Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

What makes a restaurant truly great? It’s obviously a subjective question as preferences in taste, service, ambiance and price vary widely from person to person. In my opinion, the overarching quality that I look for in a great restaurant, is consistency. The places that can provide, not only delicious, but creative food, along with knowledgable, friendly service and comfortable atmosphere, all at a reasonable price, are few and far between. That’s why I chose to wait a while before I sat down to write about Rooster and the Till in Tampa. It’s easy to get caught up in a one-off meal that blows you away, only to find out it was a fluke. The real test of quality is whether or not the restaurant in question can deliver equally impressive meals over multiple visits. It’s been a long time coming, but after a half-dozen trips to Rooster over the last few months, I can happily report that they’ve passed the test, wowing me each time with their inventive flavor combinations and constantly changing menu.roos_logo_colorNow I would expect a high level of performance from a place with access to vast amounts of financial backing, top of the line equipment and the hottest PR team to generate buzz. In that case, there are no excuses, you’d better deliver, every single night, without fail. Rooster is not that place, and yet they are capable of producing legitimately high level cuisine with nothing but four hot plates, an impeccable mise and a small crew of exceedingly talented cooks led by two no-nonsense dudes in Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez, no excuses necessary.

Recently, Logan and I joined the boys from Tasting Tampa to put Rooster through its paces. I like to think four voracious eaters like ourselves, posed at least a small challenge to the kitchen as we ordered at least 80% of the menu. Keeping with tradition, we began with the raw items from the chalkboard, a scallop crudo and a smattering of oysters. The source and flavor profile of these items changes with the wind, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see these specific items, I’ve never been let down by their raw offerings.

Oysters & Scallop Crudo

This crudo only reinforced my belief that scallops are, first and foremost, meant to be eaten raw. These were so supple they were nearly a mousse. Pickled onion with corn and red pepper offset the sweet and malleable scallops in both texture and flavor, as a smooth avocado schmear joined the creamy party.

For the carnivores, I suggest you add the charcuterie slate to your order. On any given night you’re likely to find a pâté, a couple of cured offerings and maybe even duck rillettes if you’re lucky. At the moment the slate is sporting a beef heart bresaola with bread and butter pickles and hibiscus all-spice mustard.

Charcuterie slate

Rooster goes to great lengths to use what’s fresh, keeping it seasonal and local when possible. For us that meant heirloom tomatoes marinated in aged sherry vinegar, cucumber, smoked goats milk yogurt, charred lemon arugula emulsion and flax-seed pumpernickel crackers. Dishes like this are often the most impressive as they’re so simple, yet most of us would never think to combine the flavors just so. The short rib gnocchi is an auto-order item for me. Ferrell prepares his gnocchi in the Parisienne style, resulting in a far lighter and less dense pillow than their heavier set cousins. The clincher for me is the duo of smoked ricotta and pickled peperonata. Creamy and rich, tangy and electric, it’s a great response to the unctuous short rib as it relaxes in its San Marzano coating. The star of course are the dainty gnocchi that almost dissipate on your tongue instead of adhering to the roof of your mouth like a barnacle.

Heirloom tomatoes & short rib gnocchi

I’ve been called a pole bean my whole life. Until I had them at Rooster, I’d considered it an insult. When you add in potato confit, garlic chips and duck cracklings, it becomes a compliment of the highest order. If you are what you eat, then I’m a tasty fellow. Another small plate selection that keeps with the earthen theme is the roasted mushrooms. Thankfully Ferrell didn’t go crazy with the bleu cheese, a known flavor bully, by piping small dots around the plate. Savory mushrooms are showcased front and center with a bacon and roasted bone marrow backup band to rival the Spiders from Mars.

Pole beans with potato confit & roasted mushroom with bacon and bone marrow

Ferrell presented us with a surprise care package of sous vide face bacon. That’s right, bacon of the face. A protein like this calls for some headstrong accompaniments, able to make themselves known. These came by way of chili flake broccolini, more of their amazing house ricotta, pine nut bread crumbs and tomato gravy. Dishes like this give me pause, if they can come up with plates of this calibre on the fly, out of leftovers no less, what else are they capable of?

Facebacon

Veggies, specifically beets. Normally I’m not a fan of this root, but the preparation here sold me. The healthy dollops of rich ricotta didn’t hurt either. Beets two ways, roasted and shaved raw, with cherry tomatoes was a light and refreshing departure from the previous dish, but no less enjoyable. Vegetarian friendly isn’t a phrase that rears its head on Eat a Duck often, but Rooster has a way of showcasing ground treasures so even this hardened protein protagonist can sing their praises.

