The search for the perfect Cuban sandwich
Andy Huse has been hard-pressed to find a proper Cuban sandwich, even in Ybor City, its birthplace. That’s where Homosassa comes in.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published December 5, 2006
Andy Huse despairs at the thought, and the taste, of a poorly executed Cuban sandwich. Could anything be more depressing than a lackluster Cuban?
Well, yes, but maybe not to Huse, who, if not a gourmet, is at least a lover of his city’s famously sturdy sandwich prepared in the proper manner.
“It’s getting hard to find an authentic Cuban,’’ he grouses. “Many restaurants put lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise on them. Some even put onions. What they serve are not Cuban sandwiches. They’re subs.’’
It’s a depressing situation all right, a situation he has been pondering for a while.
He has almost finished writing a book called Tampa’s Delicious History: Restaurants and Culture in the Twentieth Century and recently lectured on “Feast and Famine in Ybor City: 1885-1930” at the Southern Foodways Alliance at Oxford, Miss.
Next fall he expects to teach a new history class on Florida gastronomy at the University of South Florida, where he is employed as an assistant librarian.
Hungry students who expect to earn A’s should avoid buying convenience store Cubans. They should look for a sandwich assembled with the proper pork, the proper ham, the proper salami. For heaven’s sake, students, get your salami right!
Andy Huse, on the hunt for the perfect Cuban sandwich, looks like a gourmet. In other words, he watches his calories, his cholesterol and tries to eat more whole grains and fruit.
He parks a mile from the office and rides his bike to his job at the library. His ambition, one might say, is to eat well while not looking like a fellow who might attract attention at the carnival.
He is 33, born in that toddling town of Chicago, where folks value good pizza and celery salt on their hot dogs. When he was 6, his family moved to Clearwater, a place better known for the quality of its sun rather than cuisine.
He graduated with degrees in history and English lit from USF and then got his master’s. If he goes after a doctorate one day, research might require eating Cuban sandwiches and other delectables.
The dark-haired bachelor recently hosted a dinner party and did all the cooking. He smoked hot Italian sausage and a London broil, into which he rubbed coarse pepper and rosemary-flavored olive oil. He created a bean pate and a spinach salad featuring mozzarella medallions.
He made sweet potato risotto; he marinated shrimp in Cognac and broiled them with prosciutto and fresh sage leaves. Dessert was coconut ice cream served over sauteed cinnamon bananas.
He is looking for the right girl. “Haven’t found her yet.’’ She doesn’t have to cook, and she doesn’t have to like Cuban sandwiches, but it would be a plus.
“A lot of women these days don’t know how to cook and are not interested in cooking,’’ he says, tapping his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel.
“Some women don’t read. Some don’t have much to talk about. How can someone without any interests be very interesting?’’
He ate his first Cuban sandwich at the Silver Ring Cafe in Ybor City in 1992. He was about 20, a poverty-stricken student looking for something tasty but cheap.
The Silver Ring sold authentic Cubans, that is, sandwiches performed on elongated Cuban bread dressed with mustard, sour pickles, Swiss cheese, mojo pork, sweet ham and Genoa salami, and then mashed in an electric press that melted the salami fat over other ingredients.
“The Silver Ring was the benchmark,’’ he says fondly.
The original Silver Ring closed in 1996. Other restaurants remained but somehow changed, in his opinion, and not for the better. “I am not saying they don’t make tasty sandwiches,’’ he says.
“I’m saying they don’t make authentic Cuban sandwiches. I had a Cuban that was made on a sesame seed bun! At some restaurants, they’ll give you a Cuban sandwich that has not been pressed. How can you make a Cuban sandwich and not press it?’’
The Silver Ring recently reopened on Seventh Avenue. But will it serve authentic Cubans? And if it doesn’t, will anyone in the 21st century notice?
The Cuban sandwich, as Huse defines it, based on his extensive research and interviews with sandwich-eating old-timers, was developed about a century ago, not in Havana, not in Key West, not in Miami, but in Ybor City.
