By Christopher Nank, Gulf Coast Correspondent
Almost as ubiquitous in the Tampa Bay area as grouper, the Cuban sandwich is a point of fierce civic pride. The website Creative Loafing’s annual Best of the Bay accolades often include four or more categories recognizing the Florida staple, covering those sporting the “traditional” composition—that is, ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread—to the more avant-garde interpretations some eateries are renowned for. It’s worth noting that there is a long-standing debate over the sandwich’s geographic origins and the “proper” ingredients, with Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood fiercely claiming ownership of those qualities against such challengers as Miami’s Little Havana. But this is digression, ultimately. Although I admit my biases hew closer to the traditional end of the spectrum, I love the Cuban in all incarnations and with whatever dressings.
I am equally fond of the Monte Cristo sandwich, that deep-fried delight to which I was first introduced at my freshman-year dining hall and have since sampled in many forms. The sandwich, to those aficionados who eschew such vagaries as “nutrition,” is something of a righteous anachronism in today’s more health-conscious culinary epoch. Imagine my delight, then, to discover at a food truck rally in nearby Tarpon Springs, and to re-discover at the Tampa Food Truck Wars in October, the perfect fusion of those two favorites: the Monte Castro, developed and served by Hot Off the Press, a truck operated by Dochos Concession of Clearwater.
There really is no grand alchemy to the Monte Castro. It’s a Cuban, battered and deep-fried in a spicy funnel cake batter. My only complaint, and “complaint” is putting it a little forcefully, is the absence of powdered sugar or jam, two accoutrements indispensable to the classic Monte Cristo. Trivial, in the end, however. The sandwich is of such mass and weight (as one might imagine) that the Food Truck War was essentially over for me after one purchase. That’s not a problem, really, right? If you’re wondering why you feel greasy, heavy and bloated after this sandwich, I might ask what exactly you thought you were getting when you ordered a deep-fried Cuban.
To be fair, while the Monte Castro is not for everyone, meat- and grease-heavy sandwiches were not exactly a rarity at this rally. In any case, it is a worthy entry in the deepening category of gourmet or non-traditional Cubans, and I await with some curiosity the unveiling of the next Best of the Bay awards in these categories.
Christopher Nank, Ph.D., is adjunct instructor of literature at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. His contributions to the Carrollwood, Florida, Patch blog can be read here. He resides in Tampa.