It’s been a few weeks since we attended the 2015 Cuban Sandwich festival. We milled over this piece a little too long to be timely, but our opinions are up to date, so it’s still a good read for any of you trying to find good Cubanos in Tampa. Especially true if you’ve already viewed the list of winners. Here goes:
The Cuban sandwich is a masterpiece, likely born out of necessity. Various cultures blended what little they had to create one cohesive, bread based package, although exactly when this occurred has never been proven. We feel things because we want to believe in them, we love a good food story and we try to let history justify our feelings toward the stories we hold dear.
I have every reason to believe that the Cuban sandwich as it is known today was curated right here in Ybor City. You can believe it’s from Miami, Cuba or even Geneva, Switzerland for that matter, but until you bring me some notarized or patented paperwork, there’s nothing to discuss.
I will not accept a Cuban sandwich as being traditional unless it contains salami. For those who want to argue this point, you’ll always come up lame, just like Miami’s sad salami-less imposter. I’ve asked many Miami residents, and contest participants to give one solid reason why the lack of a delicious cured meat would ever detract from it, but they never, ever respond with a good reason. Maybe because they know better, or maybe it’s just unwarranted geopolitical pride. Being too prideful in a weaker product is what brought down Ming Dynasty isn’t it?
One argument of note is from Sergio’s in Miami, who says on the subject of salami on a Cuban, that some people like pickles on their cupcakes. That’s weak. It’s as weak as Steve Rodgers pre-gamma ray. Salami is a complimentary flavor that only enhances the end result of the sandwich.
I think the results of this year’s Cuban sandwich proved, if nothing else, that the greater Miami population doesn’t really know what they’re doing with the sandwich they, for whatever reason, like to tout as their own. You did invent something, something awful. From the exclusion of one of earth’s most precious prizes, that being salami, to your hardtack version of Cuban bread, just about everything I’ve sampled on the Miami Cuban sandwich front has been sub-par. I do however have a deep admiration for Versailles in little Havana. They do a chorizo and manchego sandwich that would make even the mighty Jose Marti put off his activism for at least a day or two.
My Cuban sandwich love is strong, which is why I just went off on a 500 word tangent, even after recently completing a lengthy three part Cuban sandwich competition of our own, where I thoroughly pontificated on the subject.
Let’s get to the festival itself. This year’s version, if you are talking on an all around enjoyment level, was a huge success. So many festival attendees got to experience rich, Cuban culture through music, dance and of course food. I give the founders of this event a sincere bow of respect. Not only did tens of thousands attend, but the proceeds went to fund a great cause.
As far as the competition, I held a judging position in the Non-Traditional category, in which competitors were asked to get creative, while still keeping things recognizable as a Cuban. They were encouraged take on the challenge by flipping the usual Cubano on its head.
I’d like to share my comments as well as the ranking for each entry. I was only able to match a handful of sandwiches to their respective entrants, so the others will remain a mystery, possibly due to shame, but most likely from lack of any social media presence.
The ranking was 1 to 10. I still don’t know all 8 competitors, so here goes.
