What has been described as the great "Cuban sandwich war" was launched two weeks ago between Tampa and Miami.
The first volley was fired by Tampa. The City Council proclaimed the "Historic Tampa Cuban" the city's signature sandwich, claimed to be the city of origin for the sandwich, and listed the official ingredients as ham, mojo pork, salami, Swiss cheese, mustard and three dill pickle slices inside Cuban bread scored with a leaf from a palmetto palm frond.
Miami fired back. Residents there, including Mayor Tomás Regalado, made it clear that the honor of most authentic Cuban sandwich belonged to Miami. They scoffed at the inclusion of salami in a Cuban and challenged Tampa to a sandwich-making duel.
Left out of the public strutting and blustering is Largo. But Largo also lays claim to a great Cuban sandwich and provides a convenient way for diners to test its claim by taking a sampling tour along State Road 686.
Within a 5-mile stretch of the road, also known as East Bay Drive/Roosevelt Boulevard, at least three restaurants honor the tradition of the Cuban sandwich: the Airport Variety Store, Really Famous Tampa Cubans and Nita's Place. Their customers say they would put those sandwiches up against any from Tampa or Miami.
The oldest, the Airport Variety Store across Roosevelt Boulevard from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, opened in 1975 and has a countywide reputation for its Cubans. While customers wait for owner Rolando Reyes Sr. or his grandson, Tony Reyes, to serve up their sandwiches, they can sip a cafe con leche and snack on deviled crab at a picnic table outside the former gas station. They can also peruse the hand-rolled cigars for sale near the cash register.
Rolando Reyes got his start in his family's restaurant in Cienfuegos, Cuba, before moving to the United States in 1969.
"The Cuban sandwich is different in Miami than it is in Tampa,'' said Reyes, 82. "But you ask me where the best Cuban is, and I'll tell you. It is right here with me.''
At 5 a.m. six days a week, before he drives to Pinellas from his home in Tampa, Reyes stops at Mauricio Faedo's Bakery on Florida Avenue for Cuban bread. To ensure the quality of the mojo pork, Reyes cooks pigs himself behind the store once a week.
Longtime customer John Marcella says the Airport Variety Store's offerings rival any Cuban restaurant's anywhere. "I'd say it's correct to describe this place as the granddaddy of Cuban sandwich makers,'' said Marcella, a real estate agent. "The owner is serious about what he makes.''
Reyes' son, Rolando Reyes Jr., 50, agrees with that assessment. A retired paramedic-firefighter for the city of Tampa, he plans to start work at the store soon. "I've watched my father, with his passion, devote so much time to this business. He has been making this food his entire life,'' said Reyes Jr.
Both men are comfortable veering from the items mentioned in Tampa's official Cuban sandwich decree. If a customer wants to switch out, say, the Swiss for mozzarella, it doesn't mean the sandwich is any less Cuban, Reyes Sr. said.
And instead of yellow mustard, he likes to slather on his own secret sauce.
"But never lettuce,'' he declared. "Never put lettuce on a Cuban sandwich.''
When Reyes opened the store 37 years ago, he only sold three sandwiches a day. But over time, traffic across the street at the airport picked up, and so did the number of visitors to the market.
"Today we sell 240 to 300 a day,'' Reyes said.
The meat of the matter
Unlike the Airport Variety Store, Really Famous Tampa Style Cubans at 1300 East Bay Drive has an indoor dining room.
Bill Ackerly, a fifth-generation native of Tampa, opened the restaurant in the early 1990s but sold it in 1997 to Virginio Paloma, who continues to serve the restaurant's signature crispy, chewy, pressed Cuban sandwiches. Paloma did not return phone calls for this story.
Customer Gina Smith of Largo says she considers Really Famous Tampa Cubans "legit. It is authentic.''
At Nita's Place Cuban Sandwiches and More in Keene Plaza, owner Juanita Carmichael is happy to share her view on the war of words over Cuban sandwiches.
She opened her restaurant in 2010 after working for several years for Ackerly, who shared with her both his historical knowledge and his skills with Cuban cuisine.
"Bill Ackerly taught me so much about Cuban cooking and how the sandwich was first made to help the cigar workers share meals,'' she said.
Dos and don'ts? "Lettuce is a big no-no. It changes the flavor. And a Cuban is all about the meat."
Carmichael says in 2012 it is easy to get an authentic sandwich outside the historical Cuban communities.
"A customer doesn't have to go to Ybor City to find an authentic Cuban sandwich anymore,'' she said. "But for me to make the authentic Cuban, no matter what, I still have to get my Cuban bread from Tampa."
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected]