Miami, Key West and Tampa-style Cuban sandwiches from Mi Apá Latin Café in Gainesville. Image courtesy of Mi Apá.
A Cuban sandwich under refrigeration in a convenience store in Welaka surprised me. Cuban fishermen from Miami have made it this far north, I thought. That’s how this sandwich got here, it’s the fishermen who want it. I picked a bottle of water and closed the door.
A sign of Cuban culture in a small town along the eastern bank of the St. Johns River – good news. Spotting the Cubano was more awesome than when I first saw sandhill cranes, those huge elegant birds who live inland. The Welaka sandwich increased a sense of personal security. People wouldn’t think me so odd – a middle-aged Cuban woman poking around alone. Now there was evidence the residents would welcome me as they had the sandwich. I had so much to learn about people and place.
The St. Johns River’s birthplace is further south, in Sanford. There, Robb’s Bakery, established in 1940 by Fred and Evarae Robb, made Cuban bread. Their three daughters looked forward to turning 11 so they could help at the bakery. In 1950, the nearby Naval Air Station was active because of the Korean War and the Cold War. Judy Robb remembers that pilots would call her father and place an order for 30 to 50 loaves of Cuban bread, which sold for 25 cents a loaf. The pilots would take them to Cuba. “They said we made better Cuban bread than the Cubans did,” Robb said.
*A traditional Cubana from Mi Apá Latin Café. Image courtesy of Mi Apá.
Good bread with a crust is key to excellence in the Cuban sandwich, especially because it is pressed. Recently, I had a topnotch one at Mi Apá Latin Café in Gainesville. A young man behind the counter addressed me in English, which saddened me a little. The café’s atmosphere was a bit like one in Miami. I ordered in Spanish. Once I got in the car and took a bite, I was back in Miami. It was perfect!
Mi Apá buys bread from La Segunda, a Tampa bakery established in 1915. I had the traditional Cuban sandwich ($8.69) but customers can also opt for an Ybor City Tampa Cuban ($9.29) or the Key West Cuban ($9.89). I won’t join the debate about the location of the sandwich’s origin, which then defines its compilation of ingredients. Tampa, Miami, Key West and Havana claim the Cubano, rightfully so. These places have long been home to Cubans.
The traditional Cuban sandwich assembled and pressed in Miami has the following: Cuban bread, roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. This is the one that brings me home. If you were raised in Tampa, you’d be used to salami in there as well. If you’re from Key West, the Cuban sandwich is like the Miami but with additional tomato, lettuce and mayo. In other words, geography and history play roles in the development of foods and foodways. Still, people like to argue. Mi Apá is brilliant to label and sell all three versions! And their Cuban sandwich is excellent, one of the best around this part of Florida.
Tampa, Key West and Miami all claim to be the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich. This photo is from a Cuban sandwich shop in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood in 1966. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.
Again and again I would drive to a small restaurant in Bunnell called Cuban Sandwiches. Their Cubano is excellent. The family-owned breakfast, lunch and take-out place is welcoming and serves traditional foods – hot meals included. Norma D’s in Hastings has a Havana Mama Cuban sandwich ($8.99) on its lunch menu. It is the Tampa version, since it has salami. The Havana name adds confusion. In any case, when I resolve to try it, I will try the Tampa style one at Norma D’s.
At an Earth Day celebration in Washington Oaks State Park this past April 23, I saw the Café Ybor Food Bus. I was eager to see their offerings for a little taste trip to Cuba, Tampa-style. Yet it boasted a Miami Cuban that didn’t get it right. I was bummed but didn’t go to the window to correct the owners. Later, on April 30, I read a statement on their website: “The Miami has baked ham, roast pork, genoa salami, swiss cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, Miami mayo, dill pickle chips. This is how they eat a Cuban in Miami. No judgement.” It looks like they combined all three versions into one, which probably tastes great. Yet, it is not the traditional Cuban sandwich served in Miami.
Perhaps their newfangled sandwich should be relabeled as Cuban-inspired. Odd Birds Café in St. Augustine has a Cuban-inspired breakfast sandwich with ham, bacon, two eggs over medium, swiss cheese and mayo, pressed on Cuban bread ($9.50). I thank them for the recognition and for taking it one step further. I can’t wait to try it. A regular Cuban sandwich ($11.50) is on their menu too.
Cuban sandwiches have been served in North Florida for many decades. In this 1984 photo, Bobby Ulloa of the Cuban Bakery in Jacksonville serves up his version. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.
The Moultrie Publix in St. Augustine carries Cuban-inspired pinwheels, four to a tray ($3.99). They are made of roast pork, cheddar cheese, ham, lettuce, pickles and mustard in roasted red pepper lavas. I appreciate the recognition of Cuba’s role in its conception but I would not remember Cuba or Miami if I eat these again. My eyebrows rose in front of Walmart’s freezer section about a year ago after spotting a package of Cuban Sandwich Egg Rolls made by Happi Foodi ($4.98). I bought this product twice. They are strange in a way but I will buy them again. Recipes for homemade ones can be found online. The Chinese contributed to the fusion that is traditional Cuban cuisine, so I was open to trying them. Oddly, I am not willing yet to try the Tampa or Key West Cuban sandwich. My reasoning on this matter is faulty.
Two newcomers to the Cuban food scene in St. Johns County include the Paladar Cuban Eatery in St. Augustine Beach and the 1928 Cuban Bistro 2 further north in the county. The Paladar Cuban Eatery has a traditional Cuban sandwich ($13.75). The person taking the order behind the counter asked if I wanted mustard and pickles on it, which was disappointing, as they are key to the traditional sandwich.
The option to leave those in or take them out contributes to a morphing of the traditional sandwich. This is dangerous given the North American impulse to improvise and improve on things. A case in point is the item on a menu in Alexandria, Virginia during the early 2000s: Havana Nachos. Not Havana-inspired. A Cuban in Cuba would not know a nacho, as corn tortillas are not part of our traditional cuisine. It’s a small thing but it contributes to the erosion of facts surrounding tradition and history. Traditional dishes should not bend to the highly individualized U.S. consumer. If a traditional dish or item is changed, the cook and their guests should understand they are enjoying a modified version of the original.
Carmen Castellanos, a Cuban friend who has lived in North Florida for many years, recalls accidentally seeing a Cuban sandwich on the lunch menu at a small restaurant on Nova Road in Daytona in 2014. Initially skeptical, she was super happy after the first bite. It was Miami! She asked the owners about how they learned to make it so well. Apparently, a shipment of frozen Cuban bread came daily and they took it from there. They were as serious about serving a good Cuban sandwich as I am about eating one.
Article by Marisella Veiga. Contact Marisella at firstname.lastname@example.org.