YBOR CITY — Ilya "Ben" Goldberg has always considered himself a bit of a rebel, but when it comes to his now locally famous Cuban sandwich, he's a traditional kind of guy.
Well … traditional by Tampa standards.
When the engineer-turned-restaurateur opened Stone Soup Company in 2009, it was a strictly soup operation in a 300-square-foot, non-air conditioned nook in Ybor City, right next door to the nightclub formerly known as Empire.
It didn't take long for him to realize that hot soup in hot Florida may not have been such a hot idea. He gradually added salads and sandwiches to his menu, but no Cuban — it just didn't seem realistic for a place like his to create a sandwich that could stack up against that of local legends like Carmine's, the Columbia and West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
"We're not worthy," Goldberg thought.
But two years in, as more and more customers started requesting Tampa's beloved sandwich, he decided to give it a go, with one condition: "If we're gonna make it, we're gonna make it right."
Well … right by Tampa standards.
Sticking with tradition has proved to be a recipe for success. Last year, "the little soup shop that could" took home the title Best Traditional Cuban during the third annual Cuban Sandwich Festival — and Goldberg is looking for a repeat performance.
Stone Soup Company will be back to defend its title Sunday at the fourth annual Cuban Sandwich Festival in Ybor City's Centennial Park. Goldberg and company will compete against more than 30 fellow hopefuls from Tampa and beyond, with contenders hailing from as far north as Panama City and as far south as Miami. La Septima, Pipo's Cuban Café and Cigar City Brewpub are among the many local contestants.
"It's going to be a real city-to-city smack down," said Jolie Gonzalez, Latin Times Media CEO. She co-created the festival with her husband, Victor, in 2011.
"It's no longer just about Tampa," Gonzalez added.
This year's categories will mirror last year's (traditional, nontraditional and popular) with one addition: The Tampa Cuban category.
"The traditional category is no longer the Tampa Cuban," Gonzalez said. "The Tampa Cuban will have its own label."
So while Tampa will still face off against Miami, Panama City and other contenders in the traditional category to earn the coveted title of World's Best Cuban Sandwich, there will also be a Tampa vs. Tampa showdown in the Tampa Cuban category.
What exactly goes into a Tampa Cuban? Goldberg rattles off the ingredients: Tampa Cuban bread; ham; pork ("It's critical," Goldberg says, shaking his head, "and it's gotta be homemade."); Swiss cheese ("It's gotta be Swiss."); pickles; mustard; and, last but not least, Genoa salami
Ah, salami. The ingredient that launched a thousand Tampa-Miami sandwich debates.
It's one ingredient you most definitely will not find if you sample a Cuban from Sergio's Cuban Restaurant, which will be representing Miami and South Florida in Sunday's competition. Sergio's earned its way into the festival after winning Miami's preliminary contest earlier this month.
The win prompted creating the hashtag #NoSalamiInMiami, reigniting the decadeslong Tampa-Miami sandwich war. Miami hasn't made a festival appearance since its inaugural year, and Gonzalez is thrilled to have them back in the mix.
"The next step is getting out-of-state contestants" she said. "Considering how loved (the Cuban sandwich) is in so many places, I don't think that it's going to be a big leap to go from state to national as soon as next year."
The addition of the "Tampa Cuban" category is one step toward making that happen.
"The beauty of a Cuban sandwich the way we know it here in Tampa is that it's different cultures, rather than just one," Gonzalez said. "It's perfection in that way because it brought different communities together and it's what has stood the test of time."
As for Goldberg, he's hoping his own recipe proves timeless. While he plans to shake things up a bit by entering the nontraditional category too, he's not making any changes to his award-winning Tampa Cuban recipe. And that means salami all the way.
"That's the tradition," Goldberg said. "That's Tampa."
Erika Holmes can be reached at [email protected]