Food & Drink

How the Cuban Became History's Most Contentious Sandwich

Cuban sandwich
Courtesy of Jimmy Carey

Cafecitos, croquettes, and cubanos. Let us take a moment to thank South Florida’s prodigious Cuban influence for some of our most influential culinary staples. While it’s no secret that cafe cubanos (and versions of croquettas de jamon) originated from the largest island nation in the Caribbean, the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich -- which is most characterized by its blend of ham, pork, cheese, mustard, and sometimes salami -- is hazy, to say the least. Though its name suggests a simple past, two Florida cities -- Miami and Tampa -- will tell you otherwise.  

It’s believed that the first Cuban sandwich was made more than a quincentenary ago the by Taíno tribe in Cuba. They were one of three different cultures that inhabited the island before Europeans arrived. Jorge Astorquiza, a food chemist in Tampa, says the Taínos used casabe bread, made from yucca, to make the dish. Instead of pork -- an unavailable meat at the time -- the Taínos stuffed fish and bird meat inside the center of two thin, crunchy slices of casabe, which would taste more like a cracker than a slice of dough.

When Europeans eventually arrived on the island -- primarily the Spaniards -- meats such as pork and ham were quickly introduced into the native’s diets, transforming the sandwich into a succulent, meaty mass. Casabe was substituted for a doughy, bread-like alternative also, which at the time was easier to make for the islanders. “Traces of the sandwich originate back from the Indians,” says Astorquiza, “but the sandwich was really invented with what was brought from Spain.”

Cuban tobacco
Cuban tobacco farm | Flickr/Guillaume Baviere

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.

“The Cubans came to Florida and started making their sandwich here,” Astorquiza states. “But it started to mesh with more Spaniards and Italians too, which explains the sandwiches key ingredients today, like roasted pork, ham, and salami. In order to differentiate the sandwich made in Cuba with Florida’s new version, the Cubans in Tampa started calling it a 'Cuban sandwich.'” Astorquiza continues, “Being in Cuba, there was no need to say 'Cuban sandwich,' it was just a sandwich. But its popularity in Cuba and in the States is just the same. If you want to get technical, though, it’s called a Cuban sandwich for a reason -- it was made by Cubans.”

The ingredients inside a Cuban sandwich are simple: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and if you’re in Tampa, salami. But recreating the age-old delicacy is far from easy. Putting aside the feud between Miami and Tampa for a moment, every Cuban sandwich needs Cuban bread -- which, although comparable to French or Italian bread, has a different baking method and ingredient list.

Because of the influx of immigrants who mainly worked in factories, a quick, affordable lunch was yearned for.

“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.

“A lot can affect the bread,” says Dana Neville, owner at Silver Ring Cafe, one of the oldest Cuban sandwich shops in Tampa. “The humidity, the weather, and the water can change its texture.” To give the bread its signature crunch and warmer inner texture, the sandwich should be pressed on a plancha, a special sandwich oven. “The main objective is the press,” says Astorquiza. “It heats it from the bottom and the top.” David Leon chimes in, “You can’t call it a Cuban sandwich and put the ingredients on an Italian baguette. You miss that flavor, that crunch, and the soft, moist inside.”

To an outsider, the origin of the Cuban sandwich might seem clear. Tampanians and Miamians, on the other hand, vehemently disagree. A long and nasty debate between two of the largest cities in Florida has created a rivalry so substantial that Tampa enacted a sandwich resolution, officially renaming the Cuban sandwich to the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich.” That later prompted Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado to say “The Cuban sandwich came in a raft from Cuba."

As Kanye West takes credit for Taylor Swift’s rise to fame, so does Miami for the Cuban sandwich. This is problematic because it's simply not true. “To call Miami the originator of the Cuban sandwich is the biggest lie ever,” says Astorquiza. “It has absolutely no roots. There were no Cubans in Miami at the time. It was all swampland.”  

To call Miami the originator of the Cuban sandwich is the biggest lie ever.

That said, there's a significant difference between the two: Tampa uses salami and Miami doesn’t. Because of the Italian population in Tampa, Genoa salami was to become the preferred meat stuffed inside the sandwich -- along with its other ingredients, of course. Salami or not, what Miami did do for the sandwich was popularize it. “Tampa predates Miami in terms of its origin,” says Dr. Paul George, a historian at the HistoryMiami Museum. “But Miami has such a large Cuban population, which made the sandwich really pervasive. Instead of it being confined to small neighborhoods in Tampa, Miami made it mainstream.”

Walk into any Miami restaurant, sandwich shop, perhaps even a bar, and you'll likely find a Cuban sandwich on the menu. Though it might not have salami (you’re in Miami after all), it will follow the basic practices of what makes it a tried-and-true cubano (see ingredient list above). However, there is a caveat. Wherever you go (especially in the 305), that specific locale will lay claim to making the “best" Cuban. Restaurants like Versailles in Little Havana, Luis Galindo's Latin American on Coral Way, Las Olas Cafe in Miami Beach, and Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop in Wynwood are just a few spots to snag an authentic (or close to it) version of a Cuban sandwich. Subway has one too, which is available in Miami and Broward counties… but if you're going to Subway for an authentic Cuban, what the hell are you doing with your life?

Jimmy’z Kitchen, with locations across Miami, makes its own version, which happens to be a little more gourmet than others. “We actually pull the pork,” says owner Jimmy Carey, “which a lot of people don’t do. We also use bread that’s a little different. It has more butter and flavor to it.” Carey believes restaurants in Miami don’t take enough time to properly make a Cuban sandwich. As someone who was raised eating cubanos, he says making the sandwich the right way is important.

“A lot of people don’t take the time and the effort to make a true version of the sandwich,” he says. “There’s a lot of cutting corners in Miami. Just because you have it on the menu doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. It takes physical work.”

Cuban sandwich
Cuban from El Palacio de Los Jugos | Flickr/T.Tseng

And although all cubanos should be made the same, they’re not. From lighter, moister bread, to crunchier French baguette-style; the incorporation of salami, along with lettuce and tomato; or a mayonnaise and mustard drizzle, each restaurant in Miami prides itself on its own iteration of the age-old staple, similarly to how it was created years ago. Whether one is better than another depends on you.

El Palacio de Los Jugos gets my vote. With locations across South Miami, it’s cheap (just about under $10 for a sandwich and a juice) and authentic (hugged with real Cuban bread and pressed with a plancha). Its no-frills appearance, along with an adherence to a Cuban’s basic ingredient needs (ham, roasted pork, Swiss and mustard), illustrate that a Cuban is as much about the soul as the ingredients that make it. So sure, it's the sandwich that's sparked debate far and wide, but at the end of the day it's still just a sandwich. And a damn delicious one at that -- whether you're in Tampa or Miami.

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Clarissa Buch is a Thrillist contributor who never thought she’d know this much about the Cuban sandwich. Follow her foodie-adventures on Instagram and Twitter.