House ricotta, beets

I write about this next dish with a heavy heart. After a good long run, the orecchiette with uni butter and bottarga has finally been retired. Bitter broccoli leaves and chili spiked confit tomatoes proved to be winning combination. If it was available, I ordered it every time without fail. It really was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve had, but I know all good things must come to an end. I take comfort in the fact that Rooster always comes up with something new and exciting to replace classic veterans. As I write this, the menu is already reflecting the hot new rookie, garlic chive cavatelli with charred tomato, pancetta, arugula, shave crontonese and gremolata breadcrumbs.

Uni butter orecchiette

At Rooster and the Till, for me at least, dessert consists of more savory dishes, or perhaps another half-dozen oysters. But their sweet dishes are as delicious and well designed as anything else on the menu. They’re typically on the refreshing end of the spectrum, a welcome palate cleanser after hearty meal. On this occasion they featured passion fruit, coconut and berries. The beautiful presentation is matched only by the depth of flavor.

Rooster dessert

Rooster and the Till are often maligned for serving small plates with high prices. I’m not sure what planet these commenters are from, but you won’t find a better value in Tampa. There are hardly any other restaurants in town serving up this calibre of food with such consistency. Even fewer establishments earn a spot in my “where to eat dinner tonight” list, but Rooster and the Till have landed a permanent reservation, as one of my favorite restaurants of all time.

Rooster & the Till on Urbanspoon

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol. III: Feast Through the Eyes of Gluttons

The ballots are in, our Herculean task, accomplished.  Twelve Cuban sandwiches, four men, one day (along with a handful of beers, chicharrones and deep-fried key lime pie, which you really must eat. We even had a salad halfway through if you can believe it. Sure, it was layered with meat and cheese, but it was a Salad! It still counts!). Our bellies were swollen to twice their normal size, which is already large to begin with, all to bring you this, the top 6 Cubans in Tampa. Since then, our Cuban sandwich cravings have become a full blown addiction, worse than cigarettes, but short of Beliebers.

Now we share the good and juicy bits, and by juicy we mean the succulent roast pork that was ever so prevalent in this group. These were the Cuban sandwiches we wanted to nom on a daily basis (and if my doctor is reading this, I am not eating Cuban sandwiches on a daily basis).

There was an implicit method to the madness of our sandwich judging. The basic ingredients, laid out in our previous post, varied in importance. For example, good Cuban bread was unanimously voted a must. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tampa Cuban, Miami Cuban, Cuban Cuban or even an Island Cuban, the bread is the tie that binds. Otherwise it’s nothin’ but a stinkin’ hoagie. In our ever so complex rating scale, a sandwich earning a combined 550 points would mean a perfect score. No sandwich got any closer than 40 points from that mark, as no sandwich is truly flawless. With that in mind, I think I speak for all four of us when I say, out of the top 6 there isn’t one in the lot that I wouldn’t make frequent return trips for.

The Four Courseman of the Apuercolypsephoto: Dan Schuman Photography

Some of these tread the traditional line loosely, others held fast to righteous Tampa Cuban love and lore. All of them assaulted our stomachs with gusto, vying to be the sandwich worth recommending to our readers. And now, the top 6. For the sake of future generation’s, we hope they provide no more than half as much enjoyment to you as they did to us.


6. Bodega

J: Last of the bunch and still delicious, that’s a big deal. It was missing a couple of necessary items which kept it from reaching the top 5. The pork was succulent and delicious, but the tang from the mustard and nutty salami layer were glaring omissions in a Tampa style Cuban competition, ’nuff said.

K: I say yum to this unholiest breed of Cubans.  It was a great sandwich, but no salami and no mustard.  Wah wah.  This was our last stop and I was so full of Cuban sandwich at this stage I could barely stand up, and yet, I still wanted to finish this sandwich and would have cut someone if they tried to take it from me.

L: Right off the bat I was forced to deduct points due to the exclusion of mustard and salami. I’m not sure if the owner has strong ties to Miami or not, but it’s kind of baffling to think of a Cuban sandwich without those two key components. The ratio of mojo-ocity was way beyond the 10th degree. There was an in credible amount of roast pork flavor, but something was absent. Maybe add mustard and salami, then we’ll talk.

T: Bodega makes a darn good sandwich.  Their coconut mango chicken sammie is probably my favorite in Pinellas.  The Cuban, although not traditional due to the exclusion of mustard and salami, was still excellent.  The roast pork was the star of the show, the bread was well a great combination of crispy/fluffy, the cheese was melty, and even though there was mayo, it was in subtle proportion.  I love these hipsters.

Bodega Cuban

5. Kooky Coconut

J: Tradition be damned, this was a great sandwich! I detected a touch of jerk seasoning in the pork, which, along with the copious amounts of gooey cheese, was the definition of drunk food, or sober food for that matter. This was #11 of twelve and I still found it delicious, that says it all right there. It’s way, and I mean way out there, as far west as you can get, but it’s worth the drive.

