Ever since consuming my first Cubano, I have wondered from time to time how Swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard managed to wind up in a traditional sandwich from this culturally unique island state, where one might expect none of the above ingredients to be a staple of the local diet. It turns out that although its origins are in Cuba, where multi-ingredient, or "mixto" sandwiches used to be popular with cigar workers, the classic version as we now know it found its fully realized form in Tampa, when cigar manufacturing moved there at the turn of the last century.
Unlike many regional or traditional dishes, which can tolerate a certain degree of variation in the ingredients and techniques while still remaining recognizable, the Cubano, like the Salade Lyonnaise, brooks little or no tinkering. There really is no such thing as an individual interpretation other than in the quality of the ingredients, which are generally agreed upon to consist of the aforementioned, in addition to roasted pork, glazed ham and, most importantly of all, Cuban bread. In Miami, the addition of Genoa salami is allowed, but that's about it. In St. Louis recently I was served a "Cubano" on a French baguette with Dijon mustard. Tasty, yes, but Cuban, decidedly not.
For a Cubano to really work, the bread has to be as authentic as possible. Jorge Chalgub, owner of Broad Ripple's excellent Taste Of Havana, explains that it is the addition of lard to the dough which accounts for the bread's uniquely crisp exterior and airy, fluffy center. When pressed on la plancha, the bread takes on a firm but al dente texture, one which precisely matches that of the ingredients, as long as they are properly prepared, of course. Chomping down recently on one of Chalgub's perfect Cubanos, I was fascinated by how there was only the very slightest resistance as I bit through the bread, cheese, meat and pickle, which got me thinking about how rarely the feel of food registers as profoundly as the flavor. Food for thought, indeed.
Apart from serving this, possibly the best sandwich in the city, in three sizes ($6.50 – $10.99), Taste Of Havana offers a short menu, including a wholesome and satisfying black bean soup, slow-cooked "pork wings" (much appreciated by my paleo lunch companion) and a good variety of savory offerings between bread. Alongside the more traditional sandwiches, there's an unusual iteration featuring turkey, strawberry preserves and cream cheese, tempting the palate with its sweet-savory contrast. A future visit might be in order just to give this one a try. Crisp and salty plantain chips make the perfect side, and I strongly recommend saving room for one of the light but irresistible pastelitos: sizeable squares of airy puff pastry filled with fruit (in this case papaya) and cream cheese.
Owner Chalgub and his daughter Dayana Mireles offer affable and informative service: always happy to chat about the food and answer any questions you might have. With seating for about a dozen right now, the place gets pretty packed, so be prepared to grab something to go or wait a while for a table.