It was a blisteringly
steamy day in Miami. The city was swathed in sapphire blue skies flaked
with puffs of silvery clouds, and the rays of the summer sun cut through
brightly, leaping across neon-sprayed walls and faded buildings as we
drove through the hip Wynwood Arts District, buzzed on Cuban coffee.
Heading east across bridges planking dreamy canals on roads with names
like Dolphin Expressway, the graffiti-lined streets gave way to the
whitewashed Art Deco storefronts of Miami Beach. Lush palm trees
intermingled with magenta bougainvillea, marking the path to the beach
where turquoise waters awaited. Latin jazz played on the car radio, the
muggy air seeping through the windows. It was the perfect setting in
which to explore the history of the city’s legendary Cuban sandwich – or
at least, it seemed to be.
The Cuban sandwich, comprised of thinly sliced ham and roast
pork layered with Swiss cheese, a crisp pickle and yellow mustard served
on sliced Cuban bread, is a Miami icon, a culinary mainstay symbolic of
the city’s thriving Cuban community. But astonishingly it is 280 miles
northeast in the Florida city of Tampa where the sandwich’s story
Bienvenido a… Tampa? In
the late 19th Century, Tampa was a thriving shipping and mining city,
thanks to its harbour at Tampa Bay and the phosphates discovered deep in
its soil. Miami, meanwhile, counted fewer than 300 residents. When
economic hardships and crushing cigar tariffs hit Cuba around 1886,
thousands of Cuban workers migrated north to the shores of South
Florida, bringing with them culinary and cultural traditions and
igniting Tampa’s cigar-making boom. Between 1886 and the 1930s, Tampa’s
Ybor City neighbourhood became home to a thriving Cuban community and
the city’s first cigar factory, giving it the name the “Cigar Capital of
restaurants and cafes sprang up alongside the flourishing factories to
feed the troves of hungry workers, and it was at this point that the
Cuban sandwich first appeared, then called a mixto for the many
meats used. It was easily portable and perfect for carrying from coffee
carts, restaurants and cafeterias back to the factory line. Legend has
it that Americans in Tampa renamed the sandwich the Cubano because of
the Cuban workers who feasted on it daily. By the 1930s, the sandwich
was ubiquitous in Tampa. It was South Florida’s answer to New York’s hot dog – pervasive working class food that, over time, seeped into the city’s conscience and culinary identity.
the late 1940s, the Cuban sandwich began to make its mark in Miami. It
was first sold at a modest bar in the northwest of the city, the (now
closed) Do Drop Inn, which was opened by Cuban-born Miamian Frank
Garces. And in 1959, as generations of Cuban expatriates began to settle
in Miami following the Cuban Revolution, both the city’s Cuban
community and the sandwich thrived.
By the 1960s, Cuban sandwiches
were saturating the menus of Miami’s restaurants, cafeterias, take-out
windows and street carts. The city has not looked back since.
Miami’s turn Think
of the Cuban sandwich today and it is Miami, with its Little Havana
neighbourhood and prominent Cuban community, that springs to mind.
Travellers flock here for what they know as Miami’s most iconic dish.
And born-and-bred Miamians rarely know (or at least acknowledge) that
the cherished favourite began miles north in Tampa. Even Miami’s mayor
Tomas Regalado outwardly disapproved when Tampa’s City Council
considered trade marking the sandwich as the “Historic Tampa Cuban
Sandwich” in 2012.
Considering the sandwich’s working-class
roots, it may seem unlikely that one of Miami’s tastiest and most
satisfying Cubano experiences is in whitewashed, glitzy South Beach,
but Las Olas Café
is out to prove sceptics wrong. Tucked away on an off-the-beaten-path
corner, the deli-like space serves one of the finest Cuban sandwiches in
the city. Head inside and join the queue of loyalists patiently waiting
to order plates of black beans and rice, stews and pork shoulder,
steaming on stainless steel trays. Be prepared to move quickly and order
in Spanish from the women dancing behind the counter. Opposite, a large take-away window lets in Miami’s humid air. Old men lean on the outside windowsill, ordering cortados (espresso with milk) and empanadas to go.
Behind a Plexiglas window my sandwich was made to order. A perfectly
pressed Cubano emerged, as compact as a hand-rolled cigar. It was
thinner than most versions I had seen, but inside the layers were
brilliantly married and the textures sublime. The Swiss cheese oozed,
the ham was freshly roasted and the pork was rich and moist. The grilled
bread was a touch sweet and beautifully crisp. One bite – er, sandwich –
later and it did not matter where the Cubano was born, just that it
made its way here.
If Las Olas is a revelation, Puerto Sagua
is an institution. Opened 47 years ago in Miami Beach, the modest
diner-like eatery is today flanked by Gap and Benetton clothing stores.
Inside, a long, countertop meets dark wood panelling, and the handful of
tables are lined with paper placemats promoting Florida. Like La Olas,
my Cubano was brought to the plancha (grill-like press) before
making its way to the table, though this time the end result was less
compact. The pork was melt-in-your-mouth, slow roasted in the
traditional way with a mojo, a garlic and citrus marinade, which left the meat sublimely tender.
A third gem is Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop,
a modest diner/lunch counter where a fully female staff serves up
extraordinary Cuban eats to the hipsters and young entrepreneurs in
Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. Here, the bread of my Cuban sandwich was
less sweet, toasted until crisped and lightly brushed with butter before
hitting the plancha. A hint of garlic hidden somewhere in the
sandwich made it pop. Within, each element – from the salty ham to the
delightful pork – was well-executed, coming together to create a
balanced and rich snack.
Dotted throughout the city, Cuban
cafeterias and markets, carts and restaurants are plentiful. But no
Cubano tour is complete without a stop at legendary Versailles
in the West Flagler neighbourhood. Adorned with large windows and
over-the-top chandeliers, the eatery feels as though it’s from another
era. Self-titled the “world’s most famous Cuban restaurant”, Versailles
has been a mainstay for Cuban expats since opening in 1971. The mostly
older clientele happily dine and chat nearly exclusively in Spanish.
the green, red and white hexagon-tiled floors to the restaurant’s
take-away counter and order a Cubano to go. Although an institution, it
is not Miami’s best. My bread was warmed, not heavily pressed, and
covered with a thin layer of mayonnaise – sacrilegious on any Cubano. Still
the ham was tasty and beautifully chased with a pastry and a strong
Cuban coffee from their adjoining bakery. If you really want to go
local, pick-up one of their cigars – sold alongside the cookies and
tarts – for a truly authentic end to the experience.