Cuban Sandwiches Offer a Canvas to Riff On

Ask a group of Cubans and Floridians about the origins of the Cuban sandwich, then watch an epic argument unfold. Floridians believe it was conceived in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, while Cubans insists it was created in Havana. The one thing everyone agrees on is that it was first served sometime in the late 19th century. 

The traditional incarnation includes roasted pork butt accented with mojo sauce made with sour orange juice, cumin and garlic, but crafty chefs can’t help but put their spins on the piggy component. At Cuba Libre in Washington, D.C., Cuban-born Executive Chef Angel Roque infuses a boneless pork loin with the elements of mojo sauce in two steps, a cumin-spiked dry rub followed by a marinade of orange and lime juice, hit with plenty of garlic, which brings a nice acidity to the finished product to cut through the meat’s richness after it’s roasted ($14.75, recipe). He adds provolone to it, a nod to the large Italian community in Tampa, noting, “We want to make peace between those two communities."

For Roque, one of the most crucial elements is the sandwich's Cuban bread. “It should be crusty on the outside and soft inside, with some air pockets in the dough,” he says. “Get it from a baker who incorporates pork fat into the bread, which gives it a distinctly porky flavor.” 

Roberto Copa Matos of Old Havana Sandwich Shop in Durham, N.C., offers a number of riffs on the Cuban, including the Saigon, which is also inspired by a Vietnamese bánh mì. He slow roasts pork shoulders or hams until they confit, keeping the skin on to retain the meat’s moisture. Matos, who is also Cuban-born, adds his mojo sauce into the mix only after the meat is heaped onto the sandwich because he believes that way, the mojo offers the most pronounced flavor. He doubles down on the pork by creating a terrine from the pig’s head and trotters, and finishes the sandwich with mustard vinaigrette and pickled vegetables, paying homage to the classic’s components ($8.95, recipe).

There’s zero pork in the all-beef Cubano at Mamaleh’s, a Jewish deli in Cambridge, Mass., but still a ton of flavor. Matthew Cohen cures beef deckle with pastrami spices for 24 hours before smoking it over hickory and cherry wood and, finally, cooking it sous vide for 48 hours; the intense process breaks down the sinews in the meat. He complements it with beef tongue, which he smokes and braises until fork-tender. The sandwich is filled out with beef salami, charred apple mustard, pickles and Swiss cheese ($13.95, recipe). To further accentuate the beef flavor, Cohen uses rendered belly fat in place of butter when he griddles the sandwich. The end result tastes like a Cubano—minus the pig—and shows how chefs can expand on the classic Cubano while reminding diners why they fell in love with it in the first place.

What's the point of avoiding the pork to make it Jewish style and then topping it with Swiss cheese?

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