Ah Tampa, city of my youth. After a 4 year stay in Gainesville, Fl. I found myself back here sweltering in its humid embrace for one last year long fling before I say goodbye to Florida forever. Determined to soak up as much of the culture here as possible I have spent the past few weeks exploring all of Tampa's areas; searching out farmers markets, mom and pop restaurants, and quirky pubs. Until last week, however, I had not indulged in perhaps Tampa's finest culinary contribution of cultural significance: The cuban sandwich.
For those of you not familiar with Tampa's history, it has a large cuban population dating back to Vincente M. Ybor's establishment of Ybor city in 1886 as a location for his cigar factory and its workers. Soon, Tampa became a major destination for many Cuban and Italian immigrants. In fact, the message to start the Cuban Revolution of 1895 was sent from Tampa where it was rolled in a cigar.
As a result, Tampa has a plethora of delicious cuban restaurants. In an effort to rate all these restaurants with scientific precision I am going to compare them based solely on their ability to make a cuban sandwich. For those not aware, a cuban sandwich consists of ham, roast pork, dill pickles, swiss cheese, and mustard on cuban bread. The sandwich is then pressed. Tampa cuban sandwiches are unique in the fact that they have genoa salami on them, a variation unique to the area and attributed to the large italian population in Ybor city during the early 20th centruy. Maybe it's due to the fact that I grew up in Tampa, but I find the addition of salami essential and spectacular.
The first stop on my cross-county culinary comparison of cuban cuisine is
note: On your way, look out for Super Mario Gas ---------->
First off, La teresita is CHEAP. I ordered a plate of roasted pork, yellow rice, a bowl of garbonzo bean soup, and two slices of buttered cuban bread for $5.50. Needless to say, the food was more than enough. While I have heard horror stories of bad service and a disgusting dining area, all my trips to La Teresita have been great, with fairly speedy service and clean conditions. The restaurant itself is merely one big room with 3 large U-shaped counters with bar stools. This creates a casual and intimate dining experience with the other patrons at the counter.
My food was delicious, as well as the food of my companions for the trip, Jaremy and Alex (Jaremy's stuffed fish and Alex's flank steak; pictured)
Upon leaving I ordered a small cuban sandwich to go. To my delight it was huge and incredibly inexpensive at $3. My desire for cuban food was so strong that day that I ate the sandwich as soon as I got home. Much to my surprise, the cuban had shredded lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on it, 3 big no-nos for purists. This is the equivalent of putting ketchup on a chicago style hotdog. I am not a hardcore traditionalist, however, and will accept variations so I left the tomato and mayonnaise on the sandwich and just scraped the shredded lettuce off (due to my intense hatred of shredded lettuce on sandwiches. Seriously people, stop it.)
The bread on the sandwich was perfect, which I figured it would be considering the fantastic bread I was given during my meal, with a nice crunchy exterior and soft underbelly. The sandwich was pressed to perfection. The roast pork was above average as well. It was cut into large chunks and possessed a strong garlic, citrus flavor. It was a tad bit dry though. I scarfed down half of the sandwich even though I was not hungry and enjoyed the second half the next day.
Pros: very large sandwich for a small, extremely cheap, great bread, good pork, pressed the exact right amount of time.
Cons: the addition of mayonnaise, tomato, and shredded lettuce was dissapointing, the pickles were too sparse and barely detected.
Final Verdict: Extremely worth it. Order it without the lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and you have yourself a great lunch or dinner for the price of a gallon of gas.
First of all, there is no definitive cuban sandwich. Second, while lettuce and tomato are not standard, mayonnaise is quite common. Many of the best cuban sandwiches (Wright's Gourmet, La Septima, Carmine's) include mayo, if memory serves.
Second, it's horrible that you would compare sandwiches on the basis of leftovers. You have to eat them hot and immediately, or else what is the point? At best, you can say you're seeking out the best cuban to have as leftovers.
