Viva El Cubano 

Oh, you can stuff your boring, old submarine sandwich. Maine's Italian sandwich presents no temptation, and I only occasionally crave a cheesesteak from Philly or a Jersey grinder. In New York City, they love their heroes. New Orleans is partial to its fried oyster Po' Boy.

None can beat our locally homegrown Cuban sandwich, that juicy, filling swath of bread, meat, cheese and pickles that may or may not have originated right here in Ybor City.

Though its superiority over other sandwiches is undeniable, its exact origin is something of a mystery. Veteran New York Times foreign correspondent R.W. Apple Jr., who is also an acclaimed gourmand, investigated earlier this year the origins of the Cuban sandwich.

"I have heard it said that the Cuban sandwich originated in Ybor City, now a section of Tampa, where Cuban cigar makers settled around the turn of the last century," he wrote in a Feb. 6 article. "Perhaps, although it seems more likely that the Cubans brought the sandwich with them, and that their Italian coworkers added Genoa salami."

Technically, a real Cuban sandwich has certain fixed properties that pretenders lack: It must be made from real Cuban bread -- that is, minus preservatives and baked with a palm frond along its spine, signifying it is handmade. The bread is split, buttered and stuffed with three types of thinly sliced meat: boiled, balled or baked ham; shredded pork loin, preferably unprocessed and marinated in sour orange juice and garlic; and Genoa salami. Topped with Swiss cheese, pickles and a slather of mustard, it is a triumph of contrasting textures.

It can be heated on a sandwich press, known in Spanish as "La Plancha," which flattens it, melts the cheese into the meat and renders it buttery, gooey and crisp. If the Cuban is served cold, the bread must be crusty outside and wispy inside. No matter how you order it -- it should arrive on your plate cut on the diagonal.

But this being the land of the free, some have taken liberties with the sandwich. I've had Cubans made from French or Italian bread, and even pita; ones made with turkey, chicken, processed meats, or even lemon teriyaki seitan, a wheat-gluten meat substitute. And there were those with provolone, Manchego, cheddar or Mozzarella, rather than Swiss cheese; with layers of tomato, onion, bell pepper, lettuce; or condiments like mayonnaise, hot sauce, barbecue sauce, honey mustard or even vinaigrette.

We recently investigated a few restaurant versions of this local standby, asking Weekly Planet staffers to aid in our evaluations. Since one of the group is vegetarian, we even tried a couple of Cubans made without any meat at all. I once considered this sacrilegious, but one completely meatless Cuban won us over.

Here are results of our restaurant findings:

Rio Nearly Famous Cuban Sandwiches: Good, crisp Cuban bread, sandwiches correctly pressed, but the day we dined there, ours lacked pork. Ham was decent and salami good, but the sandwiches needed more salami ($3.69 for a 7-incher). The cheese was a mongrel variety of Swiss-American. Extra points for cheerful, efficient service, as our order was ready the moment we arrived. Extra points for funky decor, TVs blaring, old car grills mounted on the walls, tables enlivened with bumper stickers and cold beer. (Rio Nearly Famous was not part of the office taste test.)

La Teresita: Already Famous West Tampa legend came in second of three in our office taste test. Staffers enjoyed its clearly homemade shredded pork, good quality ham and yum salami ($2.35 for an 8-inch sandwich). It had plenty of pickles, Swiss cheese, good red tomatoes, crisp lettuce. The sandwiches' chief fault was the bread -- too soft and chewy. The crust lacked crispness, maybe because it had been sitting awhile and had succumbed to the humidity. Service demerits: We faxed our order two hours ahead, and still waited 20 minutes while rude, grumpy takeout employees fiddled; for long stretches, the restaurant didn't answer its phone.

Deli News Cafe: Weekly Planet readers have repeatedly voted the restaurant's Cuban sandwich Best of the Bay. We wondered if they knew something we don't. Unfortunately, the cafe's sandwiches ranked last among three samples we tested, suffering from not-really-Cuban bread, processed meat, insufficient pressing, flavorless pink tomatoes and too much mayo, which turned everything gooshy. However, our order was ready the moment we arrived from a kind, smiling lady, and we liked the cafe's creative veggie Cuban -- though soggy, it was stuffed with sprouts, cucumber, onion, shredded carrots and lettuce.

Carmine's Seventh Avenue: Our taste test winner is perhaps fittingly the only one located at the Reputed Birth Place of the Cuban sandwich. We found its sandwiches delightful, the bread authentic and crispy, the meat satisfactory, Swiss cheese good, pressed just right, sliced diagonally -- and instantly ready to take out from a cheery hostess. But the big surprise was Carmine's vegetarian Cuban, a tasty big fella jammed with Swiss cheese; rich, red tomato; pickle; homemade roasted, marinated red peppers; mushrooms; onion; and lettuce. The taste testers circled it like vultures, and I had to shoo them away to preserve a sample of this inventive treat ($4 take-out for 9-inch Cuban; $5.95 for eat-in Cuban and vegetarian, both 9 inches also).

We love our Cuban sandwiches and need no excuse to wolf them down, maybe with a side of fried plantains or chased with hearty cafe con leche. We dine on them with our families. We eat them late, after a night of carousing. We order takeout for quick office lunches. We have "em at our parties.

What a great tradition.

Contact Sara Kennedy at sara. kennedy@weeklyplanet.com, or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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