From Havana to Miami: In search of the perfect Cuban sandwich

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By Tim Johnson

It’s true—I never expected to discover the perfect Cuban sandwich at an American football game. A good hot dog? Okay, I can see that. Some decent chicken wings? Perhaps. But certainly not the crown jewel of Cuban street food.

My search began, interestingly enough, a few dozen miles south, in Havana. I had just seen Chef, a feel-good Jon Favreau movie that features a washed-out five-star culinary celebrity who reinvents himself in Miami. Travelling from South Florida and driving across America in a food truck—his son in tow—Favreau’s character reinvents himself and revives his career by cooking up the best Cuban sandwich on wheels.

Eager for a taste, I roamed Cuba’s capital, asking everywhere about this famous combination of bread, cheese and meat. In El Centro, I asked restaurant owners and passerby alike for el sandwich? On the seaside Malecon, I inquired the same of young sunny-day revelers, who clustered there with a bottle of Havana Club rum and often, an old transistor radio. When it became clear they didn’t speak English, I resorted to mimicking myself eating a sandwich, a huge smile on my face, downing it with great, enthusiastic gulps and rubbing my belly happily afterward, satisfied with my fictional air-wich. No dice.

And I soon learned that it was not to be, not ever—not in Havana. Happening into a conversation with an Irish expat named Tanja Buwalda at a very good downtown restaurant called O’Reilly 304—a place sources all its ingredients from local farmers and fishermen, a rare practice in Cuba—Buwalda explained that the Cubano isn’t really Cuban at all—it’s a Miami creation. “You won’t find a single place in this city that serves one,” she said with a Dublin lilt, to my utter and complete devastation.

The Cubano is a simple pleasure, really. Born in South Florida’s cigar factories, it began as a workingman’s lunch—and continues in that capacity today. Made with Cuban bread brushed with olive oil, sliced pork and ham, Swiss cheese and dressed with pickles and straight-up yellow mustard, it’s as straightforward as those first men and women that consumed it.

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So I continued my search in its culinary birthplace, South Florida. I headed first for its Cuban heart, Little Havana, a cluster of shops and restaurants next to downtown Miami. Settled largely by those who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution in the 1950s, the neighbourhood covers several blocks radiating out from its heart in Domino Park, a postage stamp of a park where old men—some of whom might still remember their flight from Fidel—gather around small tables, sitting on chairs bolted into the ground as they socialize and argue and play this age-old game.

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I wandered for some time, browsing through cigar shops, taking photos of giant, stuffed roosters that, for some reason, rested on the sidewalks, and tapping my feet to island beats. But still no sandwich—and I was getting hungry. I found a small visitor centre, and was directed to a nearby café. I walked the couple blocks and pulled up a seat at the long, enamel bar. Settling in, I was buffeted by a flurry of Spanish, as the too-busy servers attended to a bevy of orders, tossing down a little roll-up of fork, knife and spoon and a paper placemat before proceeding to ignore me.

But finally—at long last—I had my sandwich. It was, well, pretty good. The pork was good, if a tiny bit dry. The bread was nice, but didn’t taste entirely fresh. While I was happy, I wanted more. This was not the Cuban sandwich of Chef—the one I’d dreamed about on those long Havana nights. Which is to say, this was not the Cubano of my dreams.

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Making my way back to the visitor centre, I asked the same woman if that place served the best sandwich in Miami. “Oh no,” she said. “For that, you have to visit Versailles,” which, she noted, was the place featured in the movie, where the Jon Favreau’s character learned his sandwich magic.

I was out of time—but I vowed to return, soon. First, though, I was headed to a Miami Dolphins football game. Driving up to the suburb of Miami Gardens and making my way into the vast recesses of Sun Life Stadium, a Dolphins communications manager met me to give a tour of the place. We visited a number of spots around the stadium, including luxury boxes and other polished spaces, seeing how the stylish watch the game here in South Florida. I waited awhile before asking her about the whole Cuban sandwich thing, and my desire to eat one, as soon as possible.

“You’re in luck,” she said, a smile on her face. “We have three outlets of Versailles, right here in the stadium.” I couldn’t quite believe it—that my Cubano was so close at hand. And my good fortune continued when I met Nicole Valls, a third-generation owner of Versailles, whose grandfather had founded the business, here to supervise the operation on Game Day. She explained that they roast and glaze the ham and pork right in house, and make their own bread. “Versailles is the epicenter of the Cuban experience in Miami,” she explained. “We felt it was important to have it here at the game. It gives the locals something they know, and the tourists love it—they can try the local flavour.”

I certainly did. After Valls handed me the steaming sandwich, I immediately dug in, great globs of mustard amassing on the corners of my mouth as I made a small spectacle of myself. It was delicious. Walking away, completed sated and satisfied, I began to dream about my next Cubano, speculating about where I might find it—in a food truck, at a football game, or perhaps right in the heart of Little Havana.

Eat: Versailles Restaurant has several outlets in Miami, including several at Sun Life Stadium and outposts at Miami International Airport

Stay: The Viceroy Miami provides luxurious accommodations in the heart of downtown Miami, roughly halfway between the hot sun and sand of South Beach and Domino Park.

 

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