Where Was the Cuban Sandwich Invented?

Where Was the Cuban Sandwich Invented?

November 04, 2021

The food world is competitive. If you really think about it, every time a chef serves up a plate, they’re throwing down the gauntlet. This has inspired some of the most heated rivalries of all time, surpassing sports even. The bagel wars of New York and New Jersey. The neverending Philly Cheesesteak contest between Pat's and Geno's. And, of course, the messy origins of the Cuban Sandwich. Tampa Bay vs. Miami. Champa Bay vs. the Magic City.

This contest has heated up in recent years, with each city claiming to have invented and perfected the popular sandwich. This has included shots fired from mayors, merchandise, and many articles written (including this one). With a thriving Cuban population in each metropolis, it’s no wonder that the sandwich is the center of so much controversy. Whatever the truth, we’re just glad it exists at all.

So, what is the truth?

Today, we’re endeavoring to settle this once and for all. Where was the Cuban sandwich invented? Along the way, we might also discover who has the tastier version. Obligatory Florida legal notice: We are just friendly bystanders to the sandwich wars. We do not have a baguette in this game. We love and respect the Cuban sandwiches of both Tampa Bay and Miami.

Layers of Goodness 

For the sadly uninitiated, we’ll give a brief overview of what goes into a Cuban. But first, you’ll have to promise us that you’ll bring yourself down to your local deli soon after this article and order one because your taste buds have been sorely missing out. Deal? Good.

The Cuban is a pressed sandwich, with bright, tangy flavors gloriously melting into each other. Each city and each deli does things a little differently, but by and large, any Cuban will include the following:

  • Cuban bread: A dense, white bread with a hard crust.
  • Shredded pork: Preferably recently sliced off the beast.
  • Ham: Deli-sliced, simple, perfect, and glazed for a little sweetness.
  • Swiss cheese:That’s the one with holes in it.
  • Pickles:Of the dill variety. Please leave your sweet pickles at the door.
  • Mustard: Generally, this is smeared on top of the bread, giving it a beautiful, oily sheen.

Our friends in the kitchen will then press all this together, giving the Cuban its signature toasted look. By the time it reaches your table, the swiss cheese has melted into a stringy layer of heaven. Every bite into a Cuban is something of a discovery, with new flavor interactions delighting the senses. Is your mouth watering yet? We thought so.

If there’s one thing both cities can agree on, it’s that the Cuban sandwich makes for the perfect lunch. After that, it all gets a little messy.

Who Invented the Cuban Sandwich? 

Let the games begin.

The truth is, you don’t need to go far to discover who invented the Cuban sandwich. It’s right there in the name. The early origins of the Cuban sandwich date to more than 500 years ago from the Taíno tribe of the Caribbean’s largest island. Back then, the sandwich included fish and bird rather than pork and ham and used casabe bread made of yuca. As Europeans arrived on the island, pig meat and cheese were introduced to the indigenous islander’s diet. Combined with the Spanish style of making bread, the Cuban sandwich was born.

In the 1800s, Cubans immigrated to Florida en-masse, following the tobacco industry and bringing the sandwich with them. So there it is: the answer to the question of the inventors of the Cuban sandwich. Hope we didn’t disappoint. Now the real question is who perfected it? Which Floridian city is doing the best version of the iconic sandwich? Both of Florida’s big cities can make a claim to that question.

Tampa’s Claim to the Cuban 

Tampenos will tell you that they have the tradition. In fact, in 2012, the city approved a resolution to set the Cuban sandwich as Tampa Bay’s official sandwich, based on the longstanding history of the dish in the city.

When it comes to preparing the Cuban, Tampa Bay does things a little differently and quite specifically. The order of the ingredients is of the utmost importance. It goes bread, ham, pork, salami, swiss cheese, exactly three pickle slices, and mustard. The order does not change. And yes, in Tampa, it’s made with Genoa salami.

Why? To answer that, you’ll need to take a look at the demographics within Tampa. As long as the sandwich has been enjoyed, it has always sat at the intersection of two cultures. Initially, it was the Taíno tribe and the Spanish. In Florida, it’s the meeting of Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish cuisines.

Now, much of the lore around the Cuban sandwich in Tampa has been fictionalized. At Columbia Restaurant in the Ybor neighborhood of Tampa Bay — one of the oldest in downtown — the menu claims that each layer of the Cuban sandwich was offered by the various communities in a Thanksgiving-style potluck that’s about as true as the original Thanksgiving story.

Still, there’s no question that these flavors came together over time because of the mixing of cultures and cuisines in Tampa Bay. Initially, the sandwich was offered as a snack for pairing with cigars, a major industry of Florida at the time. For well over a hundred years, it’s been enjoyed and celebrated in delis all around Champa Bay. Ybor City, now a small fragment of what it once was, still stands, and as long as the Columbia’s doors are open, the Cuban lives on. The storytelling around the immigration and cultural mixing of Tampa Bay is all part of its charm.

But when Tampa declared itself the birthplace of the Cuban, a city down south had something to say about it. 

Miami’s Claim to the Cuban

That brings us to Miami.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: If we’re talking about the sheer timeline, there can be no question that Tampa Bay has been making Cuban sandwiches for longer. At the end of the nineteenth century, Miami was still a swampland. The influx of Cubans in the Miami area wouldn’t happen until the 1950s.

Still, Miamians are heated when it comes to ownership of the sandwich.

When Tomas Regalado, Miami mayor at the time, heard about Tampa Bay’s declaration, he said, “Oh. Wow. Tampa certainly has a tradition, but salami is for pizza.” Enough said. 

If you’ve ever taken a stroll around Miami’s beautiful streets, you’ll know how prevalent the Cuban culture is there. You’re just as likely, if not more so, to hear Spanish than English. Many delis have cemented themselves as national landmarks, including  Versailles in Little Havana, Luis Galindo's Latin American on Coral Way, Las Olas Cafe in Miami Beach, and Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop in Wynwood. Each claims to have the authentic thing, and if you ever get the opportunity to eat there, you’ll see why.

Miami is doing something very right when it comes to the Cuban sandwich. What they lack in salami, they make up for in incredible flavors. Miami chefs will frequently carve the pork right in front of your eyes. Served with a cafecito, you’ve got yourself a perfect lunch.

The Sandwich Wars Live On

If there are any losers in the Floridian sandwich wars, we’d be surprised to hear it. It seems to us like this friendly (sometimes not so friendly) fire just means that more people will order Cuban sandwiches in each city. As far as wars go, that’s a pretty delicious outcome.

So who are the winners? We’ll have to let you decide. The sandwich game is a subjective one. Whether you’re more in the mood for Tampa’s salami layering or Miami’s flavorful coffee companions, both cities have something tasty to offer. 

Going for team Tampa Bay? Pick up our Tampa Bay Cuban t-shirt to show off your pride for the city’s signature sandwich. Just be careful not to wear it around Miami. You might bite off more than you can chew.

 

Sources:

How the Cuban Became History's Most Contentious Sandwich | Thrillist

How Tampa Claimed the Cuban Sandwich | Serious Eats

The Cuban Sandwich Crisis: Tampa V. Miami For The Win | NPR

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