The Great Cuban Sandwich Polemic has surfaced on my Facebook newsfeed. Was it invented in Tampa, Miami or (duh) Cuba? Is the Tampa custom of adding salami to the usual roast pork, sweet ham and Swiss cheese mix correct or sacrilege? Was the original pressed or not? The battle continues.
Most partisans agree on nixing lettuce or tomato, as well as its accompanying emulsion, mayonnaise. Otherwise, yellow mustard and slices of dill pickle, yes. Bread, Cuban, of course, and many sing the praises of Tampa’s palm-frond threaded Cuban bread.
I'm one of them. Having lived my adolescence in Tampa, I’m a big fan of its bread, especially from the legendary La Segunda Central bakery, still going strong in Ybor City. In fact, Ybor, today a section of Tampa, was founded by Cuban and Spanish cigar factory owners and workers in the 1890s, and was the home of great Cuban sandwiches, though good ones were and still are found in West Tampa, second home of the cigar industry in the city.
Then there are those who advocate for Key West, the first settlement of the expat cigar industry that moved north fleeing the turmoil of the island’s wars of independence from Spain. Though I’ve never sampled them, there seem to be fine cubanos still made there today.
Some cubansandwichologists explain that Tampa’s inclusion of salami was the influence of the city’s Italian community. Others, and I count myself among them, say that Cuba’s original sanwiche mixto already included something like it. I do recall having those sandwiches as a child at a couple of places in Havana where they added, if not salami, probably a Spanish cold cut (sobrasada?) that gave the mix in the mixto a nice pungency.
The big issue, though, is which are better. Here, even without my Tampa credentials, I would vote for the Florida west coast city. Years ago, I wrote an article on Miami’s Cuban sandwiches and, like so many other Cuban foods there, the traditional ones (non-orthodox innovations were a lot better) were all practically inedible, made with the cheapest ingredients. It seems they have improved as Miami has turned foodie. I hope so. But what I would argue passionately is that the great emporium of the Cuban sandwich was The Silver Ring in Ybor City, where, in truth, I don’t recall if they used salami.
What may be more surprising is that their house-roasted pork was not cooked with mojo, the Cuban garlic marinade and sauce that has become an American staple. According to a journalist I assigned a story on The Silver Ring for a magazine I edited in the early 90s, when the storefront deli was still around, the owner revealed that their pork had no such seasoning. Years later, the father of Rosy, of the great Rosy Bakery in the Sweetwater district of Miami, told me mojo turned pork shoulder too dark while roasting, so he seasoned his with just salt and pepper and brushed mojo on the sandwiches. Curiously, that was only for pan con lechón — pork sandwiches. At Rosy the cubanos don’t include pork, though they’re still good thanks to the bakery’s terrific bread.
These days when I visit Tampa I get great Cubans — and their cousins, medianoches — at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. In my youth, the Fourth of July Café, also in West Tampa, was a classic, though I don’t recall their Cubans that well: el Cuatro de Julio being the kind of place that was open at the end of a long night meant visits there were made while one was, well, hammered. In recent times, the famous Columbia Restaurant, only survivor of the many Cuban/Spanish eateries of old Ybor City, made a big show of bringing back their original cubano. I tried it and it was fine, but it didn’t blow me away. Maybe you can’t go home again.
However, on my first visit back to Havana in the 80s, I went to a tourist-oriented café near the port where they served tapas of Cuban-made Spanish cold cuts, like the kind I remembered from my childhood’s sanwiches mixtos. It seemed that for all the decline of food in the island they never lost their way with Spanish fiambres. Do they make Cuban sandwiches in Cuba today? Possibly, though I have not been back in years. After all, the Cuban sandwich is known around the world, sometimes in versions that barely reference the original, from Miami, Tampa, Key West or Cuba itself. No matter. Long may it reign.