Think of the Cuban sandwich as a pork-filled, puckery, grilled cheese sandwich.
A traditional Cuban, popular in the southeastern United States, is made with crusty bread grilled on something called a plancha press (a flat-top version of a panini press) or simply grilled.
All Cubans – or at least the good ones – have one thing in common: Two kinds of pork. Thick, chewy ham gives the sandwich an unctuous bite, while roasted, shredded pork adds a luscious layer of texture and flavor. Cheese glues together the sandwich’s porky textures and lends a rich edge.
I’ve seen the Cuban sandwich here with Swiss, gruyere, jack or cheddar, although traditional Cubans are made with Swiss.
And here’s an essential component for a Cuban: Pucker and crunch in the form of pickles and mustard. Without that? It’s just a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.
Depending on the source, the Cuban sandwich was born either as cafeteria cuisine or it was a favorite sandwich of sugar mill workers that dates back to 1930s Cuba or earlier. It’s a sandwich that’s gained popularity in the southern part of the country for many years, but it didn’t seem to really blip onto Tacoma’s sandwich radar until last year.
I’ve seen every configuration of Cuban sandwich, including a porkless one at Asado made with fish (can you even call that a Cuban?) and another at Panera made with chicken. I’ve even found one at the Ram that was in burger form.
Today and tomorrow, I’ll take a look at nine restaurants that serve their own interpretations. You be the judge of authenticity, but here are the details of whether they’re worthy of your dining dollars. Click “more” to read about today’s four sandwiches.
Where: 454 E. Main, Puyallup, 253-845-1370 or http://powerhouse
The Powerhouse Cuban ($10) gets the pucker just right: pickle chips and a smear of Dijon built a splendidly sour foundation; melted jack cheese provided that necessary layer of cheesy goo; and thickly sliced onions crunched crisp and pungent next to fragrantly spiced pork shoulder. But where was the layer of chewy, salty ham? Missing in action. And the sandwich was too bready. A smaller roll would do the sandwich justice.
Where: 4502 S. Steele St., Tacoma, 253-475-6741 or www.panerabread.com.
Panera’s chicken interpretation ($7.89) of the Cuban lowers the fat of the sandwich, which may leave some Cuban fans (me included) wishing for more fatty flavor. This chain bakery, which opened recently at the Tacoma Mall (other locations in Gig Harbor, Federal Way, Lakewood and Lacey), built its Cuban on crusty house-baked bread, grilled and glued together with melted Swiss, a zippy swipe of chipotle mayo, and an ale-based mustard speckled with sun-dried tomatoes. Sweet and spicy pickle chips upped the flavor considerably, but lean ham tasted too lean. The sliced chicken breast was good, but a poor flavor- and textural-substitute for roasted pork.
Chambers Bay Grill
Where: 6320 Grandview Drive W., University Place, 253-460-4653, web site here
I liked the one-two porky punch on the Chambers Bay pressed Cuban ($12) with ham and roasted pork. Sliced, not shredded, pork was a nice touch, but it was dry and chewy. Pepperjack cheese gave a tickle tease of spice, as did a jerk spice aioli. A smear of yellow mustard and limp pickles finished the sandwich. More pucker and snap next time, please. Ciabatta bread was sturdy, but did not disturb the coveted perfect bread-to-filling ratio every sandwich should offer. Just how I like it.
Where: 4701 Point Fosdick Dr N.W., Gig Harbor, 253-514-6703, http://www.blazingonion.com/
The Cuban ($9.99) is a new addition to the Blazing Onion menu. It’s served on chewy bread – make that really chewy bread. Note to kitchen: Did you really need to dip my sandwich into a vat of oil before grilling it? Because that’s how it tasted. The flavors stay true here – sliced ham yin to roasted pork yang smooshed together with Swiss cheese. Thinly sliced whole pickles added just the right amount of pucker. I was perplexed that the house-made mustard aioli was served on the side, but some diners may prefer it that way, as the mustard had a bit of a spicy bite. Still, I didn’t like having to tear open my sandwich to add the mustard, so I just used it as a dip. Fair enough.