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A Year Ago Today: The Cuban

February 22, 2011

Most of the time when I’m on the road, I’m able bang out some new content. But not today. Yesterday’s trip from Albany to Washington D.C. left me completely spent.

Fortunately I was able to avoid stopping at McDonald’s while on the road. I had a great espresso and macchiato in Philadelphia at this amazing cafe named Elixr. And I got to poke around the main DiBruno Brothers store downtown which was a treat. Although I didn’t like to see what they were doing to their cheeses. Luckily, I have someone on the inside there who can help to fix it.

It was really Trader Joe’s that was the hero of the day, because since I had just stocked up a few days ago, the car was filled with all kinds of tasty snacks. And it was these that sustained Little Miss Fussy and me over the long drive. That and Raffi.

Anyhow, today we are off to museums, and hopefully some tasty eats. ADS mentioned something about fried fish. And I’m still pulling for an Ethiopean dinner. But that idea hasn’t been met with much enthusiasm. So for now I will leave you with a much beloved food from ADS and my collective past, The Cuban Sandwich.

Originally posted 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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 2:19 pm

    If nobody wants Ethiopian, feel free to tweet a location and cuisine desired and I’ll hit you back with ideas. Kid-happy, delicious places include 2 Amys near the Cathedral (homemade ice cream is my favorite, Neopolitan pies) and others noted by diaper ratings on dcfoodies.com

  2. Cheryl (and the cats) permalink
    February 23, 2011 4:01 pm

    For Ethiopian, you want Kaffa Krossing. Oh, wait — it’s in Philadelphia. Don’t overlook West Philadelphia next time you’re passing through.

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