I am of the firm belief that one cannot live in South Florida for any length of time without developing an appreciation of Cuban food. Seriously. You just can’t. The distinctive Latin flavor of Cuban culture is woven like a ribbon through our cuisine. It makes perfect sense, though, considering that the most prominent Cuban American community in the United States is in the Miami-Dade metropolitan area. But, you probably already knew that. What you might not know is that Tampa Bay boasts the next highest concentration of Cuban Americans in the country. And, the Tampa Cuban community has been going strong for over a hundred years – way before the mass exodus to Miami under Castro’s regime.
In 1885, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a prominent Spanish cigar manufacturer relocated his base of operations from Cuba via Key West to an area just northeast of Tampa. This was, at least in part, due to Tampa’s combination of a good sea port, new railroad line and humid climate. Ybor built hundreds of small houses for the incoming population of mainly Cuban cigar workers. Other cigar manufacturers, drawn by Ybor’s incentives to increase the labor pool, also moved in making Tampa a major cigar production center. In 1887 Tampa annexed the area and Ybor City was born.
José Martí and cigar workers in Ybor in 1893.
The next three decades, as Ybor city grew and prospered, were considered its “golden age”. In 1929, cigar production hit its peak when 500,000,000 cigars were rolled in the factories of Ybor City.
Unfortunately, in that same year also came the Great Depression. As a result, the demand for quality handmade Cuban cigars plummeted and there were many layoffs and factory shutdowns. This trend continued throughout the 1930s as the remaining cigar factories gradually switched to using cheaper mechanical methods for producing their cigars. This, of course, led to even more layoffs and plant closings.
Inside an Ybor City cigar factory ca. 1920
Things looked pretty grim for Ybor City up to and through the 50s and 60s, as the neighborhood continued to deteriorate and empty out. In an effort to revitalize the community, many historic buildings were demolished to make way for new development. But, due to a lack of available funds this redevelopment didn’t happen. Sounds kind of familiar, huh?
In the late 80s and early 90s, a sort of revitalization of the area began with an influx of local artists who came into the area seeking eclectic spaces in which to work for cheap rents. By the year 2000, Ybor City had experienced a Renaissance as a cultural mecca in the Tampa Bay area which continues to flourish to this day. Although the cigar factories have long been closed, the thriving and vital Cuban American community lives on.
Ybor City today
(Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License)
Being so close to Tampa and Ybor city, there was bound to be a trickle down effect in our area regarding Cuban food, and there is. We have a lively Cuban American community here on the Gulf Coast as well as some terrific Cuban restaurants and markets. I can even buy a halfway decent Cuban sandwich at my local supermarket. But, you know me. If I can figure out a way to cook something better and cheaper myself at home, I’m going to try it. So, a couple of weeks ago, I set out on a quest to make the perfect Cuban sandwich.
Although its history is a little murky, the Cuban sandwich or “Cubano” is said by some accounts to have most likely originated in Ybor City. The sandwich was a popular lunch food for workers in the cigar factories in the early 1900s. It’s a toasted sandwich filled with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and sometimes salami on Cuban bread. While it started out as a common working man’s meal, the Cubano has evolved into a popular menu item enjoyed by all.
I’ve done my research, and an authentic (and fabulous) Cuban sandwich starts with two essential ingredients: really, really great roast pork or “lechon” and real, light-as-air Cuban bread. I can help you with the pork, but unless you live in Cuba or an area surrounding Miami or Tampa, that bread will be hard to come by. I’m told that baking your own “pan Cubano” is a hit or miss proposition. I’ve never done it, so I can’t say either way. But, if you’re interested in trying your hand at it, here is a recipe I found that looks pretty good: http://www.tasteofcuba.com/pancubano.html. And here’s another link to a very informative thread about the bread on The Fresh Loaf:http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/2596/cuban-bread. You can still make a very satisfying Cuban sandwich with French or Italian bread, though. I’ve done it and it works great.
Before I could start making my Cuban sandwiches, I first had to roast some pig. I picked up a nice hunk of bone-in fresh ham from my favorite butcher and started looking for recipes. The one I liked best was the Lechon Asado recipe from Three Guys From Miami, who are…well…three Cuban guys from Miami. They have a great web site with lots of traditional Cuban recipes, and they even have two published cookbooks.
Lechon asado is merely a Cuban-style marinated roast pork. It is marinated in a “mojo” sauce which is made with onion, oregano, lots and lots of garlic and something called “naranja agria” or bitter/sour orange juice. Bitter orange juice is the juice of the Seville orange, which is significantly more tart than most other types of oranges. I found this product in the ethnic foods aisle at the supermarket, but it is also widely available at most Latin markets.
After marinating overnight, the pork is then slow roasted for several hours until incredibly moist and tender. Just look at this gorgeous, succulent pork! Let me tell you, people, it doesn’t get much better than this!
While your pork is roasting, you might as well gather up the rest of your sandwich ingredients, because you’ll have a few hours to kill. For two monster-sized Cubans, you’ll need:
- 1 whole loaf of Cuban bread, sliced lengthwise
- Lots of mayo (A lot of people use mustard, but I’ve got some Cuban friends that swear by mayo and I do too.)
- Several juicy slices of the lechon asado (Don’t worry. You can do lots of other things with the leftovers!)
- Around 1/3 of a pound of good deli ham. (I like to use Virginia ham.)
- A couple of big, fat kosher dill pickles, sliced as thinly as possible
- Around 1/3 of a pound of Swiss cheese. (Don’t ask me why Cubans use Swiss cheese in their sandwiches. They just do.)
- Some softened or melted butter for slathering on the Cuban bread (During pressing, this will make the bread impossibly crusty and splintery!)
- A panini press or a griddle pan with a really heavy brick covered in aluminum foil to press down the sandwiches
Once all of your ingredients are ready, it’s time to assemble your sandwiches. Here’s how:
Oooh! Check out that melty, oozey cheese! Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!
¡Ay dios mío! Este sándwich es fantástico!
Stay tuned. Next time, I’ll tell you what I served with these Cubano masterpieces!
adapted from Three Guys From Miami
20 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups sour orange juice (If you can’t get sour orange juice in your area, use two parts orange to one part lemon and one part lime)
1 cup minced onion
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon granulated sugar*
1 1/2 cups Spanish olive oil
1 8-10 pound fresh ham
1. Mash the garlic and salt together with a mortar and pestle. Add dried oregano, onion, sugar and sour orange juice to the mash and mix thoroughly.
2. Heat oil in small sauce pan, add the mash to the oil and whisk. Make deep cross cuts in the skin of the pork, taking care not to cut into the meat beneath. Pierce meat as many times as you can with a fork. Pour mojo mixture (save about a cup for roasting) over pork, cover and let sit in refrigerator for 2-3 hours or overnight.
3. When ready to roast, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F. Place the pork fattest side up in an open roasting pan. Place pan in oven and reduce temperature to 325 degrees F. Spoon extra marinade over the roast occasionally as it cooks. Using a meat thermometer, roast should be removed from the oven when the temperature reaches 155 degrees F. Immediately cover with foil and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving. The roast will continue to cook after you remove it from the heat. A perfectly cooked pork roast will be pale white in the middle and the juices will run clear.