Anyone who has tasted a Cuban sandwich knows that there is simply no greater sandwich on the planet. That Cuban bread, soft on the inside, and forming a crisp, hot-pressed shell around stacks of ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese inspires a heavenly taste that begs a question that has been debated for over a hundred years: what makes the Cuban sandwich taste so divine, is it the bread, or the cheese-meat combo?
Certainly anyone who has eaten an authentic Cuban from those small sandwich cafes like La Ideal in West Tampa, or La Tropicana in Ybor City, Florida knows that few sandwiches compare in taste, zing, pizzazz, and all-around oomph. Some keep it simple: ham, pork, Swiss, maybe some pickles and some mustard and mayonnaise. Other Cuban sandwich artisans include salami, lettuce and tomato. I even encountered one topped with all of the preceding, plus jalapeño and sliced avocado.
Like high-quality cigars, there are varying degrees of quality and complexity to your Cuban sandwich. Some cook the meat right in front of you while others serve them cold, or wrap them in white paper for bliss later on. From the frozen Cubans found in ethnic grocery stores to the hot, fresh stackers served in Miami restaurants, once you taste a true Cuban sandwich, great meals fade in comparison.
Those of you who have enjoyed the Cuban know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve never experienced the sandwich, then you’re just going to have to trust us on this. The real thing looks something like these:
The Cuban sandwich holds a sacred place in my heart. When I spotted my first fake-Cuban I was alerted to a startling trend that has started to poison the holy sandwich industry: Cuban sandwich knock-offs.
These things seem to be popping up everywhere. Like Puma sportswear from Thailand that’s actually spelled “Pama,” or stereo speakers by “Panasaonic,” or the famous dollar store I-Fan (looks like an I-Pod but it’s really a fan!), the culinary world has also been tainted by fraud and cheap knockoffs. The first time I encountered one of these substandard copycats was in the cafeteria of the banking operations center where I thankfully no longer work – in Cincinnati, Ohio mind you! Yes, a corporate cafeteria actually attempted to pass a cold ham and Swiss sandwich, served on a Kaiser roll, as an authentic Cuban sandwich. To add insult to injury, I saw my coworkers inspecting the cold Kaiser-roll Cuban imposter sitting in the display case and making such frightening comments like, “Looks like a cold ham and Swiss sandwich served on a Kaiser roll.” And the cafeteria actually pulled it off. People bought and ate the sandwich and went to bed thinking that a Cuban sandwich was in their tummy, and they couldn’t help it because in this day and age, it’s hard to spot a fake.
I once joined a group of coworkers at the Cheesecake Factory, where one of my friends pointed out a Cuban sandwich on the menu. Knowing it wouldn’t be close to the real thing, I convinced her to order it so I could inspect the phony up-close (I would never subject myself to such a daring experiment!) When it arrived, it looked similar to the cafeteria Cuban I knew from the bank. Ham, pork and Swiss served on a bun, but this time it was served with a side of French fries. She thought it was great, and I shuddered. It was like she had been given a brass ring with a cubic zirconium stone and told it was a 3-carat diamond. Such a shame. I didn’t want to ruin her lunch, so I waited until the next day to tell her the bad news.
I won’t even go into the monstrosity that is Subway’s Cuban Pulled Pork sub, served your way with chips and a drink.
When these phony Cubans are consumed by innocents, people walk away thinking, “Huh, that Cuban sandwich filled me up, but it was nothing special.” For the rest of their lives, these victims of Cuban fakery may never taste an authentic Cuban because a been-there-done-that mentality cripples them into thinking of Cubans as nothing more than ham on Swiss with a catchy-name. These copycat Cubans give real Cuban sandwiches a bad name!!
Be aware, consumers and lovers of fine cuisine. I hate to think of you kicking back with your I-Fan, your brand new Pamas, and a long-distance calling card you bought from a street vendor that will never work while you eat a cold Cube-In Sandwich. Do your research, know your food and don’t get ripped off by the phonies!!
I present to you, some of the world’s best fake Cubans:
Mark McGinty is the award winning author of The Cigar Maker and Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy. His work has appeared in Cigar City Magazine and La Gaceta.