The debate over which Florida city can claim the cuban sandwich rages on
It happens in the best families. A shared inheritance becomes a point of contention and what once brought you together becomes the very thing that pulls you apart. For Cuban-Americans, who have emigrated to Florida in successive waves since the mid-nineteenth century, this plays out at the lunch counter, where the right way to make a cuban sandwich, or cubano, has become a decades-long debate between Tampa and Miami.
The two sandwiches are essentially the same in every way that matters. It should start with fresh cuban bread, a tender, airy loaf with an eggshell crust that gives way under a flat-iron press called a plancha. Ham and roast pork are foundational, though the ratio and thickness may vary. The preferred condiment is yellow mustard, though a pungent dijon or grain mustard can be considered. The pickles are sweet or sour and the cheese is swiss. Mayonnaise is highly controversial but not the deal breaker it once was. The real question is Italian salami and whether it has any business in a quintessential cuban sandwich.
Chef Jeffrey Brana, whose family emigrated to Tampa from Cuba in the 1930s, believes it does. Though best known for his work with Norman Van Aken at famed Miami restaurants like Norman’s and Tuyo, he remains loyal to the Tampa cuban.
“While I couldn’t tell you where in Tampa to get Cuban food that would match some of the current gems in Miami, or what we all remember from family and dutifully try to recreate, I never find myself eating a cuban sandwich in Miami,” Brana admits. “In contrast, when I go back home [to Tampa] it’s always at the top of my list. For the record, if it doesn’t have salami it isn’t a cuban sandwich.”
For Tampa, salami is not only what makes a great cuban, it’s what makes it their cuban. When Vicente Martinez Ybor transferred the Principe de Gales cigar operation from Key West to Tampa in 1886, Cuban and Spanish factory workers brought their meaty mixto sandwich with them. Soon after, the area known as Ybor City attracted Italian factory workers and German lithographers to work in the growing cigar industry. According to local lore, Italians added the genoa salami to the sandwich while Germans are credited with the swiss cheese and pickles.
The Columbia Restaurant, founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez in 1905, was there from the beginning. What started as a small cafe serving coffee and sandwiches to cigar workers expanded to include five restaurants and two cafes. Andrea Gonzmart-Williams represents the fifth generation to take part in the family-owned restaurant. “All of the ingredients are derived from everyone who immigrated to turn-of-the-century Ybor City. You have your cuban bread and pork which is representative of the Cubans; you have your ham, which is Spanish; and then you have your salami,” insists Gonzmart-Williams. “I’m very much a purist and believe that a cuban sandwich is just the original ingredients.”
The Columbia cuban sandwich is made with palm leaf-scored bread from La Segunda Central Bakery. Their relationship goes back over a century when Juan Moré, a Catalan who encountered cuban bread while fighting in the Spanish-American War, founded the bakery in 1915. “It’s a really simple recipe but we make it different than other bakers,” says his great-grandson Copeland Moré, who currently runs the factory with his father, Tony. Non-trans fat shortening replaced lard long ago, but the process for making the bread has stayed the same. “It’s still rolled out by hand, the palmetto is put on by hand, every loaf is individually placed in the oven by hand. We have three ten-man crews of bakers making cuban bread every day.”
While they’ve supplied Tampa-area restaurants for years, they didn’t offer their own cuban sandwich until the late seventies, when they added a storefront cafe to the factory. Moré believes bread is the key to a great cuban. “Our bread is flakier when you bite into it. It’s crunchy but not hard like some Italian breads,” he says. “The cuban bread that I know from Miami is more like what we think of as a hoagie roll or a soft crust medianoche bread.”
Cultural differences run deep, and Moré points out that they sell more cuban bread in Alaska than they do in Miami. “People in Tampa get upset because if you ask someone in Nebraska or Ohio about the cuban sandwich, they automatically say Miami because Miami is the larger city and has a larger Cuban population,” says Moré. “But, it was made here in Tampa long before it was made in Miami.”