K: Another great sandwich that’s not really a Tampa style Cuban.  Caribbean seasoning on my Cuban, what the heck.  That blasphemy aside, holy moly was this a wet greasy mess of please give me more.  It was a great sandwich.  If I’m on Indian Rocks Beach, I’m totally going here a lot.  This was an artery clogging spread of roasted pork, super melted cheese, perfectly pressed buttered bread greatness.

L: The place was backed by various beach bum families in varying degrees of roundness. Almost everyone was ordering the Cuban sandwich. Now, I really hate when people tout their product to be the best because they are almost always wrong. Strike that. They are always wrong. And shame on me for not doing extensive detective work, nonetheless, when Kooky says “We are the best Cuban sandwich on the beach,” you should believe them. Look, I don’t know how far said beach stretches, but either way, it’s a correct statement! It was not a tight, neat little package like some of the others. It was downright messy. But the jus, which pooled onto the wrapper from the excess of melted butter and Caribbean, jerk spiced mojo, made for a positively divine soppin’ sauce for my bread. This sandwich strayed from tradition to the point where it really wasn’t a contender for this type of contest. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t absolutely marvelous.

T: I was seriously pissed we had to drive out to bum fudge beach nowhere to go to this place. Until we got to eat the sandwich, which made me pause and rethink Cuban sandwiches for a moment. It was rich, savory, almost comforting.  The kind of sandwich I would enjoy on a warm day, but absolutely crave on a cold one.  There was a generous layer of cheese (almost a bit much for my taste) and it was properly melted and gooey.  The bread was buttery, crisp, and had soaked up a considerable amount (at least on the bottom) of the jerk mojo jus (again, not traditional, but dernit it was good), and made the sandwich anything but dry.  The flavors go together and threw a little surprise party for my mouth, it was really a treat, and nice to have a different paradigm of thought on a Cuban.  If I ever find myself in proximity to this little beach hut of a restaurant, I doubt I’d eat anywhere else.

Kooky Coconut Cuban

4. Cigar City Brewpub

J: All of these Cubans were new to me, but the last place I expected to find the #4 Cuban in Tampa was a pub. CCB did their homework on this one and started by sourcing high quality ingredients. I prefer my pork shredded not sliced, and while the flavor was nice, it could’ve used a touch more mojo, and mustard for that matter, a common note at most of these establishments. Slather that mustard people! The bread was crispy but not dry and had a slightly sweet note that was a welcome addition to the savory soirée.

K: Cigar City Brewpub surprised me with this Cuban.  I remember a period right after they opened up when I was very disappointed with their Cuban.  They have come back with a vengeance. This is a perfectly researched traditional Cuban.  Baked ham, not sliced.  That’s where they got my heart.  The rest of the sandwich was right on point as well.  I didn’t get one of the amazing pickles everyone else had on my section of sandwich which made me want to cry, especially since the guys taunted me about how good they were after the fact.  I do love me a traditional Cuban sandwich and this is the one the Columbia should have made.

L: The ham was unrivaled. It was the best of the day in my opinion. For how ever good the roast pork and salami was, they were both lost against the glazed ham, reminiscent of apple pie spice that is tucked inside. The chef must have had a Hattori Hanzo sword in the back because this sandwich was cut on such a perfect angle that I wanted to give extra points for presentation. The layering on the sandwich was an architectural feat made possible only by a chef with the appreciation for sharp lines and the work of Daniel Libeskind. The pickle was made in house, which is something that not many competitors do, but makes a huge difference in quality. Cigar city balanced the filling to bread ratio (60/40 is the perfect mix) better than any other. The only downside on this sandwich is that the mustard wasn’t speaking to me. They are basically doing everything in house except baking the bread, why not use that excellent beer mustard you got sitting in the kitchen and blow this whole competition out of the water?

T: I would say this was the most properly curated sandwich we ate.  One of few (if not the only one) with all local ingredients, and certainly one where a lot of thought and heavy deliberation/investigation/experimentation took place during the process of creating it. The crew at Cigar City Brewing does their homework many times over before creating a beer, most brews are named/conceived with historical significance (or a good ol’ poop joke, which is one of many reasons I love those guys) and the food at the Cigar City Brewpub is no exception, it’s steeped in Tampa tradition, but elevated using the highest quality local ingredients and paired with amazing beers. Oh yeah the sandwich. The Cuban was absolutely one of my favorite of the day, the meats were there in perfect proportion, the cheese was melty, the mustard/sauce was perfectly perceptible as a vinegar/acid element that offset the richness of the sandwich, it sat beautifully pressed, cut and presented on the plate.  Everything about it was nearly perfect, although the bread was just a bit too crispy for my taste.  It was probably a fluke because damn that was a good sandwich.  I would head back there in a heartbeat, between that and the chicharrones it’s worth the drive up to Carrollwood.  It’s also a bummer it’s up in Carrollwood, I remember telling the owner (Joey) before it opened, his biggest obstacle would be dealing with the chain-restaurant mindset in the area.  I’m very happy to see they’re doing well.