Posted by: Barzelay at August 11, 2006 3:49 PM
You're right, there is no definitive cuban sandwich. I should have clarified my statement that while there is variations among areas and restaurants, the definition I gave is one of, if not the most common. I also have no problem with mayonnaise and I agree its more prevelant than the other toppings but I would still argue that most of the people who vehemently reject tomato and lettuce reject mayonnaise as well.
second, I ate the sandwich as soon as I got home. A very large number of people get food togo and to say that its horrible that I didn't eat it as soon as it was possibly done is laughable. I would agree that eating it the next day is a different story but to purchase a sandwich, take it home and eat it is not blasphemy in my book. But if it soothes your soul Ill make sure to eat one at the counter the next time Im there and report any difference.
Posted by: Adam Rugg at August 11, 2006 7:37 PM
I thought a bunch of time had passed.
Posted by: Barzelay at August 12, 2006 12:25 AM
I get Cuban Insider (a special 'zine devoted to those of cuban heritage)and they had an article detailing the art of the cuban sandwhich.
Traditional cuban sandwhiches lack mayo, always have mustard.
Personally, while the latter two are delicious items to have on sandwhiches, I believe in the cuban sandwhich's case all three items listed above only serve to make the bread soggy and/or cause the meat to slide off.
Cuban's nowadays will put mayo on cuban sandwhiches even without asking you first, so be prepared to ask ahead of time for no mayo. It's weird, if one orders a sandwhich de bistec (steak sandwhich) usually there's no mayo, yet if one were to order a sandwhich de cubano from the same eatery one might end up with a nice mouthful of vegetable oil and egg yolk, flavored with vinegar or lemon juice.
I guess I'm just not a fan of mayonnaise and try to avoid it as much as possible. Granted there are a few dishes I'll make an exception for that include the ingredient, such as deviled eggs. I'm pretty sure it's in the spicey chipotle sauce at Chic-Fil-A too. Dammit, that's a good sauce. Remember folks, mayonnaise is typically 70-80% fat.
Posted by: Mark at August 14, 2006 11:09 PM
Its extremely hard to get away from mayonnaise if you have any desire to make or consume dips, sauces, spreads, or salads (potato, broccoli, etc.). And while I am adverse to the high fat content of mayonnaise, I can't neglect its incredible importance in many of my favorite items. Spicy sauce alone almost single handidly fuels my never ending urge for sushi.
Speaking of, we need to hit up some samurai blue.
Posted by: Adam Rugg at August 15, 2006 6:15 AM
It is extremely hard to escape mayonnaise, I agree. And while I may enjoy many of the food items you mention above, I feel that there's a difference between mixing mayonnaise into a recipe that calls for it, and using the checker's mentality of 'mayonnaise will never run out! let's slather the hell out of our sandwhich bread with it!' That shit just does not fly with me.
Oh, and Europeans putting it on french fries and hotdogs?
That hotdog I linked would look amazing if it weren't for that seminal-fluid-look-alike, egg-fat on there. Has anyone ever even attempted putting mayonnaise on a hotdog?
Posted by: Mark at August 15, 2006 11:33 AM
Forgot to mention: I am up/down for samurai blue sometime this week/weekend. Saturday night I'm going out to dinner with my 'family?' to TC CHOY, so any other night besides that one will work.
Soccer still on for Saturday? I'll bring the mayo!
Posted by: Mark at August 15, 2006 11:37 AM
La Teresita is damn good, I make it a point to go there once every time I am in Tampa, but for better sandwiches, you have to go to La Ideal on Tampa Bay Blvd.
Posted by: D Roc at November 3, 2006 2:13 PM
I am going to have to throw my hat in for "airport variety store" across the street from st pete clearwater airport as the best cuban in town
also a tampa cuban generally does not have lettuce and tomato and mayo
i am going to la teresita as soon as i stop typing i really hope they at least put salami on the sandwich because lettuce and tomato screams miami to me
Posted by: Jeff at December 20, 2009 10:10 AM