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The World’s Great Sandwiches: The Cuban

February 22, 2010

My old friend Raf has a thing about sandwiches.  I’ve been trying to get him to write a guest post on the subject, but he’s a busy man.  Instead, I will just taunt him with a brand-new semi-regular feature about sandwiches.  And it will start with one of the most treasured sandwiches from our shared childhood home, Miami.

The Cuban sandwich is a work of staggering genius.

Like most strokes of brilliance its components are deceptively simple: Bread, ham, roast pork, cheese, mustard, and pickles.

Yet it is surprisingly difficult to get a good one.  And that is even when you are in Miami, the heart of Cuban culture in America.  God help you if you are anywhere else in the country.  I have seen far too many restaurants with “Cuban sandwiches” on the menu that bear no resemblance at all to the masterpiece of Miami.

I mention this today because I know a lot of you in the Northeast are coming back from the February holiday.  Many of you went to Florida.  Some went to Miami.  A few of you I am sure had a Cuban sandwich.  It was probably great.  But it was unlikely the sandwich of my dreams, and I’ll tell you why.

Balance.

It is trickier than it sounds.  But a blindingly delicious Cuban sandwich is a delicate balancing act.  The proportions of the roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese have to be in harmony. No one or two elements can outshine the others.

And this is where many fail.  In order to offer perceived value many Cuban cafeterias and restaurants overstuff the sandwich with meat.  Sometimes the ham dominates, leaving only a mere slice of roast pork as a token gesture.  Other times the roast pork dominates relegating the ham to the role of seasoning.  Either way the balance is lost and the sandwich crumbles into mediocrity.

But getting the ratios right isn’t worth a damn if the bread is wrong.

Cuban sandwiches need to be made on Cuban bread.  And Cuban bread is incredibly difficult to produce outside a climate that averages 95% humidity.  The crust and the crumb just do not form correctly.  To call it a baguette is a terrible lie.  Its crust is almost papery and its crumb is light. They tell me the secret is the lard.

And when you put it in the plancha – the press that grills the Cuban sandwich – the bread compresses to a fraction of its original height.

The contents of the sandwich should be no greater than the height of a compressed slice of the bread. After all, the bread is a critical ingredient of this sandwich, and it too needs to be in harmony.

In case you were wondering, pickles and mustard serve merely as a counterpoint for the meaty, salty and cheesy sandwich.  They are an acidic kick to the palate that keeps the eater going back for another beautiful bite.

The end result is not just a balance of flavors but of textures.  Crunchy toasty bread, tender meat, melted cheese and crisp pickles.  It is truly a culinary treasure.

There were dark years on the West Coast where the only Cuban food was what we could make ourselves.  Another Miami transplant, let’s call him The Engineer, even diligently worked to make a decent loaf of Cuban bread.

But out there I did find one sandwich masquerading as a Cuban that was tasty enough to remind me of what I was missing in Miami.  It was from the now defunct Acme Chophouse in San Francisco.  What they had right was the ingredients and proportions.  They were just missing the bread.

Do not be fooled by imposters.  Pulled pork with mojo does not a Cuban sandwich make.  Nor do any of the other phantasmagorical creations that bear the name in restaurants around the country.

So where to you find a good one?  I’ll tell you this.  The Cuban sandwich I had at the La Carreta housed within Miami International Airport beat out the Calle Ocho Versailles, Ruben’s (the local cafeteria of my childhood), and several other spots around Miami.

I’ve got to get down there.  Pronto.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 22, 2010 10:00 am

    OMG, that’s one of my favorite all-time sandwiches. Agreed, you can’t get an authentic one here, but are there substitutes? Saratoga has lost all of its Cuban sandwiches: Sperry’s, Twilight Grill, Havana’s–either gone, or the sandwich is gone. I think there was (or is) one at Union Grille but it’s too far off the mark to count. Any in Albany area?

