Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Cuban Sandwich Diaries: A lifelong obsession with Tampa's finest sandwich

Posted By on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge cuban-sandwich.jpg

It was a fleeting moment, but one steamy night in August I made the best Cuban sandwich in the universe. I had assembled the culinary atomic bomb as a culmination of my obsession with Tampa’s Cuban sandwich.

I must have been 19 or 20 years old when it started. A friend brought me to the Blue Chair, a punky record store, looking for the latest Danzig album. I walked out onto the brick street and wondered at the strange dilapidated district called Ybor City. Walking around the dim hipster cafe and poetry slamming bookstore, I saw a sign for something called a Cuban sandwich. The Silver Ring Café, once a front for bolita, the local numbers racket, was by then an Ybor City snacking mainstay. It was the first discernible sign of Ybor City’s rich Latin culture I encountered. It was old hat to my friend, but for me, the pressed sandwich was an exotic artifact.

The sandwich I tasted that day was a local variant of a “mixto” or mixed Cuban sandwich. The term “Cuban sandwich” could describe many different things, and there is no truly definitive Cuban sandwich. One Tampa native insisted that the “original” was simply ham on buttered Cuban bread. Some proclaim the inclusion of turkey, and I indeed have found a reference to a turkey and tomato “Cuban sandwich” from the mid-1930s here in Tampa. If Cubans still eat sandwiches today, they certainly eat an altogether different mix on different bread. Still, most Tampans agree that a Cuban sandwich is ham, pork, salami, Swiss cheese, and pickles on long, old style Cuban bread. That’s the kind I ate at the Silver Ring.

I took that first toasty bite, a moment that set the sandwich benchmark for me. But I was also a bit let down. I had expected something less familiar, something more distinctive and romantic. Several years later, I began studying food and history as a graduate student. Smitten by Florida’s culinary crazy quilt, I became aware that the Silver Ring represented Tampa’s distinctive sandwich craft, where artisans crafted each main ingredient.

Hearth-baked Cuban bread with a flaky exterior, fluffy interior. Sweet baked ham, sometimes sugar-glazed with a tailor’s iron. Mojo: garlic, citrus, and vinegar. Slow roasted pork, tender and moist. The spicy sting of good salami, sometimes studded with black pepper kernels. Mustard and Swiss cheese. To gild the lily, a spell in the oven or pressed hot with a swipe of butter.

After hearing and reading about the sandwich’s proud history, I wondered how a painstakingly prepared sandwich would taste. When I ordered one around town, I usually got a toasted sandwich of industrial lunch meat, and there’s nothing wrong with that for two or three bucks. But it doesn’t give you any idea what made a Cuban sandwich special in the first place. For years, I found myself picking at my sandwiches, tasting as I went. I still had my favorites around town, too, but somehow I craved something more, someone to show me how they did it in the sandwiches heyday between Ybor’s peak in the 1920s and its gradual decline beginning in the 1960s.

I obviously had -- and have -- a Cuban sandwich obsession.

In 2006, I was asked to write the Columbia Restaurant’s definitive history, and I inadvertently inspired president Richard Gonzmart to embark on a two-year makeover of his sandwich. Tampa’s mythical Cuban, once sullied by complacency and cheap knock-offs, was restored. I was so proud, humbled, and happy to taste the best Cuban I’d ever had.

But I couldn’t let go of the sandwich. Richard’s commitment provoked me, in turn, to make my own worthy version of the classic. I resolved to confront my personal Cuban sandwich demon in the fires of the kitchen and backyard and to invite good friends to taste the results. After years of plotting, I went to work.

The roast pork is the Cuban sandwich’s most variable ingredient, and I wanted mine to stand out. I rubbed a couple boneless pork butts with fresh garlic paste and soaked them in store-bought mojo, adding fresh sour orange, lime and garlic. The fatty pork butt (deboned for easy slicing and bound together with string to prevent it from falling apart) is ideal for slow smoking, the fresh ingredients help cut the salt of the store-bought mojo, and the mojo flavor is decisive to the sandwich’s success, so twenty-four hours of soaking is preferable.