CCBP Cuban

3. Buddy Brew

J: Alright truth time. Buddy Brew may not have reached number one collectively, but it received the highest score from this judge. The ingredients were stellar (I don’t use that word often), in lieu of deli sliced ham, there was speck, they pickled a tomato instead of a cucumber. Their coarsely shredded roast pork maintained it’s juice and heat which kept the gouda (that’s right gouda) nice and soft. The mustard wasn’t as pronounced as I’d like, but the tomato filled the void. As the so-called “tourist” of the group, I didn’t find the creative tweak on the traditional formula a negative, in fact, it was a welcome change and a big part of why I rated them so highly. When I thought about which of these 12 I’d like to repeat, Buddy Brew was the easy answer. Sadly it seems to have been a one-off, so don’t go searching for this wraith of sandwich lore.

K: Oh my Buddy Brew, how you have outdone yourself.  A true gourmet Cuban sandwich using high quality and somewhat quirky (in a super-duper amazingly good way) ingredients.  Speck, green tomato pickles, garlic mojo(?) roast pork, beautiful salami, gouda cheese.  This was a great sandwich.  A near perfect sandwich.  This was high-end traditional and I’m a-ok with that.  Please make this an everyday item Buddy Brew.  It is that good.

L: You can’t say this sandwich is non-Tampa. It has everything. Just stop. Stop talking all together. This is how I want a modernized Tampa Cuban to taste. Every component is there, but it is done all together differently. I mean, speck as ham. That’s speck-tacular, and we haven’t even gotten to the pickles. Yes a green tomato pickle is still a pickle and thus deserves equal consideration as the standard pickled cucumber we all have accepted as the inspired gospel of preserved condiments. I applaud Buddy Brew for going all out and giving me something extra memorable. My only hope is that they realize what a gold mine they have on their hands and make it a fundamental part of the food board, not just a special. All points considered, this was my favorite sandwich of the day.

T: The Earl of Sandwich (the original guy, not that lame chain) would have dropped his playing cards and blinded out the next few hands, had he taken a bite of this thing.  It was absolutely no surprise to me that local whiz kid Josh Bonanno would be as interpretive as possible with a Cuban without violating the “rules”. Perfectly seasoned/marinated roast pork. Speck for ham (it was beautiful, you can believe we’ll let that shot play). Pickled green tomatoes (yep those are pickles). Gouda. Smoky awesome Gouda cheese.  Yes it’s a Suisse style cheese so it too shall pass (sorry Gandalf).  This was a near-perfect sandwich.  I would like to try it with the cheese melted, a bit more evenly distributed roast pork and maybe another tweak or two, but it’d only been on the menu for a very short time so we’ll just have to return and see how it’s progressed, won’t we?

Buddy Brew Cuban

2. Stone Soup Company

J: With a slew of plaques boasting their victory in the recent Cuban Sandwich Festival, hopes were high, and rightly so. The bread was panini pressed which raised some eyebrows but it was fantastic, perfectly buttered, crisp and thin. These guys got the pork spot on, juicy not soaked, tender not mushy. Meat balance is important, and thankfully Stone Soup understands this. This was one of the few spots that offered a side of mojo, which wasn’t needed, but much appreciated as it added a delicious pork fat slick to the already enchanting flavor. At this point in the game you have to really bring it, the one thing that kept SSC out of the top spot was the subtlety of the mustard. A little more tang may have lifted this one.

K: This was my absolute favorite sandwich of the day.  It was fan-freaking-tastic.  Our waitress put up with our way too early for it silly banter and proceeded to bring us an amazing Cuban sandwich and even asked us if we would like it 4 way cut.  I did not have high hopes for this sandwich going in because I didn’t know anything about Stone Soup.  Hello, pleased to meet you, please make me a Cuban sammie every day.  So onto the sandwich, mojo roast pork that was luxurious and delicate (can you describe roast pork as delicate), great salami, yummy crunchy pickles that blew me away, and perfect bread (looked Panini pressed, but I was fine with that).  This is a great sandwich without the next fact.   As an added super bonus, they give you a side of mojo jus dipping sauce that the sandwich totally doesn’t need but thank goodness it exists, because boy howdy does it make it even better.

