Welcome to Cuban Sandwich City

Posted in Food on Wednesday, March 07, 2012. Written by Andy Huse

Welcome to Cuban Sandwich City

This magazine could have easily been named after the Cuban Sandwich. These days, Tampa can be more easily identified by that savory creation than the cigar. Like Cuban cigars, it can be mighty difficult to find a fine Cuban sandwich. Unlike Cuban Cigars, one could argue that the so-called Cuban sandwich is more Tampa than Havana. As Cigar City Magazine launches into its 7th year, it is especially appropriate to re-examine our town's distinctive sandwich.

People in Miami often talk as if they invented the Cuban sandwich, but they are pretenders to the throne.

People in Miami often talk as if they invented the Cuban sandwich, but they are pretenders to the throne. In the early 1900s, workers in Cuba brought simple "mixto" sandwiches to work or bought them at cafes. These cold-cut concoctions took on a new character in Tampa, influenced by Ybor City's vibrant mix of immigrant cultures. By the 1920s, the old "mixtos" coalesced into something more distinct–the Cuban sandwiches we know and love–an original Tampa creation.

Beginning in 1886, immigrants from Spain, Italy, and Cuba fled poverty and warfare to seek new lives in Tampa. The tumultuous cigar industry provided some shocks of its own. Violence, strikes and work stoppages in the cigar factories reminded all how tough things could be on a regular basis. An erratic cycle of feast and famine continued in Ybor City for fifty years. The Cuban sandwich rose in popularity during the 1920s, when electric sandwich presses and toasters became more common. During the Great Depression, the filling sandwiches served as a Latin-flavored equivalent of New Orleans' "Po' Boy."

During tough times, Ybor City had the example of Cuban bread to follow. When Cuba struggled for independence from Spain in the late 1800s, citizens there faced hunger and hardship. Cuban bakers responded by stretching their bread into long, thin loaves to provide small slices for rationing. The practice never changed in Tampa; but today, bread in Cuba (when it can be obtained at all) is short and more round. Perhaps today's Cuban citizens would do well to emulate the stretching practice of their ancestors.

Ybor City's struggling immigrants turned misfortune to their advantage. Tampa's most famous sandwich would not be possible without the stretched Cuban loaf. Ybor City split the loaf and filled it with mojo roast pork, sugar-cured ham, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Each of the main ingredients came from Ybor City's dominant ethnic groups: the Spaniards supplied fine glazed ham; bread and mojo pork came from the Cubans; and the Italians supplied salami.

The sandwich's popularity elevated the Silver Ring Café from a front for Bolita (illegal lottery) sales to a destination for hungry workers and tourists. That café was one among several to set the standard for Cuban sandwiches in the Tampa area. I enjoyed my first Cuban sandwich there fifteen years ago.

Many of the sandwiches I've had in recent years disappoint me, and I am not alone. On the food-related website www.Chowhound.com, a curious web-surfer asked, "What is the deal with Cuban sandwiches?" After going to one of Tampa's most respected sandwich stands, she said, "It just tasted like a ham sandwich to me; not bad, but not particularly great."

Not every restaurant owner invests the same amount of work into their sandwiches, but the other half of the problem is people who expect gourmet quality for a mere three dollars. Another visitor to Chowhound recently asserted, "A Cuban sandwich should never be over five bucks. It should be in the three-dollar range, but never over five. If it’s over five, you’re getting ripped off." I must beg to differ. Almost no one on this good earth is willing to go to great culinary lengths to sell a three-dollar sandwich. For three dollars, let them eat subs. I'd be willing to spend bigger bucks for an honest to goodness Cuban.

When one examines the labor that went in to making an old-fashioned Cuban, it is more understandable that today's sandwiches fall short so often. Like so many simple things in early Ybor City, the Cuban sandwich was elevated to an art and craft. Restaurateurs prepared every ingredient in painstaking fashion. If modern sandwich slingers take some short cuts, it is hard to blame them. Their profits may not suffer, but the cult of the Cuban does.

Tampa's Cuban sandwich is a dying culinary breed. By the time it became a recognized and revered tradition in the 1940s, the real thing was already fading fast. The true Cuban sandwich–conceived in Cuba and perfected in Tampa–lived and died with Ybor City. And for the uninitiated, Ybor City died some time between the Great Depression and urban renewal's bulldozers in 1965.

Wet, cheap boiled ham and processed pork loaves give us little indication of what a real Cuban sandwich should taste like. It doesn't help that most places pile on lettuce, mayo, and tomato, which is like adding a glass of water–it dilutes the flavor. When done right, the sandwich showcases the contrast between the dry crust of Cuban bread with the rich mingling of melted fats within. The bold combination of salty ham and salami, the garlic and vinegar overtones of the roast pork, the sharp taste of pickle and mustard–are all married by the bread and subtle charm of Swiss cheese.

In 1957, Manuel Torres, a long-time Ybor restaurant worker, volunteered to make Cuban sandwiches in what even then was known as the "old fashioned way" for a reporter. Torres soaked a select pork roast overnight in a mojo marinade of lemon juice, salt, fresh garlic, oregano and vinegar. He then parboiled the pork with onions, celery and garlic and then roasted it. A whole smoked ham was then parboiled in the same mixture. Torres trimmed excess fat from the ham and coated it in sugar. He then melted the sugar onto the ham with a hot iron. The resulting caramelized sugar gives the ham a distinctive taste. Drawn by the irresistible aroma, salivating onlookers gathered around the storefront as the sugar transformed into a thin amber glaze.

Torres then carved the meat into thin slices: pork, ham and peppered Genoa salami. Imported Swiss cheese, sour dill pickles, mustard and Cuban bread rounded out the sandwich. He layered the ingredients onto the bread in traditional order: first the ham, then pork, salami, cheese, pickle, and mustard spread only on the top slice of the sandwich. "It is always done that way," Torres said.

I've stopped by a couple classic Tampa eateries in recent weeks to eat sandwiches, but usually left unimpressed. A sandwich at the Museum Café in Old Homosassa, of all places, recently reminded me how great a Cuban sandwich can be. When the sandwiches arrived, the bread and the smell immediately impressed me. The sandwich there has perfect proportions of crusty bread and savory meats. The roast pork, sliced thin and piled high, supplied great flavor. The salami is wisely placed on top of the other meats, so when the sandwich is pressed, the salami's juices moisten the rest, mingling flavors. The proprietor orders most of his ingredients from Ybor's Tropicana.

The other surprise that day stood at the center of the table. The display card read, "Original Cuban sandwiches come from Ybor City; everything else is just a sub." The name on that card was yours truly, Andrew Huse.

Featured in Cigar City - Issue 2 - 2006

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About the Author

Andy Huse

Andy Huse

Andy Huse is Assistant Librarian, USF, Tampa Library Special Collections Department, Florida Studies Center.