As a nod to the old-school Cuban backyard whole pig mojo, traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and buried overnight on a bed of coals, I began with my smoker. I kept a medium-low heat with a minimum of charcoal, starting at about 300 degrees and cooling to 200 during the first hour. Water-soaked hickory chunks supplied low, steady smoke for a total of four hours. The roasts finished in a 300-degree oven for another hour. Out came the perfectly cooked, moist and tender roasts, with a charming smoky taste that didn’t overwhelm the flavors of mojo and the pork itself. Sliced thin the next day, the pork was glorious, especially when sprinkled and tossed with more mojo and lime juice. Refreshing the citrus flavor before serving is vital.

Many sandwich makers fall into the trap of providing inferior ham. I pleaded with some friends at the Columbia Restaurant to purchase their excellent ham. I ordered from them a pristine, boneless Smithfield Platinum ham, about 12 1/2 pounds. It was the finest ham I’d ever brought home. I admit I felt like a young ruffian groping a supermodel.

When I was ready to glaze, I did not carve the ham, which was a mistake. By cutting the ham in half, I could have laid each half down upon its open face and glazed the rest. I scored the surface of the ham in the classic crosshatch pattern to accommodate the topping and baked at 300 degrees for thirty minutes. To add flavor and spirits to the glaze, I boiled down equal parts sugar and rum, adding nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, salt, and cracked black pepper. When the mixture thickened a bit, I poured it lavishly over the ham, then baked it at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. I cooled off the ham and readied my next move, the coup de grace, the blowtorch.

In old Tampa, sandwich purveyors glazed ham with a hot tailor’s iron, or plancha (also the name of modern sandwich presses), melting thin layers of sugar that accentuated the ham’s sweetness. The smell of caramelized sugar drove people nuts, and it still does. I once wielded a flame thrower as a seasonal Honey Baked Ham worker. I was eager to once again smother hams with coats of brown, molten sugar. I bought a kitchen torch but wished for the flame throwers I used to wield.

For torch glazing, make sure you have plenty of sugar on hand, and use a sifter if possible. It may help if someone can sprinkle the sugar while you melt it, but beware: the flame on the torch is often faint, and a little carelessness could be disastrous. The trick of glazing a ham is to melt the sugar, but not to burn it. You want the sugar to bubble and run, adding more sugar before the glaze burns black. When the glorious sugar lava covered the ham, the glaze was complete, and my guests were all drooling in anticipation.

Thankfully, a hungry friend brought his electric deli slicer. The circular meat saw whirred as spectators crowded into the kitchen. Few could resist stealing a taste of mojo smoked pork and rum glazed ham as they spilled off the slicer in thin ribbons, then mounds.

click to enlarge Cuban sandwich
  • The author enjoying the recreation of his perfect Cuban sandwich.

For service, I sprinkled the mojo pork with additional lime juice and tossed it one last time. The Swiss cheese (I used a low-sodium variation) and Genoa salami were Boar’s head, and were fine for the purpose. For mustard, I couldn’t bear the bright yellow stuff. I mixed brown mustard with a swath of spicy Colman’s, adding one more bold flavor to the pantheon. With sparse sour pickles, the sandwich was perfectly proportioned and toasted on the grill. Traditionally, lettuce, tomato and onion are prohibited on Tampa Cubans. Fresh vegetables only add water to the sandwich equation, which is an experience built ultimately around fat.

Overcome with the heat of summer, the kitchen, and the torch, I dove into the pool to await my grilled sandwich. I took that first bite, much like I did twenty years before at the Silver Ring. As I stood there in the pool chewing and pondering my creation, the bold flavors played out on my boozy palate. I thought back on my long obsession with the Cuban sandwich. I wanted to make my own sandwich because my obsession demanded it, and thought it would be my one and only attempt.

I fear I’m still a man bewitched, not by the history of the Cuban sandwich, but its future.

Top photo: Susan Filson.

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