The Cuban sandwich is important. People fight for it and about it. Who created it and where? That is just the tip of the loaf. My take? The Cuban sandwich is ubiquitous and no one will ever know its exact origin. Mystery is as beautiful as a slice of pink ham.
Were I a betting woman, and I am, for tiny bits of currency, my money would be, and is, on Tampa. Bet ya a nickel. Tampa is big though and pinpointing seems impossible.
The following are Cuban sandwich rantings, ravings, hurrahings and revelings. No answers and plenty of questions.
“Miami was not even spit in the eye when Tampa was doing business with Havana,” Manteiga said. I believe it. Read and chose your conclusions here.
Meanwhile, if you are eating in Tampa and reaching for roots, the Cuban sandwich is the linchpin.
We sat at the Manteiga family’s private table, on ornately carved wooden chairs, in a corner of La Tropicana Cafe, which for decades has been a gathering place on Seventh Avenue for Ybor City’s immigrant community. Over a lunch of Spanish bean soup, Cuban sandwiches and deviled crab (a dish created by striking cigar factory workers in the 1920s), we chatted a bit about Tampa foodways and its ultimate fusion dish, crab chilau — blue-crab meat in a spicy enchilada sauce, often served over spaghetti — which perfectly represents Ybor City’s cultural mix. But mostly we talked history. More here.
Recently I had the good fortune to visit the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Florida. The Columbia is legendary and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about – a venture into another world, through a rabbit hole or trick door indeed.
Also, I wanted to eat a Cubano in the city that claims to be its originator. One of the cities, I should say.
Talk of the Cubano elicits heated debate from all camps – I have witnessed debates, and endless rabbit holes. The bread alone is google-maps-worthy. More on that later.
Place of origin, salami or no salami, who bakes the proper bread, butter before pressing or not, exact ham, how manypic and…did I mention place of origin?
I’ve been down this tunnel before and it’s no less twisty this time. Posts on Cubanos here and here and here and here and here, the first from ten years ago at the birth of The Lunch Encounter. Nevertheless, I am taking a stab at parsing the particulars, plain and simple. Here we go!
According to Clarissa Buch of Thrillist
In the mid-1800s, the Cuban tobacco industry emerged in Florida, where it first emerged in Key West. Later, tobacco moved north to Tampa, with thousands relocating to Ybor City — a historic neighborhood founded by cigar manufacturers with Cuban, Spanish, and Italian descent. Because of the influx of immigrants who mainly worked in factories, a quick, affordable lunch was yearned for. This marked the rise of the Cuban sandwich.
“Above all, you need a moist palmetto leaf on top of the dough before it’s baked,” says David Leon of La Segunda Central Bakery, the largest producer of Cuban bread in Tampa. “The dough rises and wraps around the leaf, giving the bread flavor.”
Family-owned La Segunda Central Bakery, which has been around for more than 100 years, chops nearly 60,000 leaves by hand each day, making about 18,000 loaves which are used in Tampa and shipped across the country, including Miami. “Ninety percent of the work is done by hand,” says Leon. “It’s a very old-school process. Using the leaf is what creates those peaks and valleys that Cuban bread is known for.”
After the bread is made, the ingredients are placed inside. The roast pork, says Astorquiza, must be marinated in mojo, which blends spices like bitter orange, oregano, cumin, garlic, onion, vinegar, and salt. The best way to do it, he says, is to marinate the pork overnight. The cheese must be Swiss, and if salami is used, it should be Genoa. If you’re extremely particular, make sure to use exactly three pickles. And, whatever you do, only use sweet cured ham (or something similar to it) because it’s crucial to not overpower the other ingredients’ flavors. Don’t forget mustard… and sometimes butter depending on where you’re eating.
Read more here.
Bread – crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside, wider and flatter than a baguette, not nearly as hard a crust, the bread at Versailles in Miami has a little lard in its recipe and is “basically a pan de agua” – Puerto Rican water bread
Ham – mojo marinated, “sweet ham”
Pickles – dills sliced thinly lengthwise
Pork – loin or shoulder
Cheese – imported Swiss – why imported?
Salami – Genoa, peppercorn-studded preferred (Columbia Restaurant)
Mustard – yellow
Butter – butter the outside of the bread generously before pressing
The Columbia Restaurant’s recipe here. It does include salami and bread from La Segunda Central Bakery. The recipe headnote includes mention of a “smashed Cuban”, which is what you might expect, a heavily pressed sandwich.
The Columbia’s Pork Loin
Roast Cuban Pork:
1 each Fresh Pork shoulder (about 5 lbs.)
1 cup Sour Orange Juice (if not available, ½ cup lime juice and ½ cup orange juice)
8 each Large garlic cloves
2 tsp dried oregano leaves
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
4 each bay leaves
The Cuban Sandwich at Versailles in Miami’s Little Havana recipe here on Eater Elements.
Next time I am in Tampa I want to try La Teresita, but that will have to be after another visit to La Columbia. The place is huge, man, and I want to trip up and down every staircase, gaze into each mirror, wish on the individual tiles.
UPDATE! I have been to the Columbia again and to Segundo Bakery. So exciting! Posts to come. PTK. Hurrah! Hooray! Booyah!
Amazing post Lisa – I shared it on FB since it so strong and comprehensive.. Excellent!
Thank you, David. Much appreciated! Hoping others will add to the saga.