Consider the Cubano. No, not the box-pressed Montecristo sitting in your ashtray, but the pressed meat sandwich on your plate. The Cuban sandwich is old-time fast food, the type of lunch that powered many a cigar roller through a long Florida afternoon in the days when America rolled cigars from Cuban tobacco and a toothpick in your mouth was a status symbol, showing that you had eaten that day.
And eaten well. Few things are as fortifying as a Cuban sandwich, made of roast pork and sugar-cured ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and butter, then pressed to flattened, glistening perfection. Cubans will tell you of eating ones garnished only with butter and a pickle in Cuba, but today's sandwiches often have yellow mustard, mayonnaise or both. Some add turkey, salami and other ingredients to the mix. With a burning hunger in my belly, I set out to find the ideal Cuban sandwich.
After disappointing Cubanos in New York, I head to Florida, namely Tampa and Miami. Turns out there's a Cuban sandwich turf war brewing between those Cubano juggernauts. "Why would I eat a Cuban sandwich in Tampa?" one Miami cigarmaker sneers. "If you want to know about a Cuban sandwich, don't go to Miami," spits columnist Steve Otto in the Tampa Tribune. Pride and passion for the pork-powered sandwich! This appears promising.
In Tampa, I stop at the Gold Ring Café (2510 North Tampa Street), a tiny shop in a rough neighborhood owned by Gus Cura, one of the tobacco men at Oliva Tobacco Co. He's quick to explain that Tampa Cuban sandwiches are ... different. I'll say. First, there's the Genoa salami. Then there's tomato and lettuce, crusty bread in place of flat, and a hearty dose of salad dressing. It's a nice sandwich, but it tastes more like an Italian combo than a Cubano. It seems that Tampa's Italian community has had a strong influence on the Cuban community, resulting in a Cuban compromise. Even the rice and beans are different here, yellow rice served with black beans, instead of arroz blanco. I head south.
The plane touches down in Miami. An hour later, I walk into the Latin American Cafeteria (which has many locations, including 9796 SW 24th Street). This is Cuban sandwich heaven: rich, roasted pork, sugar-cured ham and melted Swiss, layered in perfect proportion so that no one ingredient dominates. The sandwich has spent just the right amount of time in the press, so that the cheese is properly melted and all ingredients have warmed. The aroma is buttery, and the outside of the flat, smooth roll glistens. Every second bite finds a perfect pickle and the sandwich is sliced at an angle so sharp you could cut a tobacco leaf with the edge.
Moist. Delicious. Rich. Filling. The perfect Cubano. The quest is over. Now, to find pants that fit....