The Cuban Sandwich: A Tampa Tradition

Sure, you know what a Cuban sandwich is. Ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on Cuban bread, usually pressed to crisp the bread, warm it through, and start to melt the cheese. But did you know that the Cuban sandwich was invented in Tampa, FL, and in the city, Genoa salami is also an integral ingredient? In 2012, the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich” was declared the “signature sandwich” of the city by a resolution of the Tampa City Council. There’s a strong rivalry with Miami about which city is really the home of the Cuban sandwich. But history is on Tampa’s side, with the first evidence of the sandwich dating back to before 1900, well before they were on the scene in Miami.

According to local lore, the sandwich developed over time by adopting ingredients from the various immigrant communities that settled in Tampa. Cubans brought the ham and roast pork; Italians, the salami; and Jews and Germans, the Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. Of course, there was no concerted effort to create a sandwich to reflect all of these groups. But the story is emblematic of the way foods sometimes develop, taking a little from this group, a little from that, resulting in something new…and the story is certainly emblematic of American food.

Back to that public resolution: it is very specific about how a Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich is made. It includes an eight-point list that lays out precisely how to make one—but remains oddly silent on the question of whether it should be hot or cold. A peek at the minutes of the City Council meeting reveals that they thought weighing in on this point would be micromanaging–hilarious! The level of specificity in the resolution is so delightful, I’ll share it in its entirety:

Be it resolved by the City Council of the City of Tampa, Florida:

Section 1. That the City Council of the City of Tampa hereby defines, designates and authenticates the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich” as a sandwich which was prepared utilizing only the following ingredients and process:

1) Use Cuban bread which is an all-natural, white wheat flour loaf and is made by scoring the loaf with palmetto palm fronds, and which bread has been stored in a paper bag;

2) Cut loaf of Cuban bread into 8-10” pieces and cut bread lengthwise, with scored portion on top;

3) On bottom piece of bread place a slice of ham;

4) On top of ham, place a slice of Cuban style roast pork made by marinating the pork in garlic and mojo sauce;

5) On top of pork, place a slice of natural dried, cured Genoa salami;

6) On top of salami, place a slice of dry Swiss cheese;

7) On top of cheese, add 3 sliced dill sandwich pickles;

8) On top piece of Cuban bread (scored portion), spread yellow mustard and place on top of sandwich.

Now that’s taking the details very seriously.

After some research, we chose five places to try the sandwiches. We were able to get to just three of them: Columbia Restaurant, West Tampa Sandwich Shop, and Brocato’s Sandwiches. Due to two (!!) rental cars with problems (two separate useless cars!!), we did not get to try La Segunda Central Bakery or Michelle Faedo’s On the Go food truck. Sadly, we were most looking forward to those two. If we make it back to Tampa, we’ll make those two our first stops.

Columbia Exterior

Columbia Restaurant

Columbia Restaurant is a sprawling building with multiple dining rooms and a gift shop. It’s been an anchor in the Ybor City neighborhood since 1905, making it Florida’s oldest restaurant (a title for which they have secured a service mark: Florida’s oldest restaurantSM). The original café, founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., was known for Cuban coffee and Cuban sandwiches. It’s now owned by the fifth generation of the same family. The family has opened five more locations by the same name, stretching from Tampa to as far away as St. Augustine, as well as a seventh place called Ulele. Several tables around us were celebrating birthdays, and there were a number of large parties, and that was on a Wednesday. It’s that kind of a festive spot, if touristy.

Columbia Restaurant gives a little history of the Cuban sandwich on their menu. Created in the 1890s as the mixto, the sandwiches were developed for the workmen at the local Ybor City cigar factories. The restaurant uses the same recipe that they introduced in 1915. The menu includes that lore about the contributions of the various Tampa ethnic groups to create a sandwich that reflected the community: “The city of Tampa was like the sandwich, a mixture of cultures and food.”

Columbia Cuban

The Cuban bread at Columbia is from La Segunda Central Bakery. It’s as light as air inside with a faint sweetness, perfectly crisp and crumbly outside—just lovely. And that’s what they use for their Cuban sandwich. The bread is brushed with butter and pressed, so the airy quality is diminished, but the result is crispy, flaky, and toasty. The ham contributed a subtle sweetness, the roast pork gave a shot of unctuous, garlicky goodness, and the salami—a necessity in a Tampa Cuban—adds a gentle note of heat and spice. The Swiss had good bite, and the mustard and pickles didn’t overpower, but rather offered a foil to the richness of the trio of pork. The sandwich was in a way reminiscent of a ham and cheese croissant, flaky and buttery. It was well balanced, with all the ingredients standing out, but none hogging the spotlight. It comes with an ample side of plantain chips and a somewhat superfluous pickle. This was the best Cuban sandwich I had in Tampa.

West Tampa Sandwich Shop

West Tampa Sandwich Shop

A humble spot with an exterior that looks bleached by the hot Florida sun, West Tampa Sandwich Shop is another local institution. So much so, President Obama stopped by. He ordered a honey Cuban—honey is pressed into the bread to provide a sweet note—with lettuce and tomato, which is now the Obama sandwich on the menu. We got a classic Cuban and an Obama.

West Tampa Cuban

West Tampa Sandwich Shop is a no-frills place, and their Cuban was a no-frills sandwich. I had a few issues with it, like too much mustard, a skimpy slice of salami, and barely any roast pork at all. And the ham was pretty basic. But it was a good and satisfying sandwich nonetheless, and at $3.60 for the regular size, it’s easy to like. Note that they include mayo as a default, but the waitress did ask specifically whether we wanted each topping offered—mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. As for the Obama, the honey pressed into the top of the bread provides a foil to the saltiness of the meats and the pickle, and the sharpness of the Swiss and mustard. The lettuce, tomato, and mayo add moisture to a sandwich that can tend to the dry.

Brocatos Exterior

Brocato’s Sandwich Shop

Brocato’s is clearly a Tampa tradition. The place has been around since 1948. While it wasn’t insanely busy when we were there, they are set up for massive lines. The décor belies the place of Brocato’s in the food history of Tampa—awards, mail order options, famous guests, etc.

Brocatos Cuban

So, I ordered a Cuban sandwich here…in Tampa, as in “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich,” as in expecting the steps outlined in that city resolution…and what I got was a cold Italian sub with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, in addition to the requisite ingredients. It was on Italian bread—not pressed, not warm, not toasty. Not at all what I was expecting, or what I was on a mission to eat. The place is not cheap, and it takes a while to get your food. Sandwiches come with a small bag of chips (grab your own in the large garbage cans by the pick up window) and a soda.

Brocatos Devil Crab

To be fair, Brocato’s seems to be known for their devil crabs, another Tampa tradition. They have plenty of signage about how you can get them mail ordered. Devil crabs are essentially crab croquettes. The ones at Brocato’s are huge, and they’re known for that (note that they also serve minis). The filling included ample lump crab, but also a generous dose of green bell peppers and I believe tomato and onion. The crab filling was tasty, if a bit too wet and a bit too loaded up with peppers, but I thought the size ultimately worked against the dish, throwing off the balance between the coating and the moist filling.


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