The Cuban sandwich isn’t a miracle of flavor and texture. It’s hearing a Taylor Swift song that makes you sob into your T-shirt as you mumble, “she knows me, she knows me,” as you play it over and over in fits of ecstasy and memory. The Cuban sandwich was birthed from the calloused hands and longing of immigrants far from home who, through their skill and desire to connect with their new neighbors, created a food that only to made you believe it was divine. It remixed Caribbean and European flavors into a sandwich that is so balanced and perfect that we take it, and the Cuban immigrants who created it, for granted. I always believed our ancestors only used 6 ingredients–Cuban bread, ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles–to create the greatest sandwich in the world until I heard about a renegade bunch of Cuban immigrants in Tampa, FL, that put Genoa salami in their sandwiches. As a Cuban-American raised in Miami that knows how seriously Cubans take their traditions, I needed to understand why and only a quest of the mind and body, with Taylor as my soundtrack, would do.
It’s likely many of you already know what a Cuban sandwich tastes like. Your grocery store right now probably has some potato chips that approximate the flavors of the Cuban sandwich experience. None of them are good, and there are more satisfying flavored chips to fuel your self-loathing, but you know you’ve reached cultural acceptance when potato chip brands try to make the Matrix version of your favorite comforting flavors. The spiritual homes of these flavors though are Miami and Tampa and, like the Matrix, you cannot be told what a good Cuban sandwich should taste like. You have to experience it for yourself, in town, while sweating through your shirt and being teased by the nearby aromas of sweet Cuban coffee.
To the surprise of some, Miami isn’t the only city in Florida with a large and influential Cuban-American community. The Cuban influence on Tampa dates back to the establishment of the cigar industry by Cuban immigrant, Vicente Martinez-Ybor, in the area of the city that now bears his name in the late 19th century. Even José Martí, hero of Cuban independence, gave numerous lectures in what is now Ybor City when Miami hadn’t even been founded yet. The powerful Cuban community in Miami didn’t even establish itself until the 1960’s and 70’s, and didn’t truly come into its own until the 1980’s. Tampa’s Cuban community has been there since the 1880’s.
So let’s get this out of the way: Tampa’s Cuban sandwich got here first. They brought whatever form of the sandwich existed on the island and started making it in Ybor City for all of the immigrant families who lived and worked there. Among these immigrants was a sizable community of Italians and that’s how you get the salami amongst all that ham and pork because, at that point, why not add more pork? Also, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles aren’t Cuban or Spanish in origin either so the sandwich is actually a testament to Ybor City’s vibrant, and diverse, immigrant community rather than a nostalgic treat from Cuba.
I’m a big believer in seeking a baseline version of classics before trying out all of its different expressions. The baseline Cuban sandwich in Miami can be found at the restaurant Versailles in Little Havana. It’s not the fanciest or even the tastiest but it’s always executed perfectly and to expectations. It’s the version all other restaurants and bakeries in Miami riff on. I decided the baseline in Tampa could be found at Ybor City’s own Columbia, that’s been owned and operated by the same family since 1905. I didn’t go to the original location but I felt secure in the consistency of this historic Florida restaurant. The menu features an authentic mix of Spanish and Cuban dishes but I was not distracted and Columbia makes sure of that with all of the real estate dedicated to its most famous of offerings:
The overall experience at Columbia was excellent. It’s the kind of place you might dismiss as touristy with all of the table-side preparations and almost Disney-like theming but all of the food we tried was tasty and prepared with a high degree of precision and care.
It didn’t take long for the sandwich to let me down though. The pickle was relegated to a garnish and my sandwich did not even have mustard best I could tell.
This defied the description in the menu and everything we know about Cuban sandwiches regardless of variation. I didn’t ask the waitress if this was normal so I can only guess as to why.
The sandwich was otherwise perfectly executed. The Cuban bread was the best Cuban bread I’ve had in years. I’ve gotten so used to ordinary bakery and grocery store Cuban bread in Miami that I forgot how good Cuban bread can actually be. It even still had some palmetto leaf in the crust–a traditional addition on top of the dough as it bakes to create the split in the loaf–which I don’t see often in Miami breads anymore. The ham and pork was also flavorful and sliced thin to consistently maximize the rich meaty bliss of every bite. It reminded me a lot of the sandwich from my favorite sandwich shop in Miami, Sanguich, that prepares their Cuban sandwich similarly (without salami, of course). Then came the salami which, at first, made me question everything I thought I knew about Cuban sandwiches. It was good! For a little while. In a sandwich with no mustard and pickles, it plays a similar role as it delivers more of an acidic, tangy, contrast than another heart-stopping fatty pork flavor bomb. But instead of perfectly complimenting the meats, cheese, and buttery soft crunch of the bread, it kept fighting against it as you keep eating. The salami does too much and ultimately overwhelms the rest of the flavors. It also makes it saltier than I’m accustomed to.
I finished the sandwich dejected and numb. It wasn’t bad. It’s just like when you’ve anticipated a movie for years, buying the merchandise, and dragging all your friends to it, only to walk out of the theater grieving over the loss of one’s self to a middling effort as friends console you. I wanted to like it. I normally love Genoa salami but in a Cuban sandwich, whether it was the first Cuban sandwich or not, I just can’t abide.
There was no sobbing into T-shirts or desires to experience it again. Just a shrug and a long trip home with my favorite sad songs.
I love the story though. I love what it says about the immigrant experience here in the United States. People from all over came together to make some cigars, share some food, and created an icon that enriched us. Miami made it famous, perhaps obnoxiously so and absent one of those immigrant-inspired ingredients, but there’s no need for a rivalry. All we need to remember is the story and that making friends with your neighbors sometimes means you have to put salami in your sandwich.
I may not like it but the world is better for it.