History says the first authentic Cuban sandwich was served in Tampa’s Columbia Restaurant in 1905. But which Florida city makes the better sandwich? Let the food fight begin.
By Tom Scherberger
Like Philadelphia’s cheesesteak, the Cuban sandwich is an icon for cheap eats in both Miami and Tampa.
And while the Cuban sandwich in either Florida city may look the same to the casual observer and have similar ingredients, the subtle differences can arouse the passions of locals.
Even the origins of the Cuban sandwich are in dispute.
In Miami, it is assumed that the sandwich came from – where else? – Cuba.
"We do know that Cuban sandwiches… were common on cafeteria and restaurant menus in Cuba by the 1930s, and there is some evidence of them as early as the turn of the century," writes Glenn Lindgren, one of the founders of the Three Guys From Miami website devoted to Cuban food.
But others – mostly in Tampa – trace the origins to the cafes and restaurants of Ybor City, Tampa's Latin Quarter that was once the cigar capital of the world and the second-largest immigrant population in the South.
One thing is for sure: The signature Cuban sandwich didn’t start in Miami, which was barely a city when the Columbia Restaurant opened its doors in Ybor City in 1905 with a Cuban sandwich on its menu.
These days, the commonly held belief is a Cuban sandwich isn't a Cuban sandwich unless it is heated on a sandwich press called a plancha (similar to a panini maker but without the ridges).
Lindgren, Raúl Musibay and Jorge Castillo – the Three Guys From Miami – insist that it's the pressing that distinguishes a real Cuban sandwich.
"You end up with a sandwich,’’ they write, “that is thin, hot, crispy and oozing delicious melted cheese."
They add: “As for the argument that a 'true Cuban sandwich' is never pressed, if you really like it that way in Tampa, more power to you!"
Ybor City native Jack Espinosa scoffs at the notion that Cuban sandwiches were always pressed. “The only thing you pressed was your pants," he jokes.
Espinosa, 79, says he was often sent on errands in the 1930s to buy Cuban sandwiches from a corner store for his godfather’s friends. They were 20 cents and weren’t even called Cuban sandwiches. They were “mixto" sandwiches, for the mixed meats that came on the long loaves of white bread.
Back then, a Cuban sandwich had included pork, ham, turkey, Genoa salami, swiss cheese, sour pickle slices and mustard. No mayo, lettuce or tomatoes. Those were added later by Anglos, or Americans as they were called in Ybor City. And it was the Anglos who started calling the mixto sandwich a Cuban sandwich, Espinosa says, because that’s who they saw eating them.
Espinosa worked as a nightclub comedian in Havana in the 1950s and remembers walking into a café and ordering a Cuban sandwich. The guy behind the counter gave him a look and said, “Every sandwich in here is Cuban." So he ordered a ham and cheese sandwich, the closest he could get. And it was pressed.
But in Ybor City, where food tours are held often, well-known Cuban sandwich purveyors such as the Silver Ring and La Tropicana served them cold or heated in an oven to crisp the bread.
George Bailey of St. Petersburg recalls going to Ybor City as a child in the 1950s with his family and eating Cuban sandwiches.
“At that time, there was no such thing as a ‘pressed’ Cuban," he recalls. “If you wanted it warmed up, they would place it in the oven for a few minutes before they wrapped it up in the white sandwich paper. I enjoy a pressed Cuban from time to time, but most likely because of all the years I ate Cuban sandwiches the original way, I am somewhat of a purist. So, if you see a sign that says ‘Authentic Pressed Cuban Sandwiches,’ they obviously don't know the history of them because ‘Authentic Cuban Sandwiches’ are not pressed.”
These days, whether in Tampa or Miami, you’ll rarely if ever find turkey on a Cuban sandwich the way Espinosa remembers them. And Tampa is the only place you’ll find Genoa salami mixed in with the pork and ham, likely because so many Italians were living in Ybor City at the time the sandwich was invented.
That’s not to say Cuban sandwiches were never pressed in Tampa. Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant chain, says the original Ybor City location had a window in the 1940s where they made and sold Cuban sandwiches – with two planchas in case customers wanted them pressed.
These days, if you order a Cuban sandwich in Tampa you’ll likely be asked if you want it pressed and if you want mayo, lettuce and tomato. In Miami, no such options are offered – it’s pressed or nothing, and don’t even think about lettuce, tomato or mayo. Often you won’t even get mustard.
But the greatest point of contention between Miami and Tampa concerns the bread. Both cities claim to have the best Cuban bread. And like the sandwich, there are subtle differences.
Tampa Cuban bread, best represented by the version still made by La Segunda Bakery for more than 100 years, has a thicker crust that produces a million shards of crumbs so distinctive Espinosa named his memoir Cuban Bread Crumbs. The loaf is about a yard long, but not as thick as the Miami Cuban bread. And it is cooked slightly longer, producing a darker exterior than the Miami version which, according to Three Guys from Miami, is cooked for less time so the bread isn’t too dark when it is pressed.
“With a crisp crust on the outside and a lightly textured inside, a warm, fresh-baked loaf of Cuban bread is the next best thing to heaven," the Three Guys write.
And on that Tampa advocates can agree.
But then he loses them: “Although there are some limited areas of the country where you can get a decent loaf of Cuban bread – cities like Chicago and Union City, N.J. – the best Cuban bread is made in South Florida."
As far as Espinosa is concerned, the only authentic Cuban sandwich is the kind he grew up eating. But it’s so hard to find such sandwiches anymore, he says, “I don’t know what authentic means anymore."
Cuban Sandwich Restaurants in Tampa
2117 E. 7th Ave.
The Floridian Cuban Sandwiches
4424 W. Kennedy Boulevard
West Tampa Sandwich Shop
3904 N Armenia Ave.
Brocato's Sandwich Shop
5021 East Columbus Drive
La Ideal Sandwich Shop
2924 West Tampa Bay Boulevard
Wright's Gourmet House
1200 South Dale Mabry Highway
Cuban Sandwich Restaurants in Miami
El Latin American Cafeteria
1509 Coral Way
El Palacio de los Jugos
14300 SW 8th St.
5721 W Flagler St.
3555 Southwest 8th Street
Puerto Sagua Restaurant
700 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach
Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop
186 Northeast 29th Street
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