Saffron-buttered Cuban bread. Manchego cheese. Black forest ham. Black bean hummus. For Cliff Barsi, the ingredients make the perfect untraditional Cuban sandwich. As executive chef of Metropolitan Ministries' Inside the Box Cafe, Barsi serves his unique take on the beloved Tampa snack with a side of plantain chips and sells out whenever it's on the restaurant's menu.
Whether judges at the Cuban Sandwich Festival react likewise is a tough call. About 25 restaurants will present their best Cuban sandwiches for judging Saturday in Ybor City's Centennial Park.
Participants can enter their creations in two categories: best traditional, for the standard Cuban sandwich of ham, roast pork, salami, swiss cheese and pickles; and best nontraditional, which allows restaurants like Inside the Box to be a bit more creative with the ingredients and preparation.
There's no cash prize for festival winners, just bragging rights and public acknowledgement of making the best Cuban sandwiches. The accolades and recognition would be nice but a win could have a deeper meaning for Barsi and his staff.
"It's an opportunity for (Inside the Box) to get out there," he said. "The more people that support us, we can feed more homeless people."
• • •
For some, however, more may be at stake. A City Council resolution last month made the Cuban officially Tampa's signature sandwich. By decree, the "Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich" must be made with Cuban bread scored on top with a leaf from a palmetto palm frond, plus ham, mojo roast pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and exactly three dill pickle slices.
But when Miami Mayor (and Cuban exile) Tomás Regalado heard of this, he challenged Tampa to a sandwich smackdown — albeit in jest — claiming that salami belongs on pizza, not the Cuban sandwich.
It just so happened that Latin Times Media Inc., which publishes Latin Times magazine, was in the midst of organizing the sandwich festival, reviving Tampa's dormant tradition of Cuban-sandwich competitions.
Now, what began as a fluke is poised to become a major event that's attracted dozens of would-be Cuban sandwich experts from all over the state to participate, said Jolie Gonzalez, president of Latin Times Media.
"This was something that had never been done, that should have been done," she said. "It's by sheer luck that we're doing it."
Gonzalez said she was brainstorming event projects with her business partner Victor Padilla and a client when someone suggested a festival celebrating the beloved sandwich. The trio initially laughed off the idea but, by the end of the meeting, knew they were on to something.
To gauge interest, Jolie pitched the festival to Latin Times Media's Facebook audience.
The response was tremendous, she said.
"The minute I put it on Facebook, people were all over it," she said. "It was confirmation to us that this was a good idea."
• • •
Now a number of sponsors have joined in, including La Segunda Central Bakery, known for baking the flavorful bread that makes up the base of the Cuban sandwich.
When Issac Sklar learned of the festival and competition, he saw it as a chance for his restaurant, Cuban Guys, to show that South Florida can produce a great Cuban sandwich. Located in Hialeah, Cuban Guys may be the southernmost competitor. No Miamians were expected to make the trek.
Sklar, an architect who emigrated from Cuba to Florida in 1961, said there's no doubt that Tampa is the birthplace of the famed sandwich as it's commonly prepared today, but whether the best traditional Cuban sandwich can be found here is up for debate.
Good Cuban sandwiches don't have salami, he said.
"We think ours is the best," he said. "We'll see if Tampa has the best."
Matt Stevens, manager of the Floridian in Tampa — which proclaims to have the best Cuban sandwiches on the planet — said the eatery's star menu item has won numerous local awards. And he has little doubt that his team will prove once again which restaurant makes the top old-school Cuban.
"We get the best meats and cheeses," he said.
Tracy Cordano, owner of Ronnie Pastrami's in Pinellas Park, said her nontraditional Cuban sandwich will feature grilled onions and horseradish sauce.
But one ingredient will ensure it stands out — and wins, Cordano said.
"I don't think anyone else will have corned beef," she said.
• • •
A panel of judges that includes Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart will decide which " 'wich" is the tastiest.
Gonzalez, a Chicago native who started Latin Times 11 years ago, said the Cuban sandwich's popularity will make the judges' jobs that much tougher.
"Everywhere you go, almost every restaurant has a variation of a Cuban sandwich on their menu," she said.
Tampa Bay area artist David Audet will help judge entries in the traditional category. After more than 30 years living in Tampa, Audet said he'll rely heavily on a sandwich's visual appeal. Well-marinated pork, bread that's crusty on the outside and soft inside, and quality ham are just some of the hallmarks of a good sandwich, he said.
The best Cuban sandwiches have top-notch ingredients but are simply prepared, he said.
"It's a working-class sandwich," he said. "It's not meant to be a gourmet sandwich."
Kenya Woodard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.