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.
photo: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.