Tampa's Cuban Sandwich Festival attracts returning judges, thousands of attendees

The sandwich battle and World's Longest Cuban were featured at the annual Cuban Sandwich Fest.

  • Hillsborough Community College Events Coordinator Nelson Guerra measures the World's Longest Cuban Sandwich. The final measurement was 100 feet, 13.8 feet longer than last year's attempt.

They came as ambassadors of good will and taste. Forty-five hand-selected judges strolled into Tampa’s Ybor City Museum Sunday morning knowing their decisions would affect many.

As judges of the fourth annual Cuban Sandwich Festival, the group represented the region’s diverse heritage. Many were third and fourth generation Tampanians and, more specifically, Ybor and West Tampa descendants.

Officially dubbed the “The Big Smackdown” by event creators Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla and her husband Victor, the three-day festival drew more than 30,000 people.

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor and her partner Ana Cruz joined other notable locals who returned to judge the event. Many of them have acted as the competition’s official taste-testers since the start. Those years of experience allowed them to hone their skills and develop a method for pacing themselves.

Like many, Tampa City Council members Harry Cohn and Mike Suarez skipped breakfast altogether with the exception of coffee.

“And lots of water,” Cohn said.

Hillsborough Community College President Dr. Shawn Robinson, once again, popped a potassium pill to alleviate the symptoms of excessive sodium consumption.

Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation who’s known for monitoring his carbohydrate intake carefully, relied on what he learned about Cubans while making them as a child at Pardo’s Market, formerly at 22nd Street and Eighth Avenue in Ybor.

A judge in the traditional category, Pardo said his criteria focuses on balance.

“The pork and ham proportions have to be balanced,” Pardo said. “And the pickle has to be real tart as it cleanses the palate.”

Tampa businessman and unofficial mayor of Ybor Joe Capitano Sr. half-jokingly said he was looking for “taste and more taste” as a traditional category judge.

Moments later, Capitano secluded himself at an empty table and began dissecting each sandwich, studying, nibbling and scribbling. Discarded sandwiches were piled nearby.

click to enlarge Joe Capitano Sr. takes notes on his Cuban in the traditional category - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Joe Capitano Sr. takes notes on his Cuban in the traditional category
  • Kimberly DeFalco
  • Businessman Joe Capitano Sr. takes notes on a traditional Cuban.

Tony More, the third generation of four to run his family’s Ybor-based La Segunda Central Bakery, also chose to study and analyze each sandwich meticulously. More spent six minutes on his second sandwich, holding the ham up to the morning light.

click to enlarge Tony More' of La Segunda Bakery,left, chats with businessman Joe Capitano Sr. They weren't talking sandwiches. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Tony More' of La Segunda Bakery,left, chats with businessman Joe Capitano Sr. They weren't talking sandwiches.
  • Kimberly DeFalco
  • La Segunda Bakery's Tony More, left, chats with Joe Capitano Sr. They weren't talking sandwiches.
click to enlarge Tony More of La Segunda Bakery prepares bread for the longest Cuban. The bakery is celebrating its 100-year anniversary - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Tony More of La Segunda Bakery prepares bread for the longest Cuban. The bakery is celebrating its 100-year anniversary
  • Kimberly DeFalco
  • Tony More prepares bread for the longest Cuban. The bakery's celebrating its 100-year anniversary.

A majority of the entrants used La Segunda’s Cuban bread for their sandwiches. Celebrating 100 years in business, the bakery delivers bread to both sides of the bay. More recognized his company’s bread effortlessly.

As a La Segunda client, Tia’s Authentic Latin Food in Largo, which won the “World’s Best Cuban” category, attributed its award to the bread, and La Segunda’s family recipes. Co-proprietors Gabriel Gonzalez and Susan Gonzalez, his mom, have the bread delivered to their eatery four times a week.

click to enlarge Gabriel Gonzalez and mom Susan won first place in the World's Best Cuban category - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Gabriel Gonzalez and mom Susan won first place in the World's Best Cuban category
  • Kimberly DeFalco
  • Gabriel Gonzalez and his mom Susan took first in the World's Best Cuban category.

Entering the competition for a second time, Gabriel and Susan are new to the restaurant industry, but not to cooking for extended family on a regular basis.

Two years ago for Susan’s 61st birthday, Gabriel handed an envelope to his mom. Inside was a set of keys with no explanation. Gabriel drove Susan to a strip mall and pointed to a recently closed 800-square-foot Chinese restaurant.

“Happy birthday, Mom. Now your dream has come true,” he said.

Working side-by-side six days a week, the pair quickly outgrew the space and moved two doors down to a 2,200-square-foot space. Paying homage to their Puerto Rican heritage, the Gonzalez family incorporates their at-home recipes into the Caribbean-inflected food.

