The Cuban Sandwich — What You Must Eat in Southern Florida
By Kelly Dean
I recently had visitors from the Midwest (The Great White North) and was tasked with turning them on to the best places to go in Southern Florida — from the Caloosahatchee estuary south all the way around the Florida straits to Miami Beach. It was quite a task, obviously. There’re the great parks and preserves full of birds, gators and other wildlife; there’re sailboats, airboats, speedboats, and fishing boats; there’s about 700 miles of beaches; the Everglades; the Florida Keys; there’s even a big speedy boat that takes you to the Keys in a few hours; and that’s before you even get to the Miami area.
As I narrated the great places in Southern Florida, I determined that food should be the deal-breaker upon deciding to visit there or not – because they are young, impatient and no one is happy when they’re hungry. I doubted whether they had the patience to visit a park, and they had already hit the beach, unfortunately during a red tide event — yuck. And they were only here for a week. So I was highly motivated to give good advice.
If I wanted to make a checklist that had cuisine as a top priority, one thing on the list was Cuban food. It’s a quiet treasure in this part of the world. And frankly, the Cubans know a thing or two about portions too. One doesn’t leave hungry after eating Cuban food. So I strongly encouraged them to at least try an authentic Cuban sandwich – if not pulled pork and black beans, yellow rice, plantain, sweet baked pastries and all the other great Cuban foods.
But I wanted them to have something quick, easy to find and inexpensive as they traveled around. Plus, the Sandwich Cubano is the perfect sandwich. They take mere minutes to prepare and are, well – sublime.
Other than the Cuban bread and roasted pork, there is not really anything about The Cuban that is indigenous to Cuba. But the mix of ingredients definitely is unique to Cuba. It isn’t a particularly pretty sandwich. It’s shaped much like the newspaper in your driveway after you’ve ran over it.
But its smell and taste combination makes it better than other sandwiches that contain similar ingredients. It’s not what’s in the sandwich, it’s how it’s combined and prepared.
What’s a Sandwich Cubano?
As is common, there’s a debate about where the Cuban sandwich was first created. It was the turn of the century and many Cubans were employed in the cigar factories and sugar mills in South Florida in the late 1800s. Workers traveled freely back and forth in those days – some emigrated, of course.
There are records in Tampa that indicate the sandwich was being made even then as an inexpensive lunch menu item for Cuban workers. So perhaps Tampa is the origin. Nonetheless, the sandwich spread in a line from Havana to Key West to Tampa and areas in between — then scattered areas east as far as Miami. Once the Cuban revolution happened in 1959, the expat community spread the sandwich all over the United States. But South Florida is really its home.
A Cuban sandwich uses a shorter and wider version of the famous Cuban bread. Cuban bread is a simple, no-frills bread without much fuss involved in the ingredients. So it doesn’t really interfere with other flavors – that is, at first.
The sandwich is then filled with sweet ham, roasted or grilled fresh pork that’s pulled from the warm roast. Mixing sweet and salty pork with the meaty fresh roasted pork was either a genius idea or a happy accident because most people would not think to combine two versions of the same critter.
The sandwich is covered in dill pickles, mustard and topped with Swiss cheese in the absolute proper proportions. Why are the proportions important? It’s because the three form a unique kind of sauce when they are combined using the next step.
The sandwich is then placed in a double-sided toaster press for a few minutes until it’s lightly golden brown – not an oven. Ultimately, the finished sandwich is a rather plain-looking, flattish shape after this. But this method of browning blends all the flavors of the interior ingredients while making the bread into a flaky, crispy toasted pastry. It is then halved in an exaggerated slant with a knife and wrapped in paper or foil. It takes just a few minutes to make.
Some older Cubans I know, who like their bread extra brown, also butter or brush some oil on the bread lightly first before toasting it in the press, making it a medium brown in color, but it’s less flaky. There are other slight variations, of course, including the use of salami in some Tampa restaurants. There were a lot of Italian immigrants at the turn of the century living in Tampa as well.
But you don’t see salami on Cuban sandwiches much south of Tampa. In that same spirit, I’ve noticed a few unique spices in the meat and pickles too, but I ain’t talkin’. It’s all good.
As you drive past myriad fast food joints on your way to some of the best Sunshine State attractions, don’t pass up the Cuban restaurants along the way. A Cubano is a more filling way to spend six bucks than a small value meal at Burger Hippo. Besides, it takes about the same amount of time as that value meal — after they make you wait at the we-forgot-we-make-fast-food-curb-of-shame.
So if you get down to Florida, you need to put an authentic Sandwich Cubano on your food bucket list.