In the Local Palate’s Spring travel issue, our editors explore the South through its iconic sandwiches. This one takes us to sunny Tampa, Florida, where the Cuban sandwich made its first documented appearance.
Stop Four: Cuban Sandwiches | Tampa
Although the Cuban sandwich may have originated in Cuba, it’s also true that it wouldn’t have been called a Cuban (or Cubano) there. Therefore Florida can rightly lay claim to its origins. Cubans’ emigration to Florida increased as they sought freedom from Spanish rule, and many came first to Key West and then to the Ybor City south of Tampa. There, they found work in Vicente Ybor’s cigar factories. The Tampa Tribune makes reference to the Cuban sandwich as early as 1906, beating out Miami records by almost 20 years, though oral history paints a widely varied picture.
Tampa is also home to the famous La Segunda Central Bakery, founded under another name in 1915, and is still run by its founding family, the Morés. It is one of the few remaining bakeries that makes Cuban bread the old-fashioned way by applying steam and allowing the proofed dough to dry in front of fans, giving the bread its paper-thin crust. (According to What’s Cooking America, Tampa was also home to the first Cuban bread producer in America, La Joven Francesca Bakery, oddly enough founded by a Sicilian.) La Segunda tops each loaf with a traditional strip of palmetto leaf to keep moisture inside the bread.
Out of that heritage, restaurants like the Columbia in Tampa have made an art out of sourcing the finest ingredients for the Cuban. Salami is a distinguishing (and delicious) trait of the Tampa Cuban, not typically found farther south, and its inclusion is as hotly contested as the rivalry over the sandwich’s origins.
Not just any sandwich can claim to have a book written about it, so if you’d like to know more you’re in luck: The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers by Andrew T. Huse, Bárbara C. Cruz, and Jeff Houck not only gives an impressive history of the sandwich but also offers firsthand accounts from restaurateurs and chefs who have made it their mission to preserve the Cuban’s recipe, authenticity, and lore.
4 Core Components of a Cuban Sandwich
A long loaf of Cuban bread, slightly more rectangular than a baguette, is key. Traditional Cuban bread is baked with a palmetto leaf strip across the top, which has the effect of scoring the bread to create the signature flaky crust and soft interior.
Swiss cheese is layered on top of the meat, followed by sliced dill sandwich pickles; a smear of yellow mustard on the top piece of bread completes the sandwich.
Slices of glazed ham make up the first layer, followed by mojo pork, which has been marinated in orange and lime juice, garlic, and cumin and slow roasted. Tampa Cubans include Genoa salami on top for a pork trifecta.
Where to Find a Cuban Sandwich in Tampa
Renowned as Florida’s oldest restaurant, open since 1905, they use the founder’s original 1915 recipe for their classic version of the sandwich—and current fourth-generation owner Richard Gonzmart swears by the almost scientific construction of the sandwich’s layers, down to the exact number of pickles.
Founder Joseph Palau was inspired by his Cuban abuela to open a restaurant that would “satisfy your Cuban cravings.” His El Tampeño sandwich was the winner of “most popular Cuban sandwich” at the 2022 Cuban Sandwich Festival. The menu also offers a breakfast version and a Midnight Special version on sweet Cuban egg bread.
Their claim to fame is “best BBQ in Tampa” but they also deserve recognition for their Pitmaster Queban, which combines slow-smoked brisket, pulled pork, and smokehouse bologna with swiss cheese, a Deviled Pig pickle trio, and signature pirate mustard sauce.
- by Erin Byers Murray