L: I was worried right off the bat because we weren’t asked how we wanted our sandwich. Sometimes that means lettuce and tomato. After the Brocato’s debacle it put me on edge as I didn’t want failure to be an ongoing theme throughout the day. This was our second stop on the trip, so tensions were high. Once our beers arrived, (mine in a pewter goblet) everything seemed to be brought back to an even keel. Then shortly after that, a great sandwich arrived. This place has won a lot of actual awards and not the self-proclaimed ones that are easy to attain. Hey look I just awarded myself “Most efficient drinker of La Croix!” Really, it’s an honor just to be in contention. The roast pork was incredible and tasted similar to boar or maybe even whole hog where all the good parts are intermingled. What set Stone soup apart and made the other boys fall all over themselves was the Mojo pork juice served on the side ala French dip. I will say the one drawback is how the bread was pressed. It had those Panini maker lines that really turn me off. If they used a flat press like everyone else, the bread would be uniform and toasty all the way over.

T: It’s tough for me to know if this was or wasn’t my favorite of the day, for multiple reasons. I kept hearing about this place making the “best” Cuban sandwich in town (when I hear “best” I often think of yelp in all its unholy awfulness, literally putting the rights to “best” whatever-food-item on their website for sale to restaurants for a few thousand dollars a year) and winning people’s choice awards and such, I almost wanted it to suck so we could try it and move on.  I was floored. The sandwich wasn’t our first of the day, but for most of the day it was the clear leader.  It just melted together in one fluidly unctuous mélange of flavors in your mouth.  Taking a bite was effortless; the bread was lightly crispy on the outside and beautifully soft on the inside, there was no “tearing” action involved.  Teeth sank right through it.  Everything was in great proportion, each ingredient was a perceptible in this sandwich-symphony, but none played too loudly.  It was fantastic.  I would recommend it to absolutely anyone, and it’s really nice to have a good spot to grub down in Ybor since there aren’t but a handful of great spots in the ‘bor.  I went in expecting to be disappointed and I left singing its praises, which happens to me almost never.

Stone Soup Company Cuban

1. Dochos Concessions

J: Glistening. That was the first characteristic that caught my eye. The sun sparkled off the pork and cheese medley, filling my eyes as I prepared to fill my stomach. With my first bite I had a feeling this was going to be the one. It was like falling in love, you just know. Deep pork flavor, a wonderful mustard-mayo mixture and soft, sweet bread was a killer combination. The temperature was nice and even throughout and each bite gave the perfect balance of ingredients. I went through my entire portion before I realized there was no pickled. In the end, it really didn’t make a difference in my mind, it would’ve only increased its stature. Bravo Debbie, the competition was stiff, and you still pulled out the victory, it’s a good thing this sandwich is made in a truck, or else I’d be a permanent resident of their brick and mortar as my waistline would prevent me from leaving.

K: I love a Monte Castro from Dochos.  It’s a great sandwich.  How can you go wrong with a deep-fried Cuban.  I don’t think I will ever get it again.  The Dochos traditional Cuban now ranks higher. This sandwich was packed full of traditional components and was darn near perfection in between the bread, except for the pickles. Where were the pickles?  Dochos has a great mustardy mayo combo sauce that they knock out of the ballpark.  The pork was juicy, perfectly seasoned, and I thought about taking it to bed with me. The reason that Dochos won, to me, was because of how perfectly everything went together: the pressing was just right, the ingredients were seasoned the way we loved them, the bread was crisp without being sharp and stabby.

L: When the sandwich came we began dissecting it to study each component and how it had been distributed. No matter how hard we poked, no pickle was to be found. At that point I knew Dochos was a goner. You can’t win a competition and be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle It’s like the Chicago Bulls without Luc Longley. Impossible, or is it? As unctuous as can be without going overboard the sandwich was. In a perfect three pork cord this is as strong a bond as you can get. Each protein complimented the other better than any other sandwich. Dochos is the only place that utilized mayonnaise to its fullest potential, mixing it with the mustard and spices to create a super group of sauce. There was a tiny bit of heat that lingered even after we left the table, which made me think about the sandwich for a good hour after the fact. Bread was butter basted, heavily, then placed in the press. Their timing on the pressing was perfect as it was hot enough to melt the nutty swiss all the way through without melting the outer layer of the roof of my mouth. This sandwich wins because it was as close to all around perfection in a Tampa Cuban kinda way. No one better deserves this great honor more, no matter how you slice the pickle.

T: The reason this sandwich is the deserved winner is multi-fold. Is multi-fold a word? Who cares. Anyway, Dochos’ Cuban will almost always be assembled, pressed, and served lovingly by its creator, Debbie. This to me is a crucially important luxury, akin to when Peter (the owner) is making your pizzas at Wood Fired on Bearss, you’ll never have one more subtly perfect than you will dining at his hands. Dochos’ sandwich was a big meaty beast, with perfect bread, perfect press, great proportion, balanced meats, melty cheese, nice ratio of mustard to mayo in the sauce (it gave it a rich note but still had enough brightness to cut the rich flavors), and the pickles… hey wait where are the pickles?  Sadly this was an oversight, although apparently not one  egregious enough to cause this amazing Cuban sandwich to rank below #1.  When you want a Cuban Cuban, Dochos is the spot.  It’s an excellent value (half a pound of meat on that thing!), it was crafted with love, and it’s got flavor coming out of its ears.  Congrats, Debbie.  You deserve it.

