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Jun 08, 2011

In D.C., The Only Thing More Elusive Than Statehood Is A Good Cubano

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A Cuban sandwich is: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard pressed until crispy between two slices of Cuban bread, ideally.

It’s a simple sandwich. It’s a great sandwich.

DSCN5828 You want a good Cubano, you go to La Teresita in Tampa. It’s on Columbus by the stadium. Over the years, the Cuban diner has cranked out thousands of Cuban sandwiches, each for about $4. Just look at it. The bread –- the Cuban bread –- is toasted just enough to be crispy, crunchy on the outside, while the interior stays soft and just slightly chewy. The Swiss is warm and beginning to melt. And there’s just enough roasted pork, ham and pickles to fill out the sandwich without going overboard. Simple.

Yet, in the dozen years that I’ve lived in the District of Columbia, I’ve encountered many, many bad Cuban sandwiches. Just awful ones. I became convinced that no one in D.C. could make a proper Cubano.

Before working on this article, I never actively sought out the sandwich around town. I make it back to Tampa enough to satisfy my occasional need to have one. But every time I did encounter a D.C. Cubano, I tried it. If the sandwich was a flop, I would assume the rest of the menu was as well. Why not? If a kitchen can’t make a ham sandwich, why should I assume it can make something more complicated? 

Fortunately, there are six restaurants (using the term loosely) in the DMV that make a good Cubano –- and one of them makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had … anywhere.

Ceiba, the upscale Latin American restaurant, across the street from the White House and a thousand miles from Tampa, makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (pictured above). That said, it’s not a traditional Cuban. If you’re a purist, the best traditional Cubano is made in Arlington by a guy from New Orleans. But the ways that Ceiba’s sandwich is different are the ways that it’s better than the rest.

For the most part, I’m still right about how hard it is to find a good Cubano in D.C. This is the town of Jose Andres and Minibar, of Michel Richard and Citronell, of Frank Ruta and Palena, of Vikram Sunderam and Rasika. This town, this foodie town (mostly) can’t make a reasonably good Cuban sandwich.

DSCN5926 G Street Food shoves dry, roasted pork and prosciutto into a roll and calls it a Cuban. It’s not (allegedly, there are other ingredients, but they’re lost in the loaf). Mi Vecindad on the Hill looks like the kind of mom and pop place that should specialize in a great Cubano. The sloppy steamed sandwich (pictured left) I had was the worst of the bunch.

The Disney inspired Cuba Libre offers an Ybor-style Cuban sandwich. Ybor City is the historic district in Tampa. Hey, I grew up in Tampa! I know Ybor! I’ve been there many more times then I remember. This should be great, right?! Right? Nope. The sandwich is too small, too expensive ($16!) and the flavors are too muddled. It’s a so-so sandwich at a Holy Shit! price.

And then there’s the Cubano flatbread at ChurchKey. I know it’s not a sandwich, but Kyle Bailey is a talented chef and I’m a fan of ChurchKey. Unfortunately, the Cubano flatbread is terrible. It may have pork, pickles and Swiss, but it doesn’t taste anything like a Cuban sandwich. Frankly, it doesn’t even taste like a good flatbread.

I could go on (Banana Café, Lima), but you get my point.

DSC_0006 In a strange twist for D.C., though, Jeff Tunks, chef and owner of Ceiba, uses all the right ingredients in his Cuban sandwich (well except Cuban bread, but he gets a pass because no one uses real Cuban bread). However, instead of yellow mustard, he uses a mayonnaise and mustard remoulade sauce. Rather than cured Danish ham, or sweet Virginia ham, Tunks uses a pungent smoked ham. And the Swiss cheese is replaced by its brawnier, more flavorful cousin, gruyere.

Tunks says the real difference is the pork shoulder that he marinates in citrus, garlic, cumin before slow roasting it. When he put the sandwich on the menu 8 years ago, he used pork loin, but switched to the fattier, more tender shoulder after a few months. Since then, the sandwich has remained unchanged. These days, if the pork sits too long in the kitchen before getting sliced, his staff will pick off pieces until the shoulder looks like it was worked over by piranha.

He’s right, the pork is good. The slow-cooked shoulder is juicy and the spices he uses are delicious and authentically Cuban. To me, though, the roasted pork isn’t the difference maker: it’s the smoked ham and remoulade.

DSC_0024 As I write this sentence, I can still smell the smoke on my since washed hands, and I can still taste the remoulade despite the other ingredients. When you bite into the sandwich, the smoke hits you. It’s confusing at first, because it otherwise looks like a traditional Cubano. But the smoked ham is a new element that gives the sandwich a flavor it’s never had before. And it works beautifully.

Then you notice that the bite from the mustard has been replaced by something smoother, richer. Until I talked to Tunks, I couldn’t figure it out. Somehow, the sandwich was more savory. The remoulade, which used a grainy mustard, was the unctuous secret.