But while Miamians can’t point to the founding of a city for their Miami cuban’s start date, they regard the sandwich as their own culinary legacy brought directly from Cuba’s late night cafes and restaurants with the influx of refugees to South Florida in the 1950s. The classic combination of roast pork, ham, swiss cheese, and pickles might be pressed on a sweet medianoche roll, or come with a couple of ham croquetas tucked inside, but salami does not make the cut.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have fun with it. When popular Miami chef Michael Beltran of Coconut Grove’s Ariete put the sandwich on his menu, he replaced the roast pork with duck confit, used Benton’s country ham, chose a good organic swiss cheese, added house-brined pickles, and mixed up his own sour orange mustard. Foie gras croquetas were optional.
Though Beltran firmly believes the cuban sandwich is more representative of Miami, he gives Tampa its due and would consider adding salami. “Why would you not want to do that,” asks Beltran laughing. “It’s just pork delivered differently, and I think they’re both very good.”
Andrew Huse, an archivist and librarian at the University of South Florida, has come across early variations of the cuban sandwich that challenge these notions of ownership and authenticity. He believes we should focus on making all cubans better instead. “We have a common enemy, and that’s mediocrity. It doesn’t matter how much we fight about it until people step up and make a superior version,” says Huse. “Certainly there are good versions here and there, but the market gave up on quality, so people started looking for the cheapest instead of the best.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Rosa Romero and Daniel Lazaro Figueredo, owners of Sanguich de Miami. The young Cuban-American couple was starting a family and pursuing careers in law and design when they found themselves daydreaming about owning their own sandwich shop.
At the close of 2016, Figueredo announced plans to quit his job and start selling sandwiches on the festival circuit while they developed their concept. Romero, who was pregnant with their second daughter at the time, went all in, helping marinate 700 pounds of pork for their first stand at the annual Coconut Grove Arts Festival. “We just put everything in motion and we did it,” says Romero.
They transformed a shipping container with a walk-up window into a jewel box with delicate gold leaf tile work that Figueredo hand-painted himself. Word of mouth spread quickly and each festival appearance was met with longer lines. This summer they plan to open a brick and mortar in Little Havana.
Their attention to detail has carried over into their menu. Their ham is brined for seven days, their pork is marinated with translucent shards of garlic, the dill pickles are housemade from local produce, and even their yellow mustard gets a heady dose of spice to heighten the flavor. Romero contacted a baker in Homestead to develop a traditional lard-based bread recipe, and they use freshly rendered lard instead of butter in the press. “It’s not so much what I remember a cuban sandwich to be; it’s what I knew it could be,” says Figueredo.
For many Miami Cubans, this was a standard set by the original Latin American Cafeteria opened by brothers Luis and Raúl Galindo in 1974, often cited as the first restaurant to focus exclusively on cuban sandwiches. When it succumbed to family squabbles and multiple lawsuits in the early 1990s, Luis opened a new location which he sold to his friend Elias G. Elias along with the right to use his name shortly before his passing. Elias’ granddaughter Melissa eventually stepped in to help her family run the restaurant, now known as Luis Galindo’s Latin American Cafeteria & Restaurant.
True to the Galindo family’s original concept, the counterman, or lonchero, stands behind a large wraparound counter, under a curtain of hanging hams, carving sandwiches to order. “The bread shouldn’t be what we call suela de zapato (shoe sole) where you feel like you have to pull it. It should crunch and everything else should follow,” says Elias. “It’s kind of like a harmony where everything just goes together, because a cuban sandwich should make you happy from the first bite.”
While the cuban is their best seller—it’s even taken the top prize when it’s gone up against Miami’s best chefs at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival—a variation named for Elias’ uncle Alfredo is a favorite with regulars. “He used to add turkey, bacon, a little bit of mayo, and housemade mojo,” Elias says. “It’s a stepped-up cuban, like a cuban sandwich on stilettos.”
Loyal to her Miami sandwich, Elias admits she’s never tried one from Tampa, though she doesn’t see them as mutually exclusive. If every family needs a peacemaker, Elias could help reconcile Tampa and Miami. “It’s their way, and we have our way,” says Elias. “I don’t see it as a rivalry, just that the Cubans who migrated to that area, at that time, used what they had to make their version of a cuban sandwich. That’s what everyone fell in love with and they kept that tradition alive—and we did the same thing here in Miami.”