1. It’s just a Cuban sandwich. I think this got put in the wrong category. Looks like someone tripped and spilled chopped cilantro all over the top. Struggling to find what makes this non-traditional. Kind of really sweet now. Struggguuuuhhhhlinnnnng. (Maybe La Septima, 1st Place) 2 Stars
2. At least they tried to do something different after what #1 was. I see coleslaw. There is Mango. Smells like garlic bread. Very tropical. Outstanding, flavorful roast pork. Soggy. (Wheelhouse Deli 2nd Place) 3 Stars
3. It’s just a Cuban sandwich with a cherry tomato and an American flag stuck on top. Tomato of any kind, no matter where you put it, makes it non-traditional. This is non-good (Maybe La Septima, 1st Place) 1 Star
4. I don’t know what to call this thing. A Cubanpanada? I didn’t appreciate the hot sauce shower I got when I raised the lid from the box it was housed in. However, being assaulted by Crystal sauce is pretty non-traditional if you ask me. An empanada with Cuban sandwich filling is a great idea. The dough wasn’t very stellar, the mayo/mustard/mojo dip was. Inside, a little dry but great effort. 6 Stars
5. With all that green inside, I was expecting a chimmichurri or pesto bomb. Instead, it was like the time my dad made a ham & Swiss melt with a heaping scoop of hot dog relish. Extra 2 stars for nostalgia. Tried it twice to make sure I was tasting it right. Still tested positive for hot dog relish taste overload. 4 stars
6. Should be noted that all the meat is poultry. The switcheroo on animal proteins made this an “OK” non-traditional, I suppose. I think the spice coming from the pulled chicken really stands out. Everything else just reminds me of a bologna sandwich. I like bologna. Good sandwich. 4 Stars
7. If you’re going to be the 2nd dog in a two dog Cuban sandwich coleslaw king of the ring dog show, you have to bring it. They brought a better slaw with less sweetness, properly drained and more vinegar based acidity. In addition, they switched Swiss with something aged and nutty (Parm or Manchego?) to attack the enemy. Enough to come out victorious in Slaw Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Coles. (Dochos Concessions) 6 Stars
8. I couldn’t tell what, what was going on???! Sweet, sweet, sweet pickle or something else really sweet. What could be the roast pork part, was a really nice shade of mahogany and was pretty fatty so maybe they went with a braised beef brisket or short ribs instead. Who knows? I know. Too sweet. (The Dude and His Food) 4 Stars
After seeing the top three finishers in each category, I understood why many were upset with the results, as they ended up with very few of our proven favorites. The winners were a real hodge podge. “Head scratching” is what one on-looking fan was quoted as saying after seeing the final result in the four major categories of the weekend. I have a decent hypothesis about how this came about. Any given place can win if they make the best sandwich on that specific day. And to them go the spoils. They garner attention because they can say, “Hey we have one of the top three Cuban sandwiches around, and we can prove it with our award.” Then when you go get the sandwich at the restaurant, deli or truck, in reality it’s nowhere near the quality it was the day of the contest. That’s a bamboozle and I think we got a touch of that this year. It’s just a theory though. My only proof is that I’ve eaten at almost all of these places and a lot of them just aren’t very good. The only truly accurate ranking is that the Miami Cuban fell so far off the face of use earth in competition that people were holding candle lit vigils due to the disappearance.
To tell you the truth, I was pretty bummed out to not be included as part of the Best Cuban Sandwich in the World category. Even so, I took my assignment seriously, something I can’t say for my fellow judges who I have a sneaking suspicion weren’t even aware of the category, as a very, very traditional sandwich was the eventual winner. I got pretty annoyed once I found out what they did to put their twist on the original. Mayonnaise, allegedly infused with guava was the only thing that was different. I absolutely didn’t taste guava and guava is in my DNA.
Still, it was an honor to be a judge. Team Eat a Duck is hopeful that we can come back and judge with the big boys in the most important category. Shoot, we just hope to get asked back next year after the competition complaints we made, which again, have nothing to do with the fantastic organizers.
Here’s what needs to happen. I love the categories of competition. I just ask that all participants who enter the non-traditional category to please try to have a semblance of creative expression. Dip your Cuban in a sweet and spicy batter then deep fry it. Make the vessel a glazed donut then griddle the outside so that it’s nice and caramelized. Turn it into an oozy quesadilla or make a savory pop tart, croissant or scone even. Why not use a different set of ingredients all together, that still pay homage to the classic. Sort of like Buddy Brew did with their version during the #apuercolypse. In the immortal words of Busta Rhymes, “Gimme sum mo, If you want it lemme hear you say, gimme sum mo.”
Challenge yourself and the judges. Don’t let us get confused, thinking we’re judging a different competition, because that’s another issue all together.
If you want to read about who we firmly believe has the best all around Cuban sandwich in Tampa, check out all 3 #Apuercolypse articles here (1, 2, 3). Oh, and if you think your favorite place stacks up to our list, let us know why and we will give it a shot!