In D.C., The Only Thing More Elusive Than Statehood Is A Good Cubano
Jun 08, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Umm, what about thaat place in Farragut West? And out on lee highway?
Nice to know about Bayou, though.
Posted by: charlie | Jun 08, 2011 at 12:40 PM
I tried to hit every place I could find, but that's a fair point, Charlie. If you give me the names of the those places, I'll check them out.
Posted by: Drew | Jun 08, 2011 at 01:11 PM
How about Cuban Corner in Rockville???? Real cubans there!
Posted by: Ed | Jun 08, 2011 at 02:37 PM
wait a minute!!!MOJITOS & TAPAS in NOVA has the BEST CUBAN SANDWICH hands down...you gotta try it!!they've been in business 5 years and its AWESOME! 45 minutes west of DC
Posted by: jackie | Jun 08, 2011 at 05:06 PM
Thanks Ed. I've heard good things about Cuban Corner, but ultimately decided it was a bit out of my range, though the same could be said about Burtonsville. The next time I'm in the area, I'll stop in and try the Cubano.
Jakie, thanks for the tip. Mojitos & Tapas is further out than I wanted to go for this story. But if I can, I'll check it out.
Posted by: Drew | Jun 08, 2011 at 08:58 PM
Havana Cafe -- in International Square
Caribbean Grill on Lee Highway and George Mason.
Posted by: charlie | Jun 09, 2011 at 09:40 AM
Thanks Charlie, I'll check them out.
Posted by: Drew | Jun 10, 2011 at 09:22 AM
Posted by: Carl | Jun 10, 2011 at 04:04 PM
As someone who spends a month or two out of every year in Tampa (my wife is a born and raised Tampan, and yes, she insists that that is the correct term) I loved this post. I tend to eat several Cubanos a week when I'm down there, and sometimes it's one a day. A couple things I thought I'd add:
--The Cubano actually doesn't come from Cuba or Miami; it's a Tampan original. It's the product of the intermingling between the Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants working in Ybor. Which is why...
--... a true Cubano should have Genoa salami in addition to the ham and roast pork. The Cubans gave it the ham and the bread, the Spaniards the pork, and the Italians the salami. You'll never find salami on a Cubano in Miami, but the good ones in Tampa never skip it. When they get pressed, the fat from the salami runs into the rest of the meat, and the result is sandwich nirvana.
--The best Cubano I've ever had is at The Museum Cafe in Homosassa. I've eaten all over Tampa, and none of them match up. It's well worth the 45 minute drive north. Try it the next time you're in the area!
--If anyone ever finds real Cuban bread in the DC area, I'd give up a vital organ for it...
Posted by: Colin | Jun 12, 2011 at 06:35 PM
Thanks Colin! You're right about the Cubano's Tampa origins and the salami business. However, it's nearly impossible to find a place in Tampa these days that adds salami, so it's understandable that people forget about the ingredient. It seems like it's disappearing from the sandwich. That said, I've never visited the museum in Homosassa, but I will. And God love you're wife, but tell her to stop using the word "Tampan." It's almost as bad as "foodie." We're from Tampa. Let's leave it at that.
Posted by: Drew | Jun 12, 2011 at 08:18 PM
I hope I didn't come off as a know-it-all... I just really, REALLY love those sandwiches. I've had a lot of great sandwiches--banh mi and roast pork hoagies are two of my regular cravings--but nothing matches a good Cuban. They're so simple, and I've never understood why they haven't migrated well. I'm glad to know that someone else out there shares my frustration!
Posted by: Colin | Jun 12, 2011 at 10:42 PM
There is a new place in Fairfax City called Pablitos. It is on Main St. in a strip mall next to Americana grocery. As a Cuban I believe it has the most authentic Cuban sandwiches you can get in the area. That being said, until they can find a baker who bakes Cuban bread, the true Sandwiche Cubano will be elusive. You must go to Miami (or Tampa) for the real deal.