Dochos Concession Cuban


We told Debbie (the owner of Dochos) after we finished that none of us got pickles on the sandwich. You could see the life get sucked out of her face, as she realized the omission. She didn’t know she was being judged in a massive Cuban sandwich contest. No one did except for Buddy brew and that was a wonderful accident. With Dochos, You can just tell they want everything that comes out to be perfect no matter who is eating and what purpose they are eating it for. There is no trophy, this was just for fun. If you get nothing else out of this realize this, there’s so much good food out there. Don’t get stuck in a Cuban sandwich rut, eating from the same place every single time. That place that was good 20 years ago might not hold a candle to the new food truck slingin sammies like they’re going out of style. Dochos proves that you can respect a time honored classic and still make it your own. With with that we congratulate them.

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol II: Through the Mojo-ve Desert

A few days have passed since the Cubano Apuercolypse Tour came to an end, and our bellies are still recovering from the Spartan test we put them through. We carefully scored each restaurant, crunched the data, and have at last discovered which local establishment makes the best traditional Tampa style Cuban sandwich, something none of us take lightly for various reasons. Whether it’s because of ethnic background, a deep-rooted bond with the city, a never-ending quest for the best of what’s offered or simply because of an obsessive adoration of sandwiches, the competition was taken seriously, as judging anything, especially food, ought to be.

Bay of Pigs

So why do we insist on a narrowing down our favorite to skew towards a Tampa style? We feel that the Tampa style encapsulates why the sandwich was invented in the first place. A bunch poor folk, from varied backgrounds, put the best of what they had together to make something great. To this day, a Tampa Cuban is one of the best examples of cultural diversity we have in this country, and we wanted to showcase those who do it best. Naturally you’ll find a majority of Cubanos at Cuban restaurants and bodegas, but a few gems out there that stray from tradition. Just like every vulgarian knows about Thriller, but not everyone digs down to PYT.

With that said, let’s lay out the basics. A Tampa Cuban should include the following components:

  1. Cuban bread
  2. Roast pork (preferably shredded or pulled, not deli sliced)
  3. Ham
  4. Salami
  5. Swiss
  6. Mustard
  7. Pickles

Anything that strayed too far from these basic qualities had points deducted. As far as extra ingredients, there are certain allowances to the rule as long as the sandwich is made better by the inclusion. Mayonnaise was a hotly debated topic. Our collective stance was that long as it didn’t detract from the end product, a deduction would not be made for mayo. The judges decided we would request that each sandwich be made in the traditional style. The true meaning of which, at times, seemed to escape our competitors. We also concluded, for continuity purposes, that every sandwich would be hot pressed. We all prefer, almost exclusively, that our Cubans pressed, however there are times when the mood calls for a cold one. However this was no time for cold sandwiches. We ended up eating 12 Cubans in all, the dirty dozen as it were.

To kick off the results, we’re sharing the six sando’s that didn’t make the cut. This being a Cuban sandwich contest, that cut had better be made diagonally or I will follow through with my plan to burn the building down. Below, along with each restaurant, we’ve combined our individual thoughts on the sandwich as written at the time of consumption.

We are the Four Coursemen of the Apuercolypse

J: Jimmy of Eat a Duck (World renowned sandwichier)

K: Kurt of Tasting Tampa (Tampaholic, can’t stop won’t stop)

L: Logan of Eat a Duck (The Truebano Operations Analyst)

T: Todd of Tasting Tampa (Patron Saint of Pork)

Aguila Sandwich Shop

J: The endless loop of their Man vs Food spot was full of promise. Sadly, reality is rarely as impressive. The diminutive amount of cheese was hardly melted. The roast pork was sliced and dry and the accompanying mojo sauce was a salt bomb.

K: Miami style with no salami, heck no, not in Tampa.  Also, with a video showing beautiful moist roast pork, why was my sandwich so dry and flavorless?  As an aside, that garbanzo bean soup and the fresh passion fruit juice hit me right.

L: While waiting we were treated to an endless loop of Man v. Food in which Aguila was spotlighted. Adam Richman got a sandwich piled as high as Pico Turquino. TV must add 5 pounds of pork to each sandwich, because ours was sorely lacking meat, as there was no visible cinematographer on set.

T: No salami, a bit dry, and the briny mojo just made me thirsty. The sandwich was forgettable, although the jugos were really good. The soup too. Basically everything other than the Cuban.

