Update 4/4/12: An advisory committee in suggested that the Tampa City Council designate the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich.” The sandwich did originate in Ybor City. This has created some lively discussion about which city has the “real Cuban sandwich”–Tampa or Miami.
I usually write a series of Lunch Week posts around back to school week every year. Since I was back in the classroom this fall, covering for a co-worker on maternity leave, the beginning of school just flew by and I didn’t get around to it. It’s hard to believe that I started Miami Dish while I was working full time as an elementary school teacher.
Then, I got an email from GOOD announcing that this week would be Sandwich Week on their website. They invited me to nominate a sandwich that most represents my state. I love the GOOD website, especially their info graphics, so I was motivated to dovetail my own Lunch Week with their sandwich celebration. My nomination–the Cuban sandwich–may not work for the entire state. However, South Florida is so different from the rest of our state in so many ways that we may not share a sandwich with the entire state. What do you think?
These were the questions GOOD asked:
“a. What is your home state’s GOOD sandwich? We’re not just seeking the most famous sandwich from your state—we’re looking for the sandwiches with the most historical or cultural significance, ones that can be assembled from local ingredients, and ones that support local independent businesses (the ideal GOOD sandwich will do all three). If you can, include a local joint that does it best.
b. Define ‘sandwich.’ Here at GOOD, we’re also hoping to gain an advanced understanding of the assembled food product we love so much. What is a sandwich? Does it require two slices of bread? Do you need to be able to eat it with your hands? Or do you favor an expanded definition that extends the term “sandwich” to burritos, tacos, and folded pizzas? What about a wrap? A dumpling? A pie? Tell us how you define the food.”
I would argue that a Cuban sandwich is the most famous sandwich in South Florida. Although people use “South Florida” to mean the eastern part of our state, I’m roping Tampa in as well. The omnipresence of the Cuban sandwich on our menus and street corners demonstrates the cultural influence of Cubans throughout South Florida.
Cubans first settled in large numbers in Key West and Tampa. Many of those Cubans worked in the cigar factories of Ybor City, alongside Italian, Spanish and Eastern European immigrants. Another influx of Cubans arrived in Miami in the second half of the last century.
I think the Cuban sandwich also represents the tremendous cultural contributions of all Latin American people on life in South Florida. The Cubans were the first major Latin American population to assert their influence here. But now we’re even more diverse–with communities and restaurants populated by Venezuelans, Argentineans, Brazilians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, and more. This all makes for some good eating.
In my opinion, a perfect Cuban sandwich depends largely on the bread. The sandwich must be built with good Cuban bread (made with lard) and then flattened in a hot press (plancha). Don’t waste time on imposters made with thick French or Italian bread. The bread will be crisp on the outside, with some give, and soft and buttered on the inside. Inside, there should be striated layers of Swiss cheese, ham, and roast pork. The layers of meat should be generous. In Tampa, they add salami, perhaps due to the Italian influence. Some pickles and mustard add zing. Some purists refuse the mustard, but I always ask for a little. The sandwich should be dense and warm, heavy in the hands. This is a sandwich of substance.
There are lots of small, local places in Miami where you can get a good Cuban sandwich. Some favorite spots are Enriqueta’s, Latin American Café (on Coral Way and 57th Avenue or Coral Way and 15th Avenue), and Versailles (although the latter may be just as much for history and ambience as flavor.) Folks also love Sarussi, although their sauce and bread make their Cuban a variation of the original. Lately, my favorite spot for Cuban sandwiches is La Rosa, by the airport. As far as local ingredients in Cuban sandwiches—you got me there. But don’t slight us for our late arrival to the local foods party. You’ll miss out on something really tasty.
What’s a sandwich? A sandwich comes between two pieces of bread. In a great sandwich, the bread is more than just a book end. It adds texture and flavor, without overwhelming the ingredients within. Empanadas, wraps, dumplings are another species, but like those foods, a sandwich should be a meal in your hands.
If you want more on where to find the quintessential Cuban sandwich, these sites may help you:
Burger Beast: You know what’s really good? Cuban Sandwich at “El Original” Latin American in Coral Gables, Florida (Is that an SEO-optimized title or what?!)
And I thought this was good reading:
Cigar City: Welcome to Cuban Sandwich City-”People in Miami often talk as if they invented the Cuban sandwich, but they are pretenders to the throne.”