TAMPA — Hyunmin Cho gazes down at the sandwich wedge in his hand. Ham on the bottom, then pork, salami, cheese, two pickles and yellow mustard, pressed hard between two La Segunda slices.
"We've only seen it on YouTube," he says. "This is so exciting."
In a way, Cho, 31, and business partner, Geunmin Kang, 29, have journeyed halfway around the planet and through many time zones to land in the dining room of the mother ship. The Columbia Restaurant, the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Florida, where several years back, fourth-generation owner Richard Gonzmart spent $30,000 researching precisely how Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. made the perfect Tampa Cuban sandwich in 1915.
It's a sandwich that Cho and Kang, aided by YouTube videos and the local Costco, have worked to perfect at their Tampa Sandwich Bar in Seoul, South Korea. But before now, they had never been to Tampa.
On Wednesday evening, they sat down with Richard Gonzmart's daughter, Andrea Gonzmart Williams, the Columbia's public relations manager Jeff Houck, and the Tampa Bay Times to talk Cuban sandwiches.
They're here in advance of this weekend's Cuban Sandwich Smackdown. Cho and Kang will be competitors. Andrea Williams will be a judge. But tonight isn't about swapping secrets or getting a leg up.
It's about Cho and Kang eating their first Tampa Cuban sandwich in Tampa. It's about the Gonzmarts giving the Korean visitors a copy of the Columbia cookbook and about the Korean visitors in turn bestowing T-shirts from their restaurant in Seoul. And as tuxedoed waiters swirl in the Columbia's Patio Room not far from where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe once sat, it's about everyone misting up a little bit, blinking quickly.
Cuban sandwiches can make people emotional.
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Cho, chewing: "The bread is so crispy."
Kang, nodding thoughtfully: "The main difference is the bread. Ours is not so crispy."
Williams, also nodding, also chewing: "When my dad reinvented the sandwich, he decided to brush the bread with butter before it's pressed."
The Columbia uses the same bread it has used for more than 100 years, long Cuban loaves from La Segunda Bakery, a palm leaf splitting the middle and adding its subtle herbal note. The bread is the No. 1 expense at the Columbia, says Houck, ahead of staffing, even. Served with every meal, it's a staple at the restaurant and in Ybor City. Back in the day, houses had nails outside onto which delivered loaves were hooked daily.
There is no La Segunda in Seoul. There is no Cuban bread in Seoul. Cho and Kang use Italian ciabatta and French baguettes. It's interesting, says Kang, that Koreans tend to prefer the ciabatta, while American expats head for the baguette. At first, she says, the bread was the only choice customers had. The Cuban sandwich was all they sold.
Blame it on the movies. In 2014 they saw the indie film Chef, in which a Los Angeles fine-dining chef chucks it all to follow his dream and run a food truck. Decent acting, improbable plot, but holy smokes, look at those sandwiches.
Cho and Kang scrutinized. They read up on the Cuban, they turned to the Internet. "How to make a Cuban sandwich" yields 55,000 results on YouTube, including dozens from the Columbia Restaurant with cameos from Diane Sawyer and Al Roker.
These days, the Tampa Sandwich Bar, which opened in October 2015, sells mac and cheese, shrimp po' boys and other customer requests. But really, Cho and Kang are selling a story, or, as Houck describes it, "a story built inside a story."
"We've had to explain Tampa," Kang says after her 1905 salad and before snapping a close-up of the hand-painted sangria pitcher for Instagram. What they're selling is a story of a city they've never visited, until now.
As dinner progresses, Cho and Kang learn that Tampa's long Cuban loaves are different than the squattier ones in Cuba, the result of a strike that caused Tampa bakers to stretch the loaves to feed more folks. They learned that leftover Cuban bread was frequently used as filler in deviled crab and as a base for bread pudding. They learned that the Tampa Cuban was a multicultural effort, the Spanish bringing the ham, the Sicilians the Genoa salami, the Cubans the mojo-marinated roast pork, and the Jews and Germans contributing the Swiss, pickle and mustard.
Despite their careful verisimilitude (their restaurant in Seoul features authentic Tampa-obilia and even the logo resembles the official city of Tampa font), Cho and Kang aim to uphold that spirit of multiculturalism. Their entry for Sunday's Cuban Sandwich Festival in Ybor City contains a secret ingredient.
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When Cho and Kang opened Tampa Sandwich Bar, everyone thought they were crazy. In Korea, Kang said, people know Subway sandwiches, but that's it.
They've had to prove themselves with what they have, which means using a panini press instead of a plancha to press their Cubans. After the competition on Sunday, they may go plancha shopping.
"They are heavy," Cho joked. "So if she wants to take one home on the plane, I may have to stay here."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.