Aguila Sandwich Shop Cuban

Columbia Restaurant

J: After nearly 100 years in the Cuban game, Columbia fell, inexcusably, to many of the same issues of its younger peers. Dry, flavorless pork, parched bread. The few pickles to be had were limp. The cheese was decent but cold.

K: Tradition rules at the Columbia, but not necessarily a great one on the Cuban.  The bread was pressed for way too long. Dry, sliced roast pork doesn’t do it for me.  Please, please, please Columbia, make the Cuban that you should be known for.

L: Bread was so dry it crumbled in my hands, like the nazi that couldn’t answer what God’s name was at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This is what 100 years of practice gets you. We talkin’ practice?

T: As much as I love the Gonzmart family and everything they’ve done for Tampa, this will be my last visit to this place. It was laughable, the restaurant wasn’t super busy or anything, it’s like they absolutely didn’t care, from the food to the service.

Columbia Restaurant Cuban

Brocato’s

J: Within our parameters, this much-loved Tampa staple didn’t stack up. Enormous piles of ham overpowered the lesser amounts of pork and salami. Its core was stone cold as it was warmed in the oven and not pressed. This resulted in the cheese melting at the edge but not in the middle.

K: My growing up favorite became my adulthood disappointment.  This is the value choice Cuban.  A single cuban could feed a family of four. But because of the crazy amounts of ham, you lose the flavors of all the other meat. I’m looking for a perfect combo of pork, ham, salami, cheese, and pickle. This tasted like mostly ham.

L: Truth be told, they messed up on our first sandwich and rushed the replacement. At first bite, hot on the outside, icy-cold in the middle, with no press whatsoever and way over meated. As a society, have we learned nothing from Encino man except to not weeze the juice? Can’t wait to go back to the ribeye steak sandwich with provolone, which is far superior.

T: Hot on the outside, chill in the middle, briny from cheap sliced ham, no rich or “juicy” element to it, cheese not melty, overall dry, not balanced. A good value, but beyond that, not worth repeating.

Brocato's Cuban

La Segunda

J: Great bread as you’d expect from the supplier for the majority of Cuban sandwiches in Tampa, well buttered, pressed and crisp. I’m a mayo man, but this was ridiculous for a Cuban. Again, sliced dry pork, a cold center, undetectable cheese. Pickles had a nice tang but were covered in mayo.

K: Amazing bread (best I had that day). While I’m not anti mayo, I’m definitely anti-too much mayo.  Have I mentioned the mayo?

L: The amazing feats they’ve made in the art of bread making, were nearly overlooked by the end result. It was so off the mark, the rest of my portion was stripped from my hand and swiftly thrown in the trash bin.

T: Would you like sandwich with your mayonnaise?

La Segunda Cuban

Wright’s Gourmet House

J: Wonderful cheese, nicely melted, stretching to TMNT pizza proportions. The pork was slightly dry, the mustard was there but hardly pronounced and I could have used more butter on the bread. Also, turkey?

K: Hello turkey on my cuban. Why are you here?  Super melty cheesy goodness though and I love melted cheese.

L: Lots of people, all eating a lot and looking quite melancholy. Maybe it’s because they realized there was turkey on their Cuban sandwich.

T: The trend today seems to be Tampa classic/staples that have become apathetic, there’s no love in it anymore. And why turkey? Needed more mustard-gravy to offset it.

Wright's Gourmet Cuban

Floridian

J: Not bad by any means, cheese was great. This one got knocked a bit for unbalanced pickle distribution, my bites were full of them. The overall flavor didn’t make much of an impression.

K: This is the Cuban that you expect to get. It’s not splashy, but it does the job. This is the everyday Joe Cuban. It could be a true contender with a little more work.

L: I kept detecting faint traces of rosemary, which no one else agreed with. Great, distinct Swissyness. Touted as finest Cuban on the planet. Disagree, yet still pretty tasty.

T: I kept finding myself liking it better if I put some of their calypso hot sauce on it, or modified it in some way, but standalone it was unremarkable. Cheese was good although it wasn’t melted, meat looked/tasted cheap. At the price point, it’s tough to justify.

The Floridian Cuban

Cubano Apuercolypse: A Tour of Cuban Sandwiches Vol I

We are four men, bound by principle and the unwritten law of what is pure and true. When we were little boys we wanted to be big boys and do big boy things. We wanted to be independent, able to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. So here we are, at the great fear inspiring precipice before each of us, one so steep that once you jump, there’s no turning back. Serious sandwich deliberation is in our future. Honestly, I’m nervous and it’s keeping me awake tonight.

