A spirited debate surrounds the origins of the Cuban sandwich.
Partisan “Cuban” connoisseurs from Key West and Miami insist the tasty mix of ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayonnaise, and mustard is their creation.
While Ybor City, the backbone of Tampa Cuban culture, maintains cigar factory workers brought their favorite lunch item with them from Cuba in the late 1800s.
La Cubanita Café owner, Elia Kallas, has been making – and studying – the Cuban sandwich since 1996. He agreed the sandwich’s heritage can be cloudy. “It’s a mystery,” he said. But his main Cuban offering – available at 19040 Bruce B. Downs – sticks to the original Ybor City formula.
His voice dropped an octave when hitting the finer details. “Virginia baked ham, marinated pork loin, and imported Swiss cheese," he said.
Get it right, or call your sandwich something else.
“Me personally, I want to keep the integrity of the Cuban sandwich,” said Kallas.
Culinary competition between Florida coasts aside, Tampa turned the sandwich into an art form. And engineering the perfect Cuban requires more love – and ingredients - than a brown-bag ham and cheese.
At this point, feel free to skip to the recipe, but chewing on a little more Cuban sandwich history may make your next local delicacy even more meaningful. You’ll be taking a bite out of Tampa.
Starting in 1886, a flood of Cuban immigrants arrived in Tampa, escaping poverty and warfare in their homeland and building new lives in the cigar factories dotting Ybor City. The “mixto” – a primitive version of the Cuban sandwich – was a standard lunch item helping energize long, hard factory shifts.
Italians came, too. Lacking the cigar-rolling skills of their Cuban neighbors, Tampa’s Italian forefathers took support roles around the cigar factories. They also supported the Cuban sandwich, adding salami to the sandwich’s legend.
The cigar factories and the spirit of Ybor City thrived for almost fifty years, with cigar production peaking in the late 1920’s. The Great Depression and World War II shook the factories and shrunk the community, but the Cuban sandwich lived on. The Silver Ring Café – the sandwich’s biggest brand name - opened in 1947, selling Cubans to tourists for less than a dollar.
The Cuban sandwich had gone mainstream.
A Cuban is not a Cuban unless it’s pressed and sandwiched between Cuban bread. At least, that’s the purist’s view.
The electric press – melting the cheese and preserving the meats’ juices - appeared in local Tampa cafes in the 1920s. And traditional Cuban bread baked long, lean, and meant for rationing was Cuba’s reaction to a hungry country fighting Spanish rule.
Kallas, greeting customers at his New Tampa Cuban cafeteria, intimated the sandwich will remain a curious local cuisine. It’s the bread. “You can’t mass produce Cuban bread, it must be handmade. They’ve never been able to develop a mold for the Cuban bread. We get ours fresh every day from bakeries still making the original,” he said.
The same immigrant zest that helped shaped Tampa, will continue to shape the sandwich.
How to make a plate of Cuban sandwiches:
- 2 loaves of fresh Cuban bread
- 1 lb sliced Virginia baked ham
- ½ lb marinated pork loin (mojo marinade)
- Genoa salami (by preference)
- ¾ lb Swiss cheese
- Dill pickles
- Mustard/mayonnaise mix
- Slice the ends off the Cuban loaf and cut into 8”-12” pieces.
- Pile a ¼ lb of ham, pork, Swiss cheese slices, and a generous serving of pickles on the bread.
- Lather the bread with the mayo/mustard mix.
- Have a sandwich press? Heat it up. If not, bring a skillet to medium heat.
- Close the press (if not available take a large pan or heavy meat press and flatten the sandwich in the skillet).
- The sandwich press should heat for about 5 minutes; the manual process should take 2-3 minutes per side.
- Cut the sandwich in half, lengthwise, and serve immediately. Enjoy!
Kitchen Tip: traditionalists layer ingredients – top slice only - in the above sequential order.
La Cubanita Cafe:
Address: 19040 Bruce B Downs Boulevard
Phone number: (813) 632-9100