“Miamians think they invented everything Cuban,’’ he says. “When Miami was hardly a gleam in an alligator’s eye, we had a thriving community in Ybor.’’
Originally known as “mixto’’ sandwiches, they were assembled with available cold cuts. But Ybor’s culture of Spaniards, Cubans and Italians each brought something, an idea or an ingredient, to the evolving sandwich.
It pains Huse to say this, but he figures somebody should speak the obvious:
“Cuban sandwiches seem to be getting worse.’’
At lunchtime his stomach is growling, muttering, pleading: “Feed me!’’ Driving through Tampa in his 2002 Hyundai Santa Fe, feet tap-tap-tapping in anticipation, Huse tries to pacify his digestive system by talking about food.
He admits he had a good meal the other night at a Chinese restaurant on Armenia. “I especially liked the snow pea tips steamed in garlic.’’ He likes barbecue but believes there is a shortage of good barbecue in west-central Florida.
“Tampa was once known for sun, cigars and soup — the Spanish bean soup put Ybor City on the map,’’ he says, sounding like professor. As for Cuban bread, he begins at the beginning, with La Joven Francesca Bakery , operated by a Sicilian, Francisco Ferlita, and opened in 1896. Now the tradition is carried out by La Segunda , a third-generation, family-owned bakery. They place a long palmetto leaf along the spine before baking, giving the loaf a crease when it is released from the oven.
“Eat it immediately. Cuban bread goes stale overnight. Then you have to soak it in water and use it in the breading for deviled crabs.’’
Foot heavier on the accelerator, he speeds north along the Suncoast Parkway past ranches and cattle, past pines and cypress trees. When the road ends, he turns west toward the Gulf, then careens north on U.S. 19 past depressing gas stations and fast food emporiums.
He can almost smell it now. The perfect Cuban.
Almost there. Turn west on Central Street. After a few miles, hang a right on W Yulee.
Finally, he slides into the parking lot of the Museum Cafe and pronounces himself a happy man.
Hail Homosassa, the Cuban sandwich capital of Florida!
A 1924 Model T truck is parked in the dining room of the Museum Cafe. There are antique typewriters and antique printing presses in working order. The owner of the cafe, it turns out, is a lifetime printer who values old over new.
“I love history,’’ the owner says.
He says he grew up outside of Tampa eating Cuban food. He says he wanted to sell Cuban food at his printing press museum. He says he wanted to make sure his Cuban cuisine was authentic because that is the way he thinks.
He is not Cuban, Italian or Spanish. He is a fourth-generation, 53-year-old African-American named Jim Anderson.
“It dawned on me that nobody was making the Cuban sandwiches I remembered from my youth, man. So that is what we tried to re-create when we opened five years ago.’’
His wife, Jane, drives to Tampa every day for the ingredients. The Andersons never buy cheap boiled ham, only sugar-cured baked ham, and their salami is always Genoa salami.
They are especially proud of their pork. They marinate it in garlic and the juice from sour oranges. They have a small grove of trees behind the cafe.
“In the old days,’’ Huse says, “a restaurant would press the sandwich with a tailor’s iron. Then with electricity came machines. The biggest error in the modern restaurants is that they don’t press the sandwiches enough to meld the flavors. They press the sandwiches perfectly here.’’
Biting into his Cuban, he hears a satisfying crunch. Next he pauses to behold the balanced proportions, not too much of one ingredient, but just enough. “You taste everything,’’ he says. “Look at this: The Genoa salami is stacked on the top, so the fat runs down. That’s what I look for.’’
Crunch. Swallow. Crunch.
“Sometimes people will say, 'What’s the big deal about a Cuban sandwich?’ Well, they haven’t really had one.
They’ve eaten a ham sandwich. This is a Cuban sandwich.’’
An hour later, feeling happy and at least somewhat full, Huse is back behind the wheel of his Hyundai, headed for Tampa — a Tampa that, in his opinion, needs to wake up and smell the Cuban coffee, or at least start serving sandwiches it can be proud of.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Andy Huse can be reached at email@example.com.