    • Sarah M. permalink
      February 22, 2010 11:41 am

      I know there’s one at Carmen’s in Troy, but I haven’t heard good things. Honestly, I couldn’t even find a good one in NYC last time I tried.

  2. Sarah M. permalink
    February 22, 2010 11:38 am

    Miami? Cuban sandwiches were invented in Tampa, son! And in the 813 you will not find any of those abominations that come with lettuce and tomato. Gross.

    And I’d be remiss not to mention TPA’s own La Teresita, where one can still sit at the counter and get a frickin’ mixto, frijoles negros, yuca frita, flan y Coke for like FOUR DOLLARS.

    • February 22, 2010 11:56 am

      Did I say lettuce and tomato?
      I didn’t think so.

      And from what I hear, in Tampa you are likely to get some sliced salame in your sandwich. Which may be tasty, but you know by now that I’m a purist at heart.

      • Sarah M. permalink
        February 22, 2010 12:16 pm

        Just sayin’. Those dressings aren’t even a possibility in Tampa!

        Re salami– most of the ones I’ve eaten don’t have it, but one could definitely argue that’s a “pure” version, due to the culinary cross-pollination of Cuban & Italian food in Ybor City. If it’s been around since the introduction of the sandwich (generally) I think it’d be safe to say there are 2 versions. Although of course I prefer just the pork & ham.

    • david c permalink
      February 22, 2010 12:29 pm

      cuban sandwiches were invented in cuba, not tampa. the migrant workers brought it over around the turn of the century, I believe. workers traveling between cuba and south florida, back when this was allowed, worked in the sugar fields in florida and the sandwich was a popular item for them to carry to work. its all myth anyway, no one really knows exactly where it first appeared.

      • Sarah M. permalink
        February 22, 2010 12:32 pm

        There’s myth on either side– if you’re from Tampa, you think it was created in Tampa. Just reppin’ my hometown.

      • david c permalink
        February 22, 2010 12:42 pm

        well, hometown rooting left aside, sandwiches that contain salami are something else entirely, and shouldn’t be called “Cuban”. I’m Cuban, first generation, grew up in SoFla, never heard of adding salami to any Cuban sandwiches.

        the three main cuban style sandwiches I grew up with and understand to be traditional, are the cuban, pan con lechon and pan con bistec, none of which I have ever seen served with salami.

        and may I suggest a supplemental blog entry for Cuban milkshakes? nothing accompanies a great cuban sandwich as a batido de mamey or fruta bomba. lol!

      • david c permalink
        February 22, 2010 12:45 pm

        oh yeah, forgot the media noche, how I could I leave that one out! but that’s basically a cuban sandwich on different bread.

  3. david c permalink
    February 22, 2010 11:57 am

    indeed, someone that understands the crucial bread-to-meat ratios. growing up in the Cuban mecca of Hialeah, it was easy enough to find a good Cuban sandwich or a pan con lechon, another classic when done right.

    now having moved to the more homogenized broward county, finding proper Cuban cuisine is more difficult. surprising, the local publix grocery puts out a decent recreation during the daily lunch hours. it has the proper ingredients, although using bores head meats, its not overly stuffed and the Cuban bread, baked in the store, is close enough to pass as coming from the back display case in a Cuban bodega. the remaining step is to get the sandwich home, if you can hold off from eating it, and pull out the trusty sandwich press and seal the deal with a little salted butter on the bread crust. oh yeah…

  4. Elyse permalink
    February 22, 2010 9:12 pm

    Daniel, Why must you taunt us so?

  5. February 23, 2010 12:13 pm

    To me the key ingredient of a Cuban sandwich is the warm pickles. It excites my taste buds to have this normally chilled item warmed up. And you can do it at home, with or without the other niceties that have been discussed here.

  6. MiMi permalink
    February 23, 2010 4:38 pm

    Mr. Sunshine – believe it or not, The Original Two Cousins in Newton Plaza in Latham serves a Cuban. Never having tasted one from Miami, I have to say their version is pretty good. Latham’s 76 diner also has one, but it’s not as good.

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