Posted by: Raisa | Jun 15, 2011 at 01:55 PM
I've been reasonably impressed with the cubano at Mio, a pan-latin sort of place on Vermont near McPherson Sq.
Posted by: Drew | Jun 15, 2011 at 05:05 PM
My brother! Thank you for your research, Drew, can't wait to try.
First and best cubano I ever had (never been to Tampa or Miami) was in NYC - little joint on 9th Ave around 18th st. (Is that Chelsea?) Bread was rubbed with garlic on inside. Amazing. (I'm anti-mayo on this sandwich. You?)
Had a terrible cubano made by a guy rumored to be Cuban in Old Town Alexandria. Just awful, starting with the pork. Great food starts with great ingredients. Is this a difficult concept?
Posted by: JD | Jun 16, 2011 at 09:22 AM
Thanks JD. You'd think this was the most complicated sandwich ever conceived based on all the bad examples out there, but it really is just a ham sandwich. If you like the addition of garlic, you have to try the Cubano and mojo at Cuba de Ayer in Burtonsville. Spectacular. I'm Ok with a little mayo (which isn't uncommon), but the mustard has to be prominent. Like I said about Fast Gourmet, they mucked up an otherwise good Cuban sandwich by slathering it with too much mayo.
Posted by: Drew | Jun 16, 2011 at 09:36 AM
Thank you for not giving lip service to the version at Cuba Libre - it's just awful. How do you put Cuba in the name and then serve such a crappy, overpriced sandwich?
Posted by: Kelly (Hungry with Children) | Jun 22, 2011 at 02:39 PM
I've not had the sandwich at Cuban Corner, but their other food is good. Nothing replaces La Teresita, though (I used to live in Tampa). BTW, if you want the best tres leches cake (although they call it cuatro leches), go to La Caraquena in Falls Church. Amazing!
Posted by: Molly | Jun 28, 2011 at 03:44 PM
It's horribly unfair, but I can never take Cieba's cuban influence seriously. During my first visit there a server asked if we'd like some post-dinner coffee or desert. When I said I'd love a cafe con leche she said "That's with the caramel? I don't think we have that."
Posted by: Don | Jun 28, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Oh, goodie! I'm heading to DC in a couple days and will definitely check out these places. The Cubano's looks amazing.
Posted by: The Local Blogger | Jul 02, 2011 at 12:25 PM
Thanks for the comment Don. Cieba isn't a strictly Cuban restaurant, but as a restaurant that specializes in Latin cuisine, the server probably should have known what cafe con leche is. When I decided to check it out for this piece, I thought it was too high end to make a decent Cuban. Obviously, I was wrong. That said, the best Cubans you'll find in Tampa or Miami (or New Orleans, for that matter) are at much simpler eateries. But if you're looking for a good local Cuban, you really should give Cieba a try.
Posted by: Drew | Jul 02, 2011 at 02:02 PM
I am from Tampa, and your article is SPOT-ON. I stopped ordering Cuban sandwiches in DC altogether, because it is simply too painful.
I wish there was a place to find some solid Cuban bread...maybe with some palm fronds stuck inside...mmm...
Posted by: Nina | Jul 09, 2011 at 08:50 AM
I'm glad you gave a shout out to Fast Gourmet. When I saw the title of your post, I agreed that it's hard to find a good Cubano in DC and I immediately thought of Fast Gourmet!
Posted by: Ellinida_DC | Jul 12, 2011 at 05:01 PM
You rock! As a son of Cubans who grew up eating Cuban sandwiches in PR, this is a phenomenal writeup of choices in DC. I agree w the guy from New Orleans - a real Cubano uses yellow mustard though an alternative could be just as tasty - that would not be the point to a purist :) And we Cubans are nothing if not argumentative!! Great job!
Posted by: Raul (ilivetotravel in Twitter) | Aug 25, 2011 at 08:28 AM