If failure is an orphan, the Cuban sandwich, or Cubano, has been an enormous success. Many want to claim it, each with definite ideas of the right and wrong ways to make it. A combination of sweet ham, marinated pork loin, Swiss cheese, thinly sliced pickles and spicy mustard in a long, pale loaf with a paper-thin crust, it’s fused together in a flat sandwich press called a plancha. Despite conflicting narratives, a general story emerges. The Cuban, a descendent of the Spanish mixto sandwich of mixed meats, was a typical lunch for sugar-mill and cigar-factory workers in 19th-century Cuba and Key West, Florida. When Vincente Martinez Ybor decided to move his popular Principe de Galas cigar operation from Key West to Tampa, Cuban and Spanish cigar workers followed, bringing the sandwich with them. Working alongside recent Italian immigrants, salami was added to the mixto and is still part of the traditional Tampa Cuban. By the 1930s, they’d become popular items in restaurants and cafes throughout Cuba and Southern Florida.
Until it was lost to hurricanes and changing owners in the mid-1990s, the original Latin American Cafeteria on Coral Way set the standard for the Miami Cuban.
It’s less clear exactly when and where the Cuban sandwich arrived at Miami lunch counters, but its popularity took off with the influx of Cuban immigrants in the late 1950s. The sandwiches were then put to the press, a preparation in Cuba that gained popularity. Until it was lost to hurricanes and changing owners in the mid-1990s, the original Latin American Cafeteria on Coral Way set the standard for the Miami Cuban. With hungry patrons crowding its enormous horseshoe counter, the sandwich maker, or lonchero, would stand on the raised platform at its center, a master of his own island station dressed in kitchen whites. With a bread knife in one hand and fork in the other, he’d pile high sandwiches that were pressed to order. In its absence, there are countless lunch counters competing for “best of” status, including the eponymous Latin American franchise. Miami’s Versailles, Sergio’s, The Pub, Galindo’s, and The Latin Café all have their defenders, not to mention Tampa’s Columbia, La Ideal, and Silver Ring Café, each one trying to bring together a few simple ingredients in just the right way.
While the sandwich has found its way to restaurants and delis across the country, even receiving the all-American validation of having its own stand at the new Yankee Stadium, there’s nothing like a real Cuban. With so many variations, it may be the best sandwich you’re not eating. Here are a few essential elements that go into the making of it:
1. Keep it simple, don’t be a hero. Bell peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and even black beans are added to Cubans, watering down the fusion between the ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. The baked ham should be sugar-cured for added sweetness and the pork loin, or lechón asado, marinated in mojo criollo before roasting. The pork should also be sliced, never shredded, and trimmed of any excess fat. Queso blanco has become a popular cheese substitute but doesn’t melt as well as the Swiss. Another common misstep in pan-Latin restaurants is the inclusion of hot peppers. Cuban food is typically spicy but not hot. A little deli mustard spread on the bread or served on the side is welcome, but chipotle mustard or mayonnaise is not.
2. It’s a hearty sandwich, so no nibbling. The meat should be layered from one end to the other, or rabo a cabo, so that your last bite isn’t all bread. There should be slightly more ham than pork and the cheese should just overlap the sides to create a better seal. The long, pale Cuban bread loaves are called flautas or flutes and it should be held like one. Hold the sandwich firmly when you press down or the filling will literally slip through your fingers. According to Andy Huse, librarian for the University of South Florida and the sandwich’s historian, El Segundo Central bakery gives Tampa the advantage when it comes to pan cubano. Made in the traditional way, with a palmetto leaf placed in the center creating a straight bloom down the middle, their loves are placed in front of the ovens and fan dried then hearth baked to produce the perfect eggshell crust and airy interior. Cuban bread is difficult to find outside of Florida, but French or Italian bread can be substituted. Though not ideal, well-seasoned ingredients and a good pressing will go a long way to making a great Cuban.
3. It’s all in the press. Butter is lightly spread on the outside crust and sometimes inside the bread for added moisture. The sandwich is then placed on the press, or plancha, for a few minutes until the outside is crisp and golden. The fillings should be at room temperature if possible so that the cheese has time to melt well without burning the bread. It can also be warmed open faced for a few seconds before pressing to ensure the filling is heated through. Without a press, a hot griddle with a heavier skillet on top as a counterweight will work.
4. A Cuban is only the beginning. The sandwich only became a Cuban when it started traveling. In Havana, it was known as a mixto or sandwich en pan de flauta, with the ham and cheese implied. Add a couple of ham croquetas before pressing and it’s a croqueta preparada. Change the crusty bread for a sweet roll or challah bread and you have a medianoche. The Cuban’s cuter cousin, the medianoche, or midnight sandwich, was sold in Cuba’s cafes as a late-night snack. Not as heavy but just as flavorful, it’s a popular alternative.
5. It’s never too late. In Miami, Cuban sandwiches are enjoyed around the clock. Baptisms and funerals, Quinceañeras and weddings, concerts and sporting events—all end with a stop at one of the many Cuban cafes and restaurants that are open 24 hours. On any given night, it’s typical to see tourists, bridesmaids, hipsters, baseball fans, and kids up way past their bedtime enjoying one last indulgence before going home. Perhaps people take their Cubans so personally because they toast so many personal moments with them. In any case, it’s a great way to end the night.
Mojo Criollo: This garlic sauce is the key to the flavorful roast pork at the heart of the Cuban sandwich.
La Ideal’s Cuban Sandwich: Most Cuban restaurants claim to know the secret to a great Cuban sandwich. Tampa's La Ideal shares theirs.
Pan Cubano: Difficult to find outside of Florida, this recipe for Pan Cubano puts it within everyone's reach.
Ana Sofia Peláez lives in Brooklyn. A contributor to several websites, she writes about Latin food on her blog Hungry Sofia.