Those ingredients added to an otherwise very well made Cubano resulted in one of the very best sandwiches D.C., or Tampa, has to offer. Sure, $13 is a lot to pay for a ham sandwich, but I’d pay twice as much. And if you order it off the late night bar menu, you can get it for half price.  

David Guas doesn’t like the remoulade. A Cuban sandwich needs yellow mustard. And he prefers more pork and less ham, though the smoked ham works for him. Guas’ opinion on Ceiba’s sandwich matters because he helped put it on the menu eight years ago.

DSC_0016 Today, Guas is the owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, and specializes in red beans and rice, boudin and has Abita on draft. But a couple days a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually) the kitchen will offer hot pressed Cuban sandwiches (pictured above) along with the muff-a-lottas. Guas may be a native of New Orleans, but his father was a native of Havana, Cuba.

Guas’ grandfather left Cuba to attend Loyola University, but returned with a wife and law degree. His grandmother’s ties to Louisiana led her to send Guas’ father and uncle to boarding school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., an hour north of New Orleans.

The city might be famous for po’ boys, but Cubanos were easy to find, Guas said, thanks to New Orleans’ Cuban community. And thanks to his extended family, Guas spent a considerable amount of his youth in Miami where the sandwich is a staple.

So the man from southeastern Louisiana knows from Cubanos.

Guas’ sandwich is fat with pork (that’s a good thing), but not so much so that the other ingredients get drowned out. Although Guas also uses a smoked ham, the flavor is much subtler than the ham Ceiba uses.

Both Guas and his former boss Tunks are big on the French bread they use for their Cubanos (Tunks’ comes from Cardinal, Guas’ comes from the French Bread Factory), but Guas’ roll carries the day thanks to the prodigious amount of butter he spreads on it before toasting it in panini press. The sandwich is crisp and almost flakey on the outside. Unless someone starts using Cuban bread, you’re not going to do better than Guas’ French roll. And at $7, you’re not going to find a better Cuban at a better price.

6 Tunks and Guas may make great sandwiches, but they are not alone in the Cubano trade. Within D.C., there’s also the El Floridano food truck. Parked along a curb in a neighborhood near you (maybe), the El Floridano offers up The Fidel (pictured right).

The Fidel is about as close to a traditional Cuban sandwich as you’ll find in the District. The El Floridano doesn’t do anything fancy (which is also good) and makes the sandwiches fresh. At the order and pick-up window, you can see the small flat-top lined with Cubanos held down by sandwich presses. For $7, you can get as good a sandwich as you’ll find in Tampa or Miami.

Fast Gourmet reminds me of some of my favorite Cuban sandwich spots in Tampa: gas stations. However, gas stations in Tampa don’t look this nice. The Cubano produced in the small kitchen near the corner of 14th and U streets is just as attractive. The crispy, panini pressed bread is stuffed with succulent, slow-roasted pork, ham, Swiss and pickles. Although the menu says the sandwich also comes with mustard and mayo, which isn’t uncommon, skip the mayo. It’s applied too liberally and drowns out whatever mustard is on the sandwich. For $8.50, you also get a side of shoestring fries. Don’t let that deter you from ordering the plantains (maduros). They’re soft, sweet and hot, and come with crème fresh.

Outside D.C., Cuba de Ayer is Havana via Burtonsville. The little Cuban restaurant hidden in a shopping center off Old Columbia Pike offers a great Cuban sandwich. What makes the drive to Burtonsville worth while, though, is the mojo you can order on the side. Dipping the warm and crusty Cubano into the garlic and olive oil mixture makes a good sandwich phenomenal.

Closer in is Cubano’s. What the Silver Spring restaurant lacks in polish and focused service it makes up for in a good Cuban sandwich (skip the fries and get the sweet maduros on the side). I wouldn’t go too far out of my way for Cubano’s, but if I was in the area, I’d be in the dining room.

There may be a lot of great restaurants, and food trucks, in the D.C. area, but there are only six that can make a proper Cuban sandwich. They are:

Ceiba: 701 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 393-3983; Cubano: $13
Bayou Bakery: 1515 North Courthouse Rd., Arlington, VA 22201; (703) 243-2410; Cubano, a once a week special (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually), $7
Cuba de Ayer: 15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, Md. 20866; (301) 476-8013; Cubano $7.50 (mojo $0.75)
El Floridano: moves daily; Cubano $7
Fast Gourmet: 1400 W St N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; Cubano $8.50 (plantains $2.50)
Cubano’s: 1201 Fidler Ln., Silver Spring, Md. 20910; Cubano $14.95 (maduros $4.95)

Categories: Arlington, Capitol Hill, Caribbean, Cuban Sandwich, DC, Downtown, Eastern Market, Local Food, Maryland, Pork, Regional Food, Sandwiches, Silver Spring, Virginia, Washington, DC
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