders. But there’s no way I’m eating salad at a Cuban/Peruvian joint.
Our server recommended the ropa vieja. She knows what’s up. I opted to have it served ‘classic style’ which meant a side of caramelized plantains and a fried egg propped atop the tomato based stew of shredded flank steak, Spanish olives, onion and sherry. As you know, restaurants can now be heavily fined by the Insta-police for not having at least one menu item topped with a fried egg. Based on how tasty the dish was with the yolk stirred in, I would lobby for an increase in fine amounts. The pile of ‘old clothes’ pulled liked pasta and was exceptionally tender. Plenty of life left in the meat allowing it to hold on to its flavor, color and a bit of fat. So, there you have it. The ropa vieja baton has now been passed from our server to me and from me to you. Enjoy.
Apart from winning recommendations, service overall was genuinely friendly and pro. Pacing was relaxed. Our waitress not only knew the menu inside and out (and was excited about it), but being Cuban, also provided personal culinary anecdotes. I’m now on the hunt for the shrimp salad filled tostone ‘cups’ of her youth.
What else? The have Mexican Coke (the cane sugar kind) but no Peruvian coke (the uncut kind). There is house-made sangria, a solid, small selection of craft beer, and lots of awards on the walls. The wine list is thoughtful if not a bit middling and focuses on Spain, Argentina and California. For the most part, pricing is well within normal markup range with an exception or two. A 2016 Xiloca Garnacha at $12 a glass or $48 a bottle can be had retail for around $10-$12 a bottle. Not a problem – I dislike Grenache. However, a 2014 Finca La Mata Ribera del Duero at $14 a glass and $56 a bottle is a solid bottle of wine ($22 or so retail) and fairly standard value wise. Plus, I do like tempranillo.
We had lunch. The dinner menu is more intriguing and extensive and crosses over into Iberian territory; zarzuela de mariscos, arroz con mariscos, camarones al ajillo. Don’t make me translate. You should know this. The dinner menu also includes a fresh catch, pulpo with chimichurri, and a variation on our lunchtime tostones that features pork belly and pickled okra seasoned with furikake. We want this last thing. Badly.
So, was this a review? Kinda. Sorta. Not really. We do hot-take like Nineteen61. But dinner promises quite a different experience and we tend to abide by our two-visit minimum for a review. There’s a return trip planned soon after which we’ll bestow stars and act all ‘judgy.’ Regardless, if you plan on being Tampa-bound and have some time on your hands, bake in time for a detour to dine at Lakeland’s Nineteen61. There’s a lot to like.
1212 Florida Ave S
Lakeland, FL 33803