Like many of the entrants, Tia’s marinates and slow roasts its pork. And, like others, they rely on a secret marinade, honed and tweaked to accommodate their palates.

“We use a variation of our homemade sofrito marinade,” Gabriel said. “We use two to three gallons daily.”

Stone Soup Company owner Ilya “Ben” Goldberg, who took home the Popular Cuban Sandwich title, credited his win to years of research that went into authenticating the ingredients. In 2014, Stone Soup placed first in the traditional category, and second in the popular category.

Goldberg follows the recipe of the original Tampa Cubans, slow-cooking his pork for about 24 hours in a Mojo marinade. He then pulls the fat off, saving it for his soups. His sandwich is served with a side of marinade for dipping.

“Serving the Mojo marinade also represents to our customers the authenticity of the meat,” Goldberg said.

He explained the significance of each ingredient in relation to the cultures that landed in Tampa.

“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.”

Goldberg continues to delve deeper into the sandwich’s history, adding, “At the festival, an older man told me that the palm leaf in the bread is a nod to Catholics’ observance of Palm Sunday.”

As for Goldberg’s Cuban, he said the love he puts into it, his secret Mojo and its overall authenticity are the key ingredients.

In the nontraditional category, La Septima executive chef Darlene Herrick’s creation took the top spot. She also did so in 2012 while executive chef at Gaspar’s Grotto.

“I was bound and determined to win,” said Herrick, who’s a vegetarian. “I’m very competitive and I am confident in my work.”

Herrick’s Cuban highlights shaved honey baked ham, shredded pork (marinated for 24 hours and slow-roasted for 12 hours) and Emmi Swiss cheese, considered the premium in Europe. Guava-tinged mayonnaise decorated the bread.

“With my sandwich, I want every bite you take to enable you to taste something,” she said.

Using bread from La Segunda, Herrick slathers the bread with unsalted, clarified butter.

“I learned many of these things as a young girl from my Grandmom Rose,” Herrick said. “At age 6, she taught me how to make my first one.”

Herrick, along with Goldberg, teamed up with eight other restaurants Saturday to craft the World’s Longest Cuban Sandwich. Dochos Concession, La Teresita, the Columbia Restaurant, Pipo’s Original Cuban Cafe, Hugo’s, El Guajiro, La Segunda and Papa Joe’s Subs helped beat last year’s record of 86.2 feet.

click to enlarge Columbia Restaurant sous chef Oscar Funez and associate Doris Sanchez helped to create the world's longest Cuban sandwich - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Columbia Restaurant sous chef Oscar Funez and associate Doris Sanchez helped to create the world's longest Cuban sandwich
  • Kimberly DeFalco
  • Columbia Restaurant sous chef Oscar Funez and associate Doris Sanchez help create the World's Longest Cuban Sandwich.
click to enlarge La Septima Executive Chef Darlene Herrick contributes to the world's longest Cuban Sandwich. The sandwich was donated to Tampa Bay Harvest, to help feed the hungry - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
La Septima Executive Chef Darlene Herrick contributes to the world's longest Cuban Sandwich. The sandwich was donated to Tampa Bay Harvest, to help feed the hungry
  • Kimberly DeFalco
  • La Septima executive chef Darlene Herrick contributes to the longest Cuban. The sandwich was donated to the all-volunteer Tampa Bay Harvest organization.

The 100-foot sandwich was donated to Goldberg’s favorite organization, Tampa Bay Harvest, which feeds the homeless. Stone Soup has donated more than 55,000 cups of soup to the group.

Check out the sandwich competition's full list of winners below.

  • click to enlarge Columbia Restaurant sous chef Oscar Funez and associate Doris Sanchez helped to create the world's longest Cuban sandwich - Kimberly DeFalco
    Kimberly DeFalco
    Columbia Restaurant sous chef Oscar Funez and associate Doris Sanchez helped to create the world's longest Cuban sandwich
click to enlarge The judges - attorney Ana Cruz, partner of City of Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
The judges - attorney Ana Cruz, partner of City of Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor
  • Kimberly DeFalco
  • Attorney Ana Cruz samples a sandwich from one of the contestants.

World's Best Cuban Sandwich
1. Tia's Authentic Latin Food - Largo
2. The Floridian - Tampa
3. Aloha - Tampa

Nontraditional Cuban Sandwich
1. La Septima - Brandon
2. Wheelhouse Sandwich & Deli - Panama City
3. Pipo's Original Cuban Cafe - St. Petersburg

Tampa Historic Cuban Sandwich
1. The Floridian - Tampa
2. Dochos Concession - Clearwater 
3. Papa Joe's Subs - Tampa

Popular Cuban Sandwich
1. Stone Soup Company - Tampa
2. Dochos Concession - Clearwater
3. La Septima - Brandon

Scroll to read more Food News articles
Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected]