A Cuban sandwich is the stuff of which food memories are made. I still remember my first — enjoyed nearly 30 years ago at a small restaurant on Key Biscayne off the Miami coast. It was savory, it was crusty, it was delicious and it hit the spot.
What is a Cuban sandwich? Think of it like a golden, crispy submarine sandwich but without the lettuce, tomato or other trimmings.
Most recipes call for sliced ham, roast pork with a citrusy marinade (called mojo) and Swiss cheese layered in a loaf of Cuban bread, then garnished with pickles and mustard. The sandwich is heated in a sandwich press until warm and crusty, then sliced diagonally. Anything beyond that and you risk the ire of traditionalists who have a firm view of what makes a sandwich Cubano — and what does not.
Authenticity matters. Raquel Rabade Roque, the Miami-based author of The Cuban Kitchen, talks of the importance of keeping traditions and maintaining the purity of the Cuban sandwich. It’s fairly simple to put together actually, but maybe the best route is just to enjoy the Cuban sandwich however you can make it or wherever you can find it.
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Although Roque warns against heating and pressing the Cuban sandwich in a panini grill — the true sandwich doesn’t sport grill marks — not everyone has access to the special sandwich press used in restaurants. The authors of Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban, brothers-in-law Glenn Lindgren, Raul Musibay and Jorge Castillo, report good results warming the sandwiches on a griddle using a bacon press or heavy cast-iron pan to compress the Cuban.
Cuban sandwiches should, ideally, be made on Cuban bread, but you can use a French bread or crusty sub-type loaf. “Ideally, you need a loaf that is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside,” Lindgren notes.
Mojo-marinated roast pork can be found at some ethnic and specialty markets, even some supermarket delis. But do consider marinating and roasting the pork yourself. It’s easy, and you can make a dinner or two out of the meat (reserving some leftovers for the sandwiches).
The biggest challenge to making the marinade is finding sour oranges, but you can use a mix of citrus to achieve the desired tang. Use the mojo not just on pork but beef, fish and chicken. My aunt in Miami would even marinate her Thanksgiving turkey in it.
However you make it, think of the Cuban sandwich as more of a snack, not part of a formal meal. “(It’s) perfect for a late breakfast or late dinner with the customary cafe con leche (coffee and milk),” Roque wrote in an email.
“Here in Miami, where we eat Cuban 24/7, the sandwich Cubano is just part of a daily ritual,” she added. “A sandwich Cubano, a croqueta and a Cuban coffee gets us all going!”
For a Cuban sandwich to be a true “sandwich Cubano,” one has to follow a set of unwritten rules, Roque insists.
There is “no mayo, no lettuce, no veggies,” she says. “It is a crunchy dry sandwich with just a hint of mustard — that’s all. Super-simple but super, super good.”
“Super, super good?” Oh, yes. Just try Roque’s recipe and taste for yourself.
“Super simple?” Maybe not so much, given that the heritage and how-to of this sandwich can generate such a passionate fuss among its fans.
Consider what happened in 2012 when the city council of Tampa voted to name the Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich as the city’s signature sandwich. It’s made with the usual ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese but also sports sliced Genoa salami. The media gleefully followed the resulting food fight between Cuban sandwich fans in Tampa and Miami, both of whom consider the Cuban sandwich as their own.
Richard Gonzmart, a fourth-generation Tampa restaurateur who distributes how-to sandwich diagrams to employees of his Columbia Restaurant Group, says the Tampa version, developed in the city’s Ybor City neighborhood back in the 19th century, reflects the ethnic composition of its people: Cubans (pork), Spaniards (ham), Jews from Russia and Germany (mustard, pickles) and Italians (salami).
“You’re biting into history,” he says.
In Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban, the authors describe Tampa’s use of salami as an understandable blending of cultures. But, they added, “you won’t find salami on a Cuban sandwich in just about any other city.”
As for claims Tampa Cubans invented the sandwich, the “Three Guys” wrote: “We’re not even going to go there.”
The men do note the Cuban’s obscure origins. The sandwich was found on Cuban menus in the 1930s, they said, and there’s “some evidence” of the sandwich going back to the early 20th century.
The Columbia restaurant was opened in Ybor City back in 1905 by Gonzmart’s great-grandfather. The restaurant’s website boasts the sandwich served today is made according to “the original 1915 recipe” of the founder.
Gonzmart, for one, says he loves the simmering controversy over what makes a true Cuban sandwich.
Slice half a loaf of Cuban bread horizontally; spread yellow mustard on both halves. On bottom half, place 3 slices sweet Virginia ham, 3 slices roast pork (see recipe) and 3 slices Swiss cheese. Follow up with 4 slices sweet pickle. Place the sandwich on a sandwich grill (or in a lightly greased skillet or on a griddle, weighting the sandwich with a heavy skillet). Cook until hot and cheese is melted. Slice diagonally across the middle and serve.
Source: “The Cuban Kitchen,” by Raquel Rabade Roque.
Cuban-style roast pork
Mash 1 head garlic (10-15 cloves, peeled) and 1 teaspoon each salt and black peppercorns into a paste using a mortar and pestle (or a food processor). Stir in 1 cup freshly squeezed sour orange juice, 1 cup minced onion and 2 teaspoons oregano. Let sit at room temperature, 30 minutes. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a saucepan until hot, about 220 degrees. Remove pan from heat; quickly whisk in the garlic-orange juice mixture until well blended. Let cool before using.
Pierce 1 pork shoulder roast (4 to 6 pounds) all over with a sharp knife or fork. Pour garlic mixture (save a little for basting while roasting) over pork. Cover; let sit in refrigerator, 2-3 hours. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place pork in a roasting pan; sprinkle marinade over pork. Cook uncovered, 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 225 degrees; cook until the meat is soft and pulls apart easily with a fork, 4-8 hours. Baste occasionally while roasting. Remove pork from pan; allow to rest. Heat the pan juices to a boil; simmer until the juice is reduced by half. Sprinkle some juice onto the pork when you put it in the sandwich. Makes 8 servings.
Note: If sour oranges are not available, use two parts fresh orange to one part fresh lemon and one part fresh lime.
Source: Adapted from “Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban,” by Glenn Lindgren, Raul Musibay and Jorge Castillo.