If you’ve heard Camila Cabello’s hit song “Havana” all over the airwaves over the past few months, you’re aware of the song’s love letter to Cuba’s capital. What’s not to fawn over? Gorgeous coastlines, perfectly preserved pastel buildings and a food lover’s paradise. One iconic food from this island that has made its way to the mainland is the Cuban, or Cubano sandwich. However, in Cuba it is known just as a “sandwich,” much like Buffalonians would never call their beloved snack “Buffalo” wings. What is it about this perfect mix of tastes and textures that has transcended Cubans’ plates, crossed into our own hometown of Houston, Texas, and keeps people coming back for more?
The History of the Cuban Sandwich
The Cubano is meant to be a grilled, handheld sandwich perfect for the worker on the go. As many Cubans left their island homeland in the late 1800s to avoid Spanish rule, they also took their favorite recipes with them. Key West, which is only 90 miles away from Cuba, became a natural landing point for Cuban immigrants. The Cubano first made its appearance in Key West in cigar factories as workers brought these beloved sandwiches as their lunchtime meal.
After the cigar industry moved from Key West to Tampa, the sandwich received a cultural infusion from Italian immigrants to that area with their fresh-baked bread. Traditional Cuban bread is made with lard and best eaten on the day it’s made (which is why they are great from food trucks…), and the local Italian bakeries soon found a growing customer base of Cuban cigar factory workers who wanted a taste of home. Even today in Tampa you can see the remnants of this Cuban/Italian fusion with the addition of salami and mortadella to some Cubano sandwiches in Tampa.
Cubanos (Cuban Sandwich) in Houston
The Cubano’s perfect mix of salty, fatty, pickled, vinegary, creamy and crunchy is a delight for your taste buds. It’s no wonder that their popularity has spread as people visited south Florida and wanted to have another taste of this Cuban delight.
Cafe Piquet, owned by a family of the same name, draws on traditional recipes from the owners hometown in Havana. One of the pioneers of Cuban cuisine in Houston, the Piquet family opened a market in Houston in the 1970s to furnish the growing Cuban community with hard-to-find ingredients native to their island. Eventually the Piquet family decided to expand their business with the opening of Cafe Piquet, where they serve a host of traditional Cuban foods based on the recipes they grew up with. Their traditional “El Cubano” sandwich has a combination of roasted pork, ham and Swiss cheese with a side of optional mustard. The fresh bread is grilled under a traditional plancha, or sandwich press, until golden and crispy.
El Rey Taqueria in Houston adds a tangy addition of pickles to their Cuban sandwich and utilizes fluffier French bread as its exterior.
Want to see how versatile the Cubano really is — how about its inclusion on a primarily Hawaiian-inspired menu? At Kona Grill, the Cuban sandwich has braised kalua pork, which is traditionally slow-roasted underground and served at a massive luau. Kona Grill’s version also adds homemade pickles and a baguette to add a twist to the classic sandwich.
At Houston’s eclectic Fork and Truck food truck, the Cuban Sandwich is one of many options on the menu that provide modern interpretations of classic dishes. Keeping the traditional roasted pork, ham and Swiss cheese, Fork and Truck’s version also offers fried pickles and banana peppers to add tangy, hot splashes to cut through the rich pork products. Served on a French roll, the addition of a spicy mojo sauce is a traditional Cuban sauce used in a non-traditional way.