In search of Miami’s Cuban sandwich
It was a blisteringly steamy day in Miami. The city was swathed in sapphire blue skies flaked with puffs of silvery clouds, and the rays of the summer sun cut through brightly, leaping across neon-sprayed walls and faded buildings as we drove through the hip Wynwood Arts District, buzzed on Cuban coffee. Heading east across bridges planking dreamy canals on roads with names like Dolphin Expressway, the graffiti-lined streets gave way to the whitewashed Art Deco storefronts of Miami Beach. Lush palm trees intermingled with magenta bougainvillea, marking the path to the beach where turquoise waters awaited. Latin jazz played on the car radio, the muggy air seeping through the windows. It was the perfect setting in which to explore the history of the city’s legendary Cuban sandwich – or at least, it seemed to be.
The Cuban sandwich, comprised of thinly sliced ham and roast pork layered with Swiss cheese, a crisp pickle and yellow mustard served on sliced Cuban bread, is a Miami icon, a culinary mainstay symbolic of the city’s thriving Cuban community. But astonishingly it is 280 miles northeast in the Florida city of Tampa where the sandwich’s story actually begins.
Bienvenido a… Tampa?
In the late 19th Century, Tampa was a thriving shipping and mining city, thanks to its harbour at Tampa Bay and the phosphates discovered deep in its soil. Miami, meanwhile, counted fewer than 300 residents. When economic hardships and crushing cigar tariffs hit Cuba around 1886, thousands of Cuban workers migrated north to the shores of South Florida, bringing with them culinary and cultural traditions and igniting Tampa’s cigar-making boom. Between 1886 and the 1930s, Tampa’s Ybor City neighbourhood became home to a thriving Cuban community and the city’s first cigar factory, giving it the name the “Cigar Capital of the World”.
Cuban restaurants and cafes sprang up alongside the flourishing factories to feed the troves of hungry workers, and it was at this point that the Cuban sandwich first appeared, then called a mixto for the many meats used. It was easily portable and perfect for carrying from coffee carts, restaurants and cafeterias back to the factory line. Legend has it that Americans in Tampa renamed the sandwich the Cubano because of the Cuban workers who feasted on it daily. By the 1930s, the sandwich was ubiquitous in Tampa. It was South Florida’s answer to New York’s hot dog – pervasive working class food that, over time, seeped into the city’s conscience and culinary identity.
In the late 1940s, the Cuban sandwich began to make its mark in Miami. It was first sold at a modest bar in the northwest of the city, the (now closed) Do Drop Inn, which was opened by Cuban-born Miamian Frank Garces. And in 1959, as generations of Cuban expatriates began to settle in Miami following the Cuban Revolution, both the city’s Cuban community and the sandwich thrived.
By the 1960s, Cuban sandwiches were saturating the menus of Miami’s restaurants, cafeterias, take-out windows and street carts. The city has not looked back since.
Think of the Cuban sandwich today and it is Miami, with its Little Havana neighbourhood and prominent Cuban community, that springs to mind. Travellers flock here for what they know as Miami’s most iconic dish. And born-and-bred Miamians rarely know (or at least acknowledge) that the cherished favourite began miles north in Tampa. Even Miami’s mayor Tomas Regalado outwardly disapproved when Tampa’s City Council considered trade marking the sandwich as the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich” in 2012.
Considering the sandwich’s working-class roots, it may seem unlikely that one of Miami’s tastiest and most satisfying Cubano experiences is in whitewashed, glitzy South Beach, but Las Olas Café is out to prove sceptics wrong. Tucked away on an off-the-beaten-path corner, the deli-like space serves one of the finest Cuban sandwiches in the city. Head inside and join the queue of loyalists patiently waiting to order plates of black beans and rice, stews and pork shoulder, steaming on stainless steel trays. Be prepared to move quickly and order in Spanish from the women dancing behind the counter. Opposite, a large take-away window lets in Miami’s humid air. Old men lean on the outside windowsill, ordering cortados (espresso with milk) and empanadas to go.