Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Searching For El Cubano: Dispatches from the Sunshine State IV

I have often listened to my wife tell stories of growing up in rural Florida. One of things she recalls fondly are visits to the local Publix supermarket for a Cuban sandwich. I grew up mostly in the Midwest and I had never heard of such a thing. When she described it to me I told her we called them “heros” and “submarine sandwiches,” or subs. In New England they are referred to as “grinders;” “hoagies” in Philadelphia; “po’boys” in St. Louis; and “muffulette” in New Orleans. Today some throughout the USA refer to them simply as “paninis.” So I just assumed the “Cuban sandwich” was the local Florida variant. I was wrong. It is unlike any of the aforementioned.

I had my first Cuban sandwich - sandwiché Cubano, or simple el Cubano - at Phil-Nick’s, a hole-in-the-wall joint on Main Street, in downtown Gainesville, Florida. It was nothing like any sub, or whatever you want to call it, that I had ever eaten. My wife assured me it was genuine - sliced ham, pork marinated in a citrus and garlic concoction know as mojo, Swiss cheese, mustard and sliced dill pickles served on a soft Cuban bread - pan de aqua - which resembles French or Italian bread yet it is prepared with lard and is lighter and flakier. There are other variations of el Cubano, but the best and truest stick to the traditional ingredients. Finally, the sandwich is heated and pressed in a device know as a plancha (or a bacon press or a large spatula, if there is no plancha handy). The flaky bread turns crunchy and the finished sandwich is often served with a bowl of black bean soup - frijoles negro - over yellow rice (another favorite Cuban dish). This is exactly how I enjoyed my first Cubano. Spanish, or garbanzo, bean soup is also a satisfactory substitute and I highly recommend it.

There is some debate surrounding the origins of the Cuban sandwich. It appears to date back to the turn of the previous century when it was popular lunchtime fare for workers at Havana’s cigar factories and sugar mills. Others will claim that it was cooked up by Cuban immigrants making cigars in Ybor City, the Cuban quarter just east of downtown Tampa. Today it remains popular with the large Cuban exile and immigrant community in south Florida, and the farther south you go in the Sunshine State the more apt you are to find a genuine Cubano on authentic Cuban bread. To borrow a phrase from the character Oddball, played by Donald Sutherland in the 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes, “To a New Yorker like you, hero is some type of weird sandwich.” Once you have a real Cubano, anything else - hero, sub, grinder, etc. - just does not measure up.

Phil-Nick’s is still on Main Street although the brothers who founded the place are no longer there and gone with them are the authentic Cubanos. You can still get a pretty decent Cubano at any Publix market across the state - our arrival in Gainesville is frequently an appropriate occasion for one and we have had one since our arrival. I have found a few Publix stores that cut corners and play around with the traditional ingredients and serve them on French or Italian bread. No thanks But the local Publix in Gainesville fixes them right. Authentic Cubanos are de rigueur in Ybor City and have been for over a century. There are good ones to be at the Columbia Restaurant (and also at the Columbia in St. Augustine). So, too, in Miami-Dade. Where there are Cubans, you are sure to find an authentic Cubano. I have found tasty Cubanos in the Everglades, including a particularly good one at a truckstop in Immokalee (about the only reason I would ever go back to that desolate and godforsaken place). I recall another purchased at a stonecrab emporium along the Barron River, in Everglades City. There were no stonecrabs to be had one evening and so I settled for a Cubano with a bowl of black beans over rice. A satisfactory substitute for a plate of cracked claws and that is saying something right there. More recently we had a real Jones for a Cubano for lunch and found some in Bevilles Corner, a rural cross-roads in the central Florida scrub country. There are not too many Cubans here but we were able to find freshly made Cubanos at a quick market where we had stopped to top off our gas tank. They were not too bad, and although they were missing the requisite pickle slices, they were served on Cuban bread. And there in Bevilles Corner I learned something new about Cuban bread. The process of making authentic pan de aqua begins with palmetto leaves soaked in water which are then placed over the rolled dough. This creates the unique and rather irregular topography on the upper portion of the loaf. As the dough rises it can encircle the palmetto and it is not uncommon to find remnant fibers baked into the bread as an avatar of authenticity. So, whereas the fixings were not bona fide in the strictest sense, the bread was and it tasted pretty good regardless. Our jones was satisfied.

I think there are a few Cuban sandwiches in our immediate future before it is time to head back up north. We have even carried them home on planes and in a car cooler and I am guessing we will do so again. But eating Cubanos is much like eating crabs in Maryland, or lobster along the coast of Maine. It’s best to eat the local cuisine locally. Our search across Florida continues.

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