Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Historic Cuban Sandwich

There are many pleasant things about living around the Tampa Bay area of Florida.  The sunny warm weather, award winning beaches, an abundance of fresh and saltwater fishing, professional sports teams, and, great places to eat all make the Tampa area a special place.
Tampa has another distinction too, and, a very delicious one.  It is the disputed home of the Cuban sandwich (the "Cubano"). I use the word, “disputed,” because at one time or another Havana, Key West, and even Miami have all claimed to be the birthplace of the sandwich.  And, while it is probably true that some form of a “mixto” originated in Cuba, the sandwich, in its present composition, most certainly came about in Tampa’s Ybor City during the late 1800’s.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ybor City was the “Cigar Capital of the World.”  Cuban workers in the cigar factories in both Ybor City and West Tampa produced high quality hand-rolled cigars, reputedly, the finest in the world.  The workers needed something portable to take to work for lunch, and, that “something” was the Cuban sandwich.

For what it’s worth, a National Public Radio poll more or less determined that Tampa is, in fact, where most people believe the present day sandwich came together.  And, the Tampa City Council has officially declared the tasty sandwich the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich.”   

So, what is it about the Cuban sandwich which pits communities against each other for bragging rights?  That question brings about even more controversy, because there is even disagreement among many as to what ingredients constitute a “real” Cuban.  Most would agree that a true Cuban consists of pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles, and, in the case of Tampa Cuban sandwiches, Genoa salami.  This last ingredient came about in deference to the sizable Italian community living in and around Ybor City during those early days when the cigar was king.  The sandwich is only made with Cuban bread.

Good bread can make or break any sandwich, and, in my opinion, Cuban bread makes this sandwich as well.  Cuban bread is made with lard, and, the baked loaf is usually 36 inches long.  The most well-known and respected Tampa baker of Cuban bread is La Segunda Central Bakery, which has been in operation since the early days of the 20th century. La Segunda bakers shape the dough into loaves, and, as has been done from the bakery’s beginning, place a palmetto leaf on top of each loaf prior to baking.  This not only gives the bread a signature palm leaf split, but, more importantly, holds in the moisture while the bread is baking.  This is important, as it helps give the bread its flaky exterior and its moist chewy interior.  Those who consider themselves true artisans of the sandwich would never consider using bread that had not been baked the same day.  Additionally, Cubans can be served either room temperature, or, hot-pressed in a press called a plancha.

I’ve had the pleasure of eating Cuban sandwiches in many places, including, non-traditional places like Texas.  I had my first Cuban sandwich a very long time ago in Tampa’s own, Hugo’s Spanish Restaurant, one very special place that knows a thing or two about perfecting the art of a Cubano.  And, ever since, I have considered the sandwich to be one of my favorite foods.  There is no reason to attempt to judge the best Tampa Cuban sandwich or the best Tampa restaurants making the sandwich, as, most all are very good.  I’ve enjoyed them in high-end eating establishments, trailers, and in gas station/convenience stores.  And, while some may have seemed better than others; it’s probably just a personal preference on my part.  There have been a few times when I’ve had less than a respectable Cuban sandwich, but never in the Tampa area.  In those cases, it was because someone went a little heavy when pressing the sandwich.  In my opinion, they literally “squeezed the life” out of it.  A pressed sandwich should be gently pressed, not crushed.

The Cuban sandwich is so popular around Tampa that you could keep quite busy trying to visit all the places that sell them.  The other day I was hungry for a Cuban, so I decided to revisit a place which is a past winner of “The All Tampa Cuban Sandwich Contest.”  The Cuban Sandwich Shop, located on N. Florida Avenue, in the block between W. Seneca and W. Bougainvillea, is a family run business that started selling Cubans in 1975.  It’s not fancy, often crowded, but the food is very good.  And it’s not just the Cuban sandwiches which are good either.  Many regulars who visit the shop order the Spanish Bean soup, which in addition to the garbanzo beans, contains ham, chorizo sausage, and potatoes in a delightful saffron flavored soup base. 

The sandwich which gives the shop its namesake has sweet ham, Cuban style pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise all stuffed inside delicious Cuban bread.  It can either be pressed or not, and, for those who want it, the sandwich can be served with lettuce and tomato.  For an additional charge, you can order a “Special Cuban,” which contains an extra portion of sweet ham.

As it was the noon hour when I arrived, the shop was packed with people.  There is no priority seating, so, you must take matters into your own hands to be seated.  Luckily I spotted a table along the back wall which had just been vacated, and, I quickly made my move.  Negotiating between tables of senior citizens eating two dollar cups of Spanish Bean soup, Tampa paramedics gorging themselves on Cubans, and, middle aged women enjoying Ropa Vieja, I took my seat and ordered a “Special Cuban” with tall glass of unsweetened ice tea.  It was a great sandwich, a good lunch, and, you can be sure I will do it again.

In the end, I suppose, it really does not matter where the sandwich came from originally.  The important thing is that it came from somewhere.  I love Cuban sandwiches, and, I can honestly say that of all the things in life which make life pleasant, a Cuban sandwich is certainly one of them. Ana Maria Polo, the television show host of Telemundo’s “Caso Cerrado,” also thinks very highly of the sandwich it seems.  She reportedly said, “Let me tell you something: Sometimes a Cuban sandwich and an ice-cold beer can be better than sex.”  Now, I like the sandwich, I like it a lot, but, I’m not prepared to go that far.

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