Having grown up in little Havana, I have had my share of what I thought were Cuban Sandwiches. I have so many memories of sitting at the counter of Casablanca restaurant on 24th avenue and Calle Ocho as a child woofing down a perfectly toasted, 3 to 4 inch thick sandwich packed with ham, pork, and cheese. Later on, I enjoyed big, fat Cuban sandwiches at La Carreta and Latin American, as well as numerous little Cuban cafeterias all over Miami. I thought I was enjoying an authentic slice of Cubania, but it wasn’t until today that I tasted an authentic Cuban sandwich.
For those of you who live in South Florida, this morning and early afternoon was punctuated by torrential downpours. Stuck at a client’s office in Coral Gables, I had no choice but to have lunch at the small Cuban deli located on the first floor of their building. I wasn’t all that hungry, so I asked for a Medianoche, only to be told they were out of Medianoche bread. I opted then for the Cuban sandwich and I took a seat at one of the empty tables to wait for what I thought would be the same sandwich I have enjoyed literally thousands of times before.
A few minutes later, they called my name and I walked over to the counter to pick up my sandwich. It was wrapped in wax paper and to my surprise, it was about half-an-inch thick. It did not look like any Cuban sandwich I have ever eaten, so I asked the girl if she had made me the right sandwich.
“Yo pedi el sandwich Cubano,” I said, pointing to the flattened piece of bread that looked more like a tostada Cubana than a Cuban sandwich. I hoped that restating my order was enough to point out this obvious error.
“Esto es un sandwich Cubano,” she replied, confirming that it was a Cuban sandwich and pushing the tray with the stiff and flat sandwich towards me.
“Si, pero esto no luce como un sandwich Cubano,” I answered, not willing to give up so easily and attempting to argue my point that the sandwich did not look right.
“Es un sandwich Cubano,” she said, rolling her eyes before turning her attention to wrapping up the other sandwiches at her work station, leaving me there alone, confused and bewildered.
I took my flat Cuban sandwich back to my table and unwrapped it. I picked up one of the halves and looked at the contents between the two slices of bread, which immediately provided the reason why the sandwich was so flat. It contained one slice of ham, one slice of pork, one slice of cheese, a couple of pickles, and way too much mustard. One bite of the sandwich confirmed my visual inspection; instead of tasting like a Cuban sandwich, it tasted like Cuban bread with too much mustard and only one slice of ham, one slice of pork, and one slice of cheese.
As paltry as the sandwich was, I ended up not being able to finish it simply because it was horrible. I was getting upset that I had just paid $6.50 for what must have been the worst Cuban sandwich ever created on God’s green earth, when it hit me: This is an authentic Cuban sandwich. In Cuba there are no mounds of ham and pork. In Cuba there is no stack of melted Swiss cheese dripping down the sides of a sandwich. In Cuba you would be lucky to have butter, let alone the delicate taste of butter mixing with just the right amount of mustard. In Cuba, you have to stand in line for hours just for some bread, so imagine how difficult it is to get your hands on some ham, pork, or cheese. In Cuba you will never find a Cuban sandwich stacked 4 inches high with mounds of meat and cheese.
Today, I had my first authentic Cuban sandwich. Between you and me, I like the Miami reproductions better.