We're all for celebrating the classics here at Tasting Table, particularly when they come between two slices of bread. After taking deep dives into the resurgence of the French dip, the art of the muffuletta and the timeless appeal of the BLT, a recent trip to Miami inspired us to examine the Cuban sandwich. After about 24 hours packing in as many as possible, we not only mapped out the ultimate Cubano crawl (see the map), but we also discovered what makes this pressed sandwich so addictive.
It's not just about the right mix of ingredients: roast pork, ham, pickles, yellow mustard and Swiss cheese. It's also about the method of building the sandwich, which requires the proper order of layering and, of course, the freedom of the press (see the recipe).
"It has the perfect balance in combination of the four taste sensations," Bernie Matz, chef of Halves & Wholes in Miami, explains. "The sweetness of the ham, sourness of the pickle, bitterness of the yellow mustard, saltiness and umami of the roasted pork and melted Swiss . . . bam!"
Though Miami and Tampa both lay claim to the sandwich, Matz believes the first one actually originated in Ybor City, Tampa, historically home to a thriving Cuban cigar industry. Miami isn't giving up the fight, however. And we're happy to watch the debate play out, especially if we can eat upgraded ham-and-cheeses along the way.
In the meantime, we're here to help you master this killer sandwich. After consulting with some of the experts, we're breaking down what makes a Cuban sandwich so craveable.
One thing everyone agrees upon is the need for Cuban bread. It's a simple white bread similar to a French or Italian loaf, but it's made with lard for extra richness—and yet another pork product in your sandwich. Matz emphasizes the importance of buying fresh, since the bread tends to dry out quickly. You can find Cuban rolls at most Latin markets; you can even ask to buy the bread from your local Cuban restaurant (that's what we did).
And if you go to the trouble of securing the right bread, make sure you cook it correctly. “The key part is to make sure you have a panini press," David Herrera, kitchen manager at Gin + Collins in Miami Beach, tells us. "The press helps all the flavors come together for a delicious Cuban.”
If you're feeling wild, get your hands on the bread used for a medianoche. This is a sandwich whose name literally translates to "middle of the night," because it is what you eat late-night in Miami after hours of partying. It's almost identical to the Cubano but built with egg bread, which is a little sweeter.
The Notorious PIG
This sandwich is packed with two kinds of pork: sugar-cured ham and roast pork for a combo of sweet and savory that can't be beat. While restaurants will roast full pork shoulder marinated in Cuban mojo (a traditional marinade of citrus juice, oil and spices), we adapt the recipe for the home kitchen and marinate pork tenderloin in the mojo before roasting.
Herrera uses roast pork carnitas instead for a juicier addition to the sandwich. At Bunk Sandwiches in Portland, co-owner and creator Tommy Habetz explains that they used to just put roast pork belly on their Cubanos, but now they make a roast, combing the shoulder and belly into one Franken-roast. "You know, we really started doing this as an experiment to give people a meaty sandwich, bite after bite."
Tangs of New York
Yellow mustard is a must for a great Cubano. It adds tang and a touch of bitterness that keeps you coming back for more. While you may be tempted to add mayo, that would be sacrilegious in Little Havana. One acceptable substitution? Herrera swaps Creole mustard for yellow to add a little zing.
As for the pickles? It's dill all the way. We slice them thin and pack them in the center of the sandwich, so they don't fall out. You want to make sure you get a little bit of pickle in every bite.
This is a no-brainer. Swiss cheese. No exceptions. We add ours immediately after the still-warm sliced pork, which gets the cheese melting right away. Between the meat and the top piece of bread, the cheese melts over all the other toppings, keeping everything together like glue. (Check out the slideshow to see how it's done.)
Chips Don't Lie
Finally, you're gonna want to serve your Cuban sandwich with potato chips. Though a classic bag will work, we found that most spots in Miami serve potato sticks, those julienned potato chips you probably remember loving as a kid. If you can get your hands on them, go for it.
And the final piece of advice: Habetz implores you keep it simple (stupid). "Use good ingredients, simple and delicious. Use just the right amount and all the flavors are going to combine for that perfect bite; you don't need to overstuff it."
With these key pieces of advice, any press is good press.