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.
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:
- Cuban bread
- Roast pork (preferably shredded or pulled, not deli sliced)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.