It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.
This history of the Cuban sandwich is lost in murk, but there is some agreement as to how it should be made. The sandwich goes on Cuban bread, a European-inspired loaf something like an Italian demi-baguette, but often containing lard. The loaf is layered with modest amounts (usually single slices) of pork roast, swiss cheese, and ham of the boiled variety. One of the delightful features of the sandwich is the contrast between the salty pink luncheon meat and the freshly baked pork roast, making strange pig bedfellows.
The sandwich is dressed with mayo or mustard, or sometimes with nothing at all, since the other ingredients generate moistness as the sandwich is pressed in a type of panini press known as a plancha. But perhaps the most important ingredient of all is dill pickle chips, which lend sourness and crunch. The whole thing is then thrust into the plancha, whose top and bottom halves are often covered with aluminum foil, and pressed till the sandwich is brown and flattened like a pancake.
There is no doubt that the sandwich is associated with Cuba’s tobacco industry, but whether it was invented on the island as early as 1831, or in Tampa in 1886, or in Key West or Miami somewhat later is open to conjecture. My own belief is that Tampa is the sandwich’s original home, because in the late 19th century that city had a large Cuban expatriate community engaged in rolling cigars, and all the ingredients, methods, and techniques would probably have been present there, including Italian and German influences. Sometimes the Tampa version of the sandwich contains salami.
Where to get the best Cubano in NYC? Well, I’d start by going up to Washington Heights. There must be more than 50 establishments — bakeries, bodegas, and full-blown restaurants included — that make it, usually in the front window from a mis en place that lets you see exactly what goes into the sandwich. Floridita, a fixture of Upper Manhattan since 1995 offering Cuban and Dominican food, makes a great one ($6), with more pickle chips than the usual two or three. The sandwich is kept in the press for longer than standard, too, and repeatedly brushed with oil to further brown the top and bottom sides.
And the bread is a bit sweeter than usual. Wait, does that make this sandwich a medianoche instead of a Cubano? 4162 Broadway, between 176th and 177th streets, Washington Heights