In search of Miami’s Cuban sandwich

Despite the sandwich’s culinary identity being inextricably tied to Miami, a deep dive into its history reveals a surprising twist.

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.

Miami’s turn
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.

Behind a Plexiglas window my sandwich was made to order. A perfectly pressed Cubano emerged, as compact as a hand-rolled cigar. It was thinner than most versions I had seen, but inside the layers were brilliantly married and the textures sublime. The Swiss cheese oozed, the ham was freshly roasted and the pork was rich and moist. The grilled bread was a touch sweet and beautifully crisp. One bite – er, sandwich – later and it did not matter where the Cubano was born, just that it made its way here. 

If Las Olas is a revelation, Puerto Sagua is an institution. Opened 47 years ago in Miami Beach, the modest diner-like eatery is today flanked by Gap and Benetton clothing stores. Inside, a long, countertop meets dark wood panelling, and the handful of tables are lined with paper placemats promoting Florida. Like La Olas, my Cubano was brought to the plancha (grill-like press) before making its way to the table, though this time the end result was less compact. The pork was melt-in-your-mouth, slow roasted in the traditional way with a mojo, a garlic and citrus marinade, which left the meat sublimely tender.

A third gem is Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop, a modest diner/lunch counter where a fully female staff serves up extraordinary Cuban eats to the hipsters and young entrepreneurs in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. Here, the bread of my Cuban sandwich was less sweet, toasted until crisped and lightly brushed with butter before hitting the plancha. A hint of garlic hidden somewhere in the sandwich made it pop. Within, each element – from the salty ham to the delightful pork – was well-executed, coming together to create a balanced and rich snack.

Dotted throughout the city, Cuban cafeterias and markets, carts and restaurants are plentiful. But no Cubano tour is complete without a stop at legendary Versailles in the West Flagler neighbourhood. Adorned with large windows and over-the-top chandeliers, the eatery feels as though it’s from another era. Self-titled the “world’s most famous Cuban restaurant”, Versailles has been a mainstay for Cuban expats since opening in 1971. The mostly older clientele happily dine and chat nearly exclusively in Spanish.

Follow the green, red and white hexagon-tiled floors to the restaurant’s take-away counter and order a Cubano to go. Although an institution, it is not Miami’s best. My bread was warmed, not heavily pressed, and covered with a thin layer of mayonnaise – sacrilegious on any Cubano. Still the ham was tasty and beautifully chased with a pastry and a strong Cuban coffee from their adjoining bakery. If you really want to go local, pick-up one of their cigars – sold alongside the cookies and tarts – for a truly authentic end to the experience.