The Cuba Issue: Local original

The Cuban sandwich has many acolytes but only one birthplace: Ybor City.

click to enlarge Crowds annually flood Ybor City for the Cuban Sandwich Festival's tastes. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Crowds annually flood Ybor City for the Cuban Sandwich Festival's tastes.

Publisher Jolie Gonzalez didn’t know what to expect when her magazine, Latin Times, inaugurated Ybor City’s first Cuban Sandwich Festival in May 2012, but she was sure about one thing: People always think their Cuban reigns supreme.

Gonzalez and Co. were inspired to launch the now three-day festival by the number of riffs on the toothsome delicacy they’d seen on restaurant menus. While the sandwich is adored beyond Tampa Bay’s borders, Tampa’s love for the Cuban is special.

“Ybor developed the sandwich into what it is today,” Gonzalez says: a mixto, or mixed meat sandwich, containing roasted pork, ham, hard salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. And the most important ingredient is the bread.

Historian Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, says Cuban bread is “a Tampa original,” established to “stretch people’s food dollars” during the cigar makers’ strikes in the 1910s. The bread even predates the iconic sandwich itself, which didn’t begin appearing in West Tampa and Ybor eateries until the 1920s.

“It truly represents the mix of cultures that helped shape Tampa’s unique Latin identity,” the historian says.

Kite-Powell calls the Tampa Cuban the trendsetter, but Gonzalez hasn’t seen many restaurants outside the region following the trend of including an Italian cold cut. She hosted preliminary spinoffs of the Cuban Sandwich Festival in locales like Miami and Panama City to recruit challengers for the 2015 competition, which happened earlier this year. “A lot of them don’t use salami,” she says. “That seems to be the consensus for most of the state.”

Ilya Goldberg’s Stone Soup Company, an Ybor-based restaurant that’s taken home four awards from the sandwich festival throughout the years, follows the Tampa tradition, salami and all.

Stone Soup opened its doors around five or six years ago, initially refraining from pairing its selection of hot soups with a Cuban. After requests for the sandwich grew, Goldberg gave in, but vowed to do right by the neighborhood staple. He says the restaurant puts major emphasis on the ingredients, keeping them authentic in taste yet contemporary in presentation — cut lengthwise and served with a dipping sauce.

Juices from the pork, slow roasted in house, aren’t wasted, either. They’re integrated into Goldberg’s soups.

“We take the sandwich back to the truth and what it means for Tampa,” he says. “We’re really kind of excited to create something new out of something old.”

Future Cuban Sandwich Festival prelims will be held in Fort Myers and Orlando, so their salami-or-not-to-salami preferences aren’t yet known. But some local restaurants already switch up the Tampa classic.

Gonzalez says she’s a fan of the West Tampa Sandwich Shop’s “Obama Cuban,” describing it as the Tampa original topped with a little bit of honey. The Prez added lettuce and tomato to the celebrated spot’s sweet take on the sando when he stopped in a few years ago.

In South Tampa, the Wright’s Gourmet House Cuban accompanies the usual combo of pork, ham, salami, mustard and pickles with turkey and Jarlsberg cheese, but diners don’t seem to mind. The same goes for those who frequent downtown St. Pete’s Bodega on Central for its house rendition that skips the salami and mustard. Two meat-free Cubans, a vegetarian and another with tempeh, are also available.

“First off, we are in St. Pete, not Tampa,” co-owner George Sayegh told CL in 2013. “I fell in love with the Cuban in South Beach and that’s how they make it. In the Jersey City Cuban community up north, they don’t use mustard or salami either.”

As far as the long-standing sandwich conflict between Miami and Tampa goes, Gonzalez thinks the rivalry is healthy for the festival. She says it’s plain fun to watch “as people fill the streets and just eat.”

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