There are two prominent claimants to the title of Home of the Cuban Sandwich in the U.S., and neither is the District of Columbia. Naturally, one is Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. The other is Ybor City, a historic district located just north of downtown Tampa, Florida, notable for its roots as a cigar-producing company town and as a first stop for immigrants arriving from Cuba and elsewhere. Ignoring the obvious disagreement over the true birthplace of the sandwich itself, the rival locales agree on these base ingredients: roasted pork, ham, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread. Otherwise, Ybor’s inclusion of salami, a result of the presence of Italian immigrants in the area, would seem to be the lone sandwich-related point of contention.
Although we’ve done an unhealthy amount of reportage on the Cubano on this blog, it has all been courtesy of my brother Chris, a Tampa resident and author of our Gulf Coasting column. We have yet to spotlight any of the fantastic versions available here in Our Nation’s Capital, meaning that until this week I had no excuse to eat numerous heavy, pork-laden sandwiches in a single weekend. This situation has now been happily resolved, and so, with some help from our resident Cuban sandwich expert and without further ado, here is a somewhat random sampling of a few of our favorite Cuban sandwiches in D.C.
Mi Cuba Cafe
Tucked around a quiet corner from the bustling Columbia Heights Metro, Mi Cuba Cafe was completely unknown to me before a Twitter follower tipped me off to its existence. It seemed as logical a jumping off point as any. Of all the Cubans I would eat over the week that followed, the one served up at Mi Cuba Cafe was probably the most classic, textbook preparation, and was without a doubt the most substantial. Based solely on this photo and description, our man in Florida weighed in:
“This is a traditional Miami-style Cuban. Add salami and it would be a Tampa Cuban. I have to say, it looks mouth-watering. That is a generous amount of tasty looking pork pressed in there.”
This is a hell of a sandwich. The fact that such a no-frills presentation can deliver such a superb dining experience is a testament to the genius of the Cuban sandwich in general; the fact it can easily sate two hungry hyenas is a welcome bonus.
A.M. Wine Shoppe
I big-upped the Cuban at this Adams Morgan temple to winos in one of the very first posts published on this blog, and the sandwich is no less phenomenal now, more than a year later. Stuffed with pork two ways and grill-pressed to a satisfying crisp, this is actually one of the more traditional preparations I’ve seen in town, albeit with slightly more upscale ingredients: pork done confit-style rather than roasted, prosciutto cotto instead of ham, and Comté cheese in place of the traditional Swiss. In compliance with the Little Havana standard, A.M. Wine Shoppe’s version includes yellow mustard, swiss and sliced pickles; however, like every other Cuban I’ve seen in D.C., it lacks Ybor City’s distinctive salami. Here’s our Gulf Coaster’s take:
“I’m getting hungry just looking at that, although it looks a little light on the pork. Most of the good Cubans down here are bursting at the seams.”
I’ve made no secret of my love for A.M. Wine Shoppe. It’s impossible to pick a bad sandwich from the shop’s extensive sandwich menu, but anyone looking for a perfectly executed, tidy Cuban need look no further.
Of all the sandwiches included here, the Havana from SUNdeVICH is least like the others: Dijonnaise? A baguette? To be fair, although it clearly is inspired by the traditional ingredients and is named for the country’s capital city, the globally-minded Mt. Vernon Square outpost makes no explicit claim to it being a Cuban sandwich. The full-size Havana from the bricks and mortar shop could feed the Nats starting infield, but savvy sandwich heads might opt for the more compact version from the SUNdeVICH food truck, which you should really be tracking on the Twitter. Our expert weighs in thusly:
“It’s nothing close to a Cuban — I’m not sure you could even shoehorn this into the ‘non-traditional’ category — but it looks like a damn good sandwich.“
And he’s right. Regardless of what you call it, it is a damn good sandwich. Interestingly, it is also the only sandwich we sampled that is not grill-pressed prior to serving. The pressing of the Cuban sandwich is a nearly ubiquitous practice that many falsely consider to be a requirement of the style. In fact, many — if not most — of the supposedly “authentic” versions served in South Florida are served unpressed. Food for thought!
Fast Gourmet is known primarily for two things: 1) its location inside a gas station, and 2) its justifiably revered, behemoth Chivito. And if you’re here for the first time, there is admittedly no more fitting introduction to the charms of Fast Gourmet than its interpretation of the almost comically meat-heavy Uruguayan classic. Nonetheless, as tempting as it will be to repeat this order on each subsequent visit, I implore you to explore the menu. If you’re wise, before long you’ll arrive at the relatively unassuming Cubano, highlighted by the perfectly grilled Cuban bread and served atop a small mountain of shoestring fries.
“The bread looks awesome. Again, a Miami-style assembly.”
On paper, there is nothing particularly unique here, but do not be fooled by the straightforward preparation. While I’ve met nary a Cuban sandwich I didn’t enjoy the heck out of, this is the Gold Standard.
There are plenty more Cuban sandwiches to be had here in D.C. and beyond. Where is your favorite?