Jeff Houck is the former food writer for the Tampa Tribune. In addition to being the author of The Cuban Sandwich Blog, he currently is a marketing and PR manager for the Columbia Restaurant Group in Tampa.
It can be said, sober-faced and without hyperbole or overstatement, that the Cuban sandwich is the king of Florida sandwiches.
With every bite, every nuanced, satisfying flavor, the ingredients of the Cuban sandwich tell the delicious tale of Tampa’s history. Decades before a trash fish named grouper swam between a bun, Cuban sandwiches were filling bellies from Pensacola to Key West.
Built upon mixto sandwiches that first migrated to Tampa from Cuba in the late 1880s and early 1900s, (they were literally a mixture of whatever meats were available to the island’s cooks), the modern Cubano born on Florida’s Gulf Coast reflects the rich combination of immigrant populations that founded Tampa.
The sandwich’s ingredients read like an immigration report: Cubans and Spanish who worked in Tampa’s cigar factories and coffee mills in Ybor City contributed the moist, roasted mojo pork, the creamy Swiss cheese and the glazed ham. Families of the city’s Italian stone masons added peppery Genoa salami. Jewish and German cooks embellished with tart pickles and tangy yellow mustard.
Surrounding the tasty combination—and crucial to the Cuban’s enjoyment—was the crusty-on-the-outside, tender-in-the-middle Cuban loaf split with local palmetto leaves. The loaf itself is a source of Cuban pride. The loaves, once oblong, were stretched and lengthened during a union strike in Tampa’s early years to make them easier to ration. Homes in Ybor City once had nails affixed to their exteriors on which loaves delivered daily from nearby bakeries could be impaled until the residents returned.
By the 1920s and ’30s, the sandwich had exploded in popularity throughout Tampa, with each restaurant adding its own variations in condiments, meats and breads. The Cuban sandwich eventually migrated south to Miami in the late 1940s as that city’s Cuban population slowly grew before exploding after the Cuban revolution in 1959. Miami gave it a makeover as well, removing the Genoa salami. Miami now considers it heresy to include that ingredient, even though the original sandwich on the island nation featured salchichon, a dried, cured Spanish sausage. Tampa considers it heresy that Miami claims ownership and describes the northern original as “a hoagie.” Gotta love Florida food fights.
The sandwich transformed again during the late 1950s and early ’60s when the crust of the bread began being coated with butter on the exterior and pressed thin between a hot plancha.
As the author of The Cuban Sandwich Blog on Tumblr, I take no official stance. As long as the heritage flavors are respected, all Cubans are equal in my eyes. Even those besmirched with vegetation.
Houck’s Favorite Orlando Cubans
649 Front St., Celebration
ZaZa New Cuban Diner
3500 Curry Ford Rd., Orlando
Havana Bistro & Café
7975 Orange Blossom Trl., Orlando
700 E Washington St., Orlando