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Restaurants & Bars 19

cubano vs cubano

keith k | May 20, 2002 10:01 AM

A searing expose sure to blow the cover off the Cuban (sandwich) situation in Manhattan.

I sampled 10 cubanos from Manhattan restaurants in search of the most satisfying sandwich in my regular neighborhoods, sparing no expense or inconvenience. All were sampled by a committee of one (1), myself (me), over a period of 7 days. Often side-by-side while watching playoff hockey. My own notes on “authenticity” and serving suggestions are at the bottom of the page. I will allow more qualified individuals to hold forth on the history and components of the proper Cuban sandwich. I am merely out for a satisfying meal: here are my findings.

Executive Summary: a winner in each of two categories.
-Most Satisfying Sandwich: Spanish American Food, 351 East 13th St (nr 1st Ave)
-Best Archetypal Cubano: Brisas del Caribe, Broome and Broadway

*The Winner:
Spanish American Food
351 East 13th St (nr 1st Ave)
This huge sandwich was by far the most satisfying of the bunch, and makes me happy just to think about. Detractors and purists will point out that it is not a Correct sandwich at all. First, it is served on a larger, more satisfying roll which is closer to a mini loaf of zitos than the bleached, crumbling white bread of the typical cubano. Second, though it was plenty hot, it was not really pressed flat or toasted.

The pieces of pork were browned and delicious, very moist and plentiful. Though the ham was bland and bologna-like, the deliciousness of pork and the pickles sent the flavor and satisfaction quotient high. Mayo was offered (and declined). Altogether, this is a champion sandwich, and leaves the competition in the dust. Though pure cubano-hounds will pooh-pooh this mongrel.

*Second Place: (the first loser!)
Brisas del Caribe
Broome Street & Broadway
Tasty, fatty port was chopped before my eyes and put on a decent piece of white loaf that held up to the toasting process. Unlike above, this sandwich maintained its pedigree and Cubano dignity, falling squarely in the camp of the archetypical sandwich, yet fattiness of pork and quality of ingredients raised its level of deliciousness a notch above the others. Remember the Maine!

*National Café
210 1st Ave (bet 12th and 13th streets)
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this sandwich. The worst of the lot. Forgettable. Ordinary in every way, pork was as dry as Teddy Roosevelt’s saddle. It is served with a stripe of brown mustard, which bought no redemption for the soul of this sandwich.

*Sophie’s Restaurant
205 Pearl Street (near Fulton)
The mayo and yellow mustard they lavishly applied to this sandwich could not overcome the dryness of the pork. I think it could lie at the bottom of the harbor for 20 years and the wood-boring sea worms would still find pier pilings more palatable. Garbage. Couldn’t finish it.

*Havana Chelsea Restaurant
190 8th Ave bet 19 and 20
I wished it were better because I like this restaurant, but this was just an average sandwich. The pork was good and moist, like darkmeat turkey, but the bread crumbled like a dry soda cracker and the cheese was gummy kraftlike. Reminded me of those Stewarts sandwiched we used to get in gradeschool. They laid 2 or 3 different slices of ham on, which was amusing.

*La Rosita
2809 Broadway aprox 108th street (sorry)
The stuff of regurgitation. And it was too small ;- )

*Restaurant 92
92 Fulton Street/212-267-6707
Nothing of note here, this is the standard sandwich with one meager slice of ham. Except that it was served so hot that the cheese completely liquefied. I tested the sticky fluid on the bun with my finger to see if it were mayo, and it congealed and scalded me like hot wax from a candle. (But Restaurant 92 gets bonus points for the most attractive servers.)

*Café Havana
17 Prince St @ Elizabeth
Expensive sandwich assembled from the finest ingredients, however the glomming-on of pepper-inflected mayonnaise turned the pork into something reminiscent of dark-meat tuna. Served with a thimble-sized salad. Was worth a try, but I won’t be going back.

*Sucelt Coffee Shop
W 14th Street
A modest little sandwich, the smallest of the bunch. One dry, flat piece of pork. A stripe of brown mustard. Unremarkable.

*(Also had one at El Castillo de Jagua on Rivington St. I forgot to take notes, so this means it was unextraordinary.)

-General Observations
In this context, after melting and pressing, I feel ham is ham and cheese is cheese. Or at least they are relegated to supporting players in the drama which is the Cuban sandwich. The make-or-break is the juiciness and flavour [sic] of the pork, and to a lesser extent the character of the bread. Mayo is unctuous and should never be added: it detracts from a good sandwich and cannot save a bad one. Brown mustard is permissible.

I have been to Cuba twice and never come across a Cuban sandwich, as such. The unfortunate Cubans have few resources and putting ham, pork and cheese on a piece of bread and toasting it properly would be expensive and unduly difficult (if not impossible) even if they wanted. In fact I don’t know if the Cuban sandwich really originated in Cuba, or in the diaspora. The onliest bit of “authenticity” possessed by these sandwiches was a kinship to the mouth-drying bleached white bread served down there. The cheap French-style loaves used by most of these places, when refrigerated and toasted, turn to silica and dust in the mouth. Undoubtedly these are the madeleines which proust the memory of old-timers, bringing tears of melancholic remembrance to the eyes of some, even as it sucks the moisture from the rest of our bodies.

My preferred setup: just the sandwich plus a huge, deep puddle of Tabasco (TM) for dipping, and a can of Coca-Cola (TM). No other sauces or colas will do. No mustard for me, thank you. (Although I have tried honey-mustard and Country Sweet brand chicken sauce to liven up completely dead sandwiches, and it can be a good thing.)

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