- Kimberly DeFalco
- Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor reaches for her first selection of the day in the Third Annual Cuban Sandwich Contest.
Long before the first sandwich was unveiled at Saturday’s Third Annual Cuban Sandwich Festival, the judges had made a unanimous decision: Salt is bad!
“I decided to research sodium poisoning to see if there is a remedy,” City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern said, recalling last year's competition. “I remember I didn’t feel well afterwards, as there is so much salt in everything from the cheese to the pickles.”
Returning for her second competition, Mulhern brought about eight pounds of bananas to share with her fellow 35 judges.
“Potassium is supposed to be good,” Mulhern said. "Bananas looked like the obvious choice."
By the end of the judging, only orphan peels remained. Every banana had been eaten.
Prior to the competition, Hillsborough Community College President Dr. Shawn Robinson popped a potassium pill.
“I did my homework on excessive sodium consumption,” Robinson said. "I'm ready."
Two years ago, following her participation as a judge in the inaugural Cuban Sandwich Festival, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor found herself drinking from her backyard garden hose.
“Clearly, I had never consumed that much sodium before,” Castor said. “I couldn’t drink enough water after sampling all those sandwiches, and it caught me off guard.”
Since then, Castor, like most returning judges, has come prepared with a strategy.
"The first year I went home and thought I was going to die," Castor said. "I realized a plan was in order if I was going to make it."
Accompanied by her two children and partner Ana Cruz, Castor took it lightly, sharing with the family and ingesting large quantities of water in between bites. She also skipped breakfast.
Returning for his third competition, Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen recalls going straight home in 2013.
"It can be rather incapacitating," Cohen said.
Regarding a strategy, “Absolutely not,” Cohen said. “As a matter of fact, I have to go to a pig roast after this. It’s going to be a challenging day.”
With each judge sampling around 20 sandwiches either in the traditional or non-traditional categories, early afternoon camaraderie shifted to sluggish metabolisms.
But by the end of the day, decisions had been made and winners were announced Sunday afternoon.
The title of the nation’s best Cuban sandwich belongs to Ybor City’s Stone Soup Company.
Goldberg researched how Cubans were originally made in Tampa over 100 years ago and was intent on following the recipe.
“Over the years, many people starting taking shortcuts,” Goldberg said. “Many people will use a lot of processed meat from restaurant supply stores.”
Goldberg follows the recipe of the original Tampa Cubans by slow-cooking his pork about 24 hours in his mojo marinade. He then pulls the fat off, saving it for his soups. His sandwich is served with a side of the marinade for dipping.
“Serving the mojo marinade also represents to our customers the authenticity of the meat,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg explained the significance of each ingredient in relation to each culture that landed in Tampa, more specifically Ybor City.
“The salami came from the Italians, the pickles from the Jewish, the mustard from the Germans,” Goldberg said. “Each ingredient has a strong representation of culture.”
As for the pickles, Goldberg uses only kosher.
Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen used the pickle, along with ingredient proportions and quallity, as his gauges in judging the traditional category.
“I looked to see if the pickle was a full dill or a half-sour, which a kosher half-sour is authentic,” Cohen said. “And unfortunately, I also disqualified several entries because they had either mayo, lettuce or tomato on them.”
Years ago, sandwiches required ingredients that could remain un-refrigerated for cigar workers’lunches.
Though the win didn’t surprise proprietor Ilya Goldberg, it was a surprise to some that two-time winner and local favorite Faedo’s On The Go food truck was not mentioned among the winners.
“In my opinion, Faedo’s is the best, and I find myself following the truck around town,” said Tampa Tribune columnist and “Festival Cuban Sandwich Czar” Steve Otto. “They’re just consistent and authentic.”
To many, authenticity is a matter of opinion.
“Usually, the Cuban sandwich has subtle nuances from its community,” said Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla, president of LatinTimes Media Inc. and co-creator of the festival, along with her husband Victor Padilla. “The sandwich technically doesn’t belong to any one culture so long as some basic components are there. A Cuban can reflect its surroundings.”
Ybor City Development Corporation President Vince Pardo stressed the need to slow down and focus.
“Sampling a Cuban correctly is similar to wine tasting,” Pardo said. “You have to keep a palate memory.”
A noted winemaker, Pardo said texture is critical to a good Cuban.
“Most people may not consider that,” Pardo said. “Especially after you’ve sampled so many, and you feel like you just can’t take another bite.”
Festival officials estimated crowds for the two-day festival surpassed 22,000 people.
It concluded with Sunday’s competition for the world’s longest Cuban sandwich at Hillsborough Community College.
After losing the title to Miami earlier this year, enthusiasts surpassed the record by more than 10 feet.
Five local restaurants, including the Columbia, La Teresita, Country Market & Deli, Danny’s All American Diner, the Stone Soup Company and Dulce Café & Bakery, helped construct the new record-breaker: 86.2 feet long.
The sandwich was donated to Tampa Bay Samaritan Ministries.
WINNERS OF THIRD ANNUAL NATIONAL CUBAN SANDWICH FESTIVAL
First Place: Stone Soup Company
Second Place: Dochos Concession
Third Place: Pipo's Restaurant
First Place: Dulce Café & Bakery
Second Place: Wicked ‘Wiches Food Truck
Third Place: Dochos Concession
First Place: Dochos Concession
Second Place: Stone Soup Company
Third Place: Country Market & Deli