In Search of the Cubano, from Havana to Tampa to L.A.

If you want a Cuban sandwich, you might be better off in L.A. than Cuba

I booked my flight to Havana, Cuba in early December to spend New Year’s on the forbidden island. Little did I know that President Obama would soon announce a historic decision to normalize relations with Cuba after a 54-year embargo and a travel ban.

Just as I had hoped upon arriving in Havana, I encountered Cubans all over the city that were excited and hopeful about the news and happily expressed their appreciation—a taxi driver even hugged me.

There were so many memorable meals on this trip, but I was reminded about the question of the cubano sandwich while catching my return flight and encountering a young couple from the Midwest. “What about the cubano, is it more of a Miami thing, or?” asked one of the vacationers.

I thought it well-known that the generous (by Cuban standards) cubano, as we know it, was created in Tampa by Cuban-Americans before spreading to Miami and other parts of Florida—the traditional cubano is layered with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and dill pickles on a long, buttered Cuban bread loaf with a light spread of yellow mustard inside the sandwich. It’s then cut in half, sometimes at an angle. In Tampa, they add salami, and the truly indulgent scoff at conventions and add lettuce, tomato, and mayo like L.A.’s own La Caridad, which makes a mean cubano pressed thin in a plancha, a Cuban-style sandwich press.

In Cuba, sandwiches are very minimalist—pan con lechon is just pork marinated in mojo and a piece of lettuce on a soft, smallish, circular bun lightly pressed in a plancha. When I ordered a cubano on my 2011 trip to Havana, I got a airy, crusty loaf with runny Spanish mustard, ketchup, and ham that was delicious but quite humble in ingredients next to its Floridian counterpart. The most common sandwiches I encountered on this recent trip were the panes, small, round buns filled with local flavors like my inexpensive, mouthwatering pan con tortilla de perro con queso, or hot dog-and-cheese omelet sandwich at Cafeteria El Negro in Centro Habana.

For a more classic version of the Miami-style cubano—no salami, nor the lettuce, mayo, and tomatoes that cause purists to turn up their nose–L.A.’s No Jodas Cuban Kitchen truck and the Chef movie pop-ups with Roy Choi (Choi was a technical adviser, and his story was an inspiration for the Jon Favreau film) featuring his cubano served at the El Jefe food truck in the film, are both really good. There are too many fantastic and historic reasons to get on a plane to Cuba right now, but the cubano isn’t one of them.

redarrow La Caridad, 2619 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, 213-484-0099

redarrow No Jodas Cuban Kitchen, check the online calendar to see where the truck will be

redarrow El Jefe, @RidingShotgunLA for updates