Where is the authentic Cuban sandwich from? Ever hear of the International Cuban Sandwich Festival in Tampa in March? How about a Cuban sandwich in South Korea? What’s my favorite one? Even if you’re don’t like the Miami mainstay, I think you’ll find this interesting and, after all, it’s part of our local culture.
You may know that the first major Cuban community in the US was in Tampa, their having gone there in the late 19th century to seek opportunity and work in cigar factories. They numbered 5,500 in the 1890’s. Working in factories, they were responsible for making Tampa the biggest producer of cigars in the world, making millions a year, surpassing Cuba (people then smoked 18 to 20 cigars a day, even women).
Now here’s where the sandwich comes in. Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, founder of Tampa Bay’s cigar industry, wanted a way to feed his workers so they wouldn’t have to go home for lunch (and lose time). He went to El Pasaje, a stylish hotel across the street, to come up with a sandwich that combined the City’s mix of immigrant cultures: ham for Spanish factory owners; mojo pork for Cubans; Genoa salami for the Sicilians; Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard for the Germans, all on Cuban bread. Unlike the Miami version which came much later, the sandwich was not warmed nor pressed.
On a recent trip to Tampa I tried the Cuban sandwich at Hemingway’s restaurant whose owner, Felicia Bacalle, was the 2018 winner of the competition for the best International Cuban Sandwich Festival. Her secret? Bone in house roasted pork shoulder and a mojo made from fresh sour oranges, garlic and oregano together with jamon dulce, pickles and melted swiss cheese.
It’s best served with yucca fries with alioli, and was it ever delicious. In fact, though not trying to be disloyal to Miami, I far prefer it to the Miami version. She also makes a breakfast version with guava glazed pork belly, melted cheese and two fried eggs served on media noche bread. You can also find traditional versions of the sandwich at the Columbia Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Florida, and at La Segunda Central Bakery, the world’s largest supplier of Cuban bread (a little crusty).
And speaking about the festival, more than 20 competitors turned out from everywhere from London and Korea to Texas.
Stay tuned for more posts about my recent Tampa Staycation.