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Food & Dining

Chew on this, Miami: The Cuban is now Tampa's official sandwich

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:49 AM
TAMPA -

Bite this, Miami.

Seriously, take a bite of Tampa's pride and joy, the exalted and glorious Cuban sandwich.

Take a good, long, soul-satisfying taste.

In the words of Tony Montana, say hello to my little friend.

Let the combination of ham, mojo pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and dill pickle slices dance all over your taste buds. Close your eyes and listen to the satisfying crunch as your teeth bite through the perfect crispy-but-not-too-chewy crust of the Cuban bread.

And then, after you've swallowed that spectacular avalanche of beautiful, authentic, savory and sweet flavors, try to tell us with a straight face that your version of the sandwich is better.

Good luck with that.

We both know that any claim otherwise would just be a lie.

Tampa tried to play nice. We tried to have a little fun and claim the Cuban as our own.

The Tampa City Council on Thursday passed a resolution anointing the foodstuff as the city's official sandwich.

Appropriately, they did this right around lunchtime.

This decisive and crucial piece of public business was executed with swift purpose following several weeks of bellyaching by those in Miami-Dade County who tried to start a culinary smack-down by claiming their Cuban sandwich is more Cuban than Tampa's.

The apex was Tuesday's opinion piece in the Miami Herald by Fabiola Santiago, who took offense to several points of Tampa's approach to Cuban cuisine. She decreed that although Cuban blood has run through Tampa's veins for a longer period of time than it has in Miami, we here in The Big Guava nonetheless have "no culinary chops."

"More than neighbors, tampeņos are like favorite cousins," she writes, patting us on the head like temperamental toddlers.

"They're gentler than we are. They must be. They let a salami slip into their cubano sandwich. Next thing you know, they'll be adding a slice of turkey."

Well, actually, no. We won't be. Because that wouldn't make a lick of sense.

What Ms. Santiago and other miamiņos fail to understand is that the Genoa salami is there for more than flavor reasons. It didn't just fall into the sandwich. It's not there by accident. (Miami knows about accidents. Their personal injury attorneys lace car crash radio ads with salsa music.)

The salami with the little black peppercorns embedded in the meat made its way between the slices of bread as a gesture to the stone-cutters from southern Italy who settled in Ybor City along with the Spanish and the Cubans.

The Tampa-born cubano is more than a sandwich. It's a history lesson in every bite.

The reason it doesn't have mayonnaise? Because before refrigeration and air conditioning were trendy affectations in Tampa's early days, mustard was the non-spoiling condiment of choice. The Germans who migrated to Tampa to work in the cigar factories in the 1890s dug that flavor.

The reason the sandwich is pressed flat as a board? Because those Ybor City bricklayers found that a hot brick placed on top made the bread taste a whole lot better after it was caramelized.

Ah, yes, the bread. It's the main reason a Miami Cuban will never match the flavor of Tampa's signature food.

Why? Because unless you're using water from Tampa, the bread will never taste the same. A baker in a strip mall in Kendall might use a palm frond to split the loaf the way La Segunda Bakery has done for more than a century in Ybor City. But the flavor of this specific place in Florida and the minerals in the groundwater is what makes it special.

Ask someone from New York City about that when you're talking about pizza. Hudson Valley water gives the dough a certain … attitude. The water in Miami? It's for swimming pools, Everglades alligators and not much else.

That's not to say that Miami lacks culinary charms. I love the place almost as much as I love Tampa.

When friends and relatives besmirch our eccentric southern cousin, I come to its defense.

Go to Calle Ocho, I say. Go stand at the lunch counter at La Camaronera in Little Havana and slurp a perfect bowl of grouper soup. Soak up the la vida loca vibe on South Beach. Go eat Norman Van Aken's delicious "New World Cuisine" downtown at Tuyo. Be sure not to miss the Cuban sandwich at Luis Galindo's Latin American on Red Road.

And then, after your senses have exploded from too many mojitos, margaritas and mounds of moros, drive sensibly but quickly past the pythons and come back home to reality.

Back to Tampa, the original home of the Cuban sandwich. In fact, bring a friend back from Miami so they scan see how gentle we are and how good our food tastes.

We won't bite.


jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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