Bay of Pigs

When I was a boy I dreamt that one day I would find the perfect sandwich. Something that would encapsulate each one of my interests that could be found between two pieces of bread. We were not the type to eat out often, when I was a kid. When we did, I remember my entire meal budget was 3 dollars. My life hasn’t always been foie gras and cote de boeuf. One of my earliest food memories was sitting over a fresh Cuban sandwich laced with real tabs of half melted butter on the crust after a good firm pressing. We always picked this circular table tucked away in a dimly lit corner inside what used to be the bustling Latam restaurant at the cross of Columbus Ave and Habana. I loved eating Cuban sandwiches from Latam not just because they were they only thing I could buy and still have enough for a can of Jupiña, but also because it really was extraordinary. Sadly, Latam either went downhill or changed hands, then moved multiple times in the last 20 years. My dad had a saying when he no longer cared for a restaurant, he used to take a long pause after a bad meal, right before his last sip of cafe con leche and say…”Well, I’m marking this place off my list.” When he uttered those words, that was all she wrote. It was the kiss of death. He had a way of making you appreciate how important it was to not waste money on things. Bad food/coffee was on the top of his list. We never went back to Latam after that statement was made because, when he said something, he meant it. Instead, my extended 1/2 Cuban family started going to La Teresita after it had its resurgence in the mid 90’s, when the enormous expansion took place next door to the original diner. I still admire La Teresita’s Cubano, as the press is near perfect, though they skimp on the meat so the ratio is off. For just under $4, it’s a great deal. We now prefer dining at Arco Iris, which also has a location on Columbus, due to being turned on to the chicharron de pollo, (not their Cuban sandwich which is good but too hammy and covered in mayo) by my friend Jeff Houck.
I miss my dad so much in part because of the little quirky expressions he had, which makes a world of sense now that I’m a big boy and want to do big boy things, like eat 12+ Cuban sandwiches in a single day. I imagine he would probably call me “a dad burn deviant” for thinking up something so ridiculous.

At its nucleus, the reasoning Eat a Duck and Tasting Tampa are embarking this venture is because, quite frankly, Tampa has lost its way. As Tampanians and Floridians, the Cuban sandwich is part of our heritage, and from our perspective, we see bastardized versions more often than those which make our eyes roll back with porkified pleasure. It’s time we put our foot down and figure out who still does it best, because, if made properly this sandwich can not be topped.

If you choose to study the storied past where numerous incarnations of pork products were brought together by a smattering of multinational subgroups, allow me to point you in the direction of a true Cuban sandwich historian. This comprehensive examination is expertly done, and far more in-depth than we could ever go.

The conversation for doing a Cuban sandwich crawl to figure out who does it best started with four friends who couldn’t agree on who makes the best Tampa Cuban, in well…Tampa. We feel that the tradition of the sandwich shop with its $3.45 masterpieces have slowly gone the way of the buffalo, in a sense that no one is actively trying to make anything great anymore, much less the perfect Cuban. The passion for things such as these is so lacking, it literally causes a frustration of plans. We are sick and tired of these places getting comfortable, thinking their illustrious past reputations can hold up through a decline in quality. There are so many shops making a Cuban sandwich, yet we as a whole community of food lovers have no consensus on who does it best. Sure, you can come at me all you want with the fact that there is a Cuban sandwich festival that crowns the winner. That’s all well and good, but let me tell you something brother, not everyone participates. So how is that a true gauge?

We have carefully hand-picked a broad range of spots from hole in the wall to dang near fine dining, in order to give a wide variety of establishments the chance to take the crown. We took public opinion into consideration, as well as some of the winners from said Cuban sandwich festival. There’s a couple here I bet you’ve never heard of, right next to a restaurant that’s been around for over a hundred years. If you have a hundred years to practice anything shouldn’t you be the best? Think about it. A hundred years a single establishment has been afforded, to formulate the perfect combination of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, mayo, (mayonnaise the only optional ingredient) pickle, Cuban bread and yes, salami. This is Tampa. If you don’t put salami on your Cuban, you’re the one that’s suffering, not me, and if I see a shred of shredded lettuce, I’m going to burn the building down. If there is even a slight sliver of sliced tomato, I’m going to burn the building down. However, we are not down on the whole community. There is greatness out there, and we aim to find it.

At each stop we will be grading solely on the quality of that particular sandwich and grading only it on its own merit. There will be no comparing sandwich x with sandwich y. The winner will undoubtedly be worthy of jubilation and applause as they are truly deserving. We want you to know not only who is the greatest but most importantly, why. I already know that some of you will disagree and say we are completely wrong when we fail to pick your lame place as the champ. If that’s the case we have two things to say to you.

1. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
2. You’re entitled to your wrong opinion.

We hope you enjoy the chronicle and enjoy our journey. Without further delay, the time of porkening is swiftly approaching. I can hear the faint sound of hoofs stomping and snoots snorting in the distance. The Cubano Apuercolypse is drawing nigh into the city limits. 12+ sandwiches in the span of one day. 4 worthy judges will crown a champion of the Tampa Cuban.

Are you with us or against us?