Is the Cuban sandwich actually Cuban? Who cares, if you're eating a good one!
The Cuban sandwich at Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe.
There have probably been a bazillion sandwich combinations invented since the first prescient human stuck filling between a couple of slices of bread, but only a handful of those have become icons of culture and cuisine. There's the pastrami on rye, of course, which embodies the spirit of a New York deli. The peanut butter and jelly recalls suburban kitchen tables and icy cold glasses of milk. Grilled cheese has a similar association, though it's hard to imagine it without an accompanying bowl of tomato soup.
And then there's the Cuban, which has become an essential part of that country's culinary canon -- or at least, the culinary canon of the Cubans in Florida, who have really made the sandwich what it is.
Because despite its name, the Cuban may not have originated in Cuba at all. Rather, it may have been invented by Cubans living in Florida, who started serving up the current manifestation of the sandwich -- roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles on grilled, pressed slices of Cuban bread -- at cafeterias in Miami and Tampa and calling it the Cuban because that's who was making and eating it. Not surprisingly, several bars and restaurants claim to be the home of the original, most of them pinning the date around the 1940s.
Other accounts date the origins of the sandwich back to the island, stretching the tradition's start to as early as the 1500s. That seems aggressive -- the Earl of Sandwich wasn't even popularizing the regular old sandwich until 200 years later -- but it does seem likely that some manifestation of the food was being eaten in the late nineteenth century. Then Floridian Cubans made it their own, and turned the sandwich into the icon it is today.
For all of its popularity in Florida, though, the snack hasn't migrated much -- at least not in its true form. And the bread is the main reason why. There are a lot of sandwicherias that claim to make a Cuban, but really, they're just slapping a traditional mix of ingredients on a crusty Italian loaf or a baguette. That's like Joaquin Phoenix playing Johnny Cash: It might be good, but it's not quite the same.
Cuban bread is similar to other crusty white breads, but it's denser and less doughy. It toasts up nicely when pressed on the griddle -- another key feature of a great Cuban -- and it's often made in-house, since the real stuff relies on lard. A lot of people think you can't get that bread outside of Florida. They're wrong.
You can find it here, hiding among the impostors -- and you can get a real Cuban sandwich, too. One place to accomplish this is Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe, which I review this week. The restaurant that opened last year makes a pretty good version, stacking roasted pork, ham, melted Swiss cheese and pickles between two pieces of that Cuban bread -- housemade, of course -- that have been griddled until crunchy and then slathered with mustard.
You can also find it at Buchi Cafe Cubano, which might make the best Cuban sandwich in the city. The kitchen isn't adding anything new here, but it follows the formula perfectly: tightly pressing the sandwiches so that each small bite is full of intense flavor. Whether you're staying or going, every sandwich is wrapped in white butcher paper -- a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.
Yet another winning contender is at Buenos Aires Pizzeria. Though the restaurant is mostly an Argentine spot, Cuban family members have made their mark with a sandwich that will please a Floridian craving a taste of home. The kitchen slices real Cuban bread, then loads it with ham, fat-laced roasted pork and Swiss cheese, and presses it flat to the griddle. Once the cheese is melted, tangy flat slices of pickle and plenty of mustard provide the finishing touches.
Regardless of which of these three you go to for your Cuban, you'll thank Cuba -- or Florida -- for its contribution to the sandwich repertoire.