Geunmin Kang and Hyunmin Cho were excited about the present from one of their customers. They posted a picture of it on their Facebook page: two bags of Tampa-based Vigo rice mixes. Not exactly a glamorous hostess gift, but precisely what might thrill the owners of the Tampa Sandwich Bar in Seoul, Korea, which opened in October in the Mapo district northwest of the Han River. There you'll find fried Oreos, po' boys, o-rings and other American staples, but the star of the show is the house Cuban sandwich.
Full disclosure: Kang and Cho have yet to visit Tampa.
They perfected their considerable Tampa-style sandwich chops by Googling and watching YouTube videos. I hear diehard Cuban fans grousing now: What about the Genoa salami? And are they pressing them right?
Jeff Houck can vouch for them. The marketing and public relations manager of Columbia Restaurant Group happened upon the restaurant while doing a social media search of the hashtag Tampa. Tampa Sandwich Bar came up on Instagram.
"And then I see all this Korean text," Houck said. "The more you look at it, you see that they've spent a lot of time connecting emotionally to Tampa cuisine."
Yes, there's salami on the Cubans, and yes, they are pressing the heck out of these babies, posting an instructive short video on their Facebook page about the precise diagonal angle for the bisecting slice. The small restaurant goes heavy on the American craft beer, with hand-cut fries, wings and a phalanx of Heinz ketchup bottles along one wall. There are a few wobbles in the verisimilitude — a mac and cheese sandwich may be a bit geographically loose, and sandwiches seem to be accompanied by little ramekins of pickled root veggies, an innovation that doesn't sound half bad.
The duo said via email that 40 percent of their customer base is foreigners, largely American and British visitors and expats. And for the locals, there was a steep learning curve. Koreans, they say, aren't accustomed to paying a lot of money for sandwiches, items traditionally thought of as a snack or a picnic nosh rather than a meal. What aided Kang and Cho in their quest to popularize American sandwiches was the 2014 indie film Chef, which followed a Los Angeles fine-dining chef who takes to the road with a wildly popular food truck selling scene-stealing Cuban sandwiches.
There are some impediments to achieving Tampa sandwich nirvana. Some ingredients are tricky to find in Seoul, and they are in need of some proper tools.
"We haven't found the press tool 'plancha' in Korea. So we use alternative press tool, which is originally (used) for Italian panini," they wrote. "So one of our goals is that if we can go to Tampa later, we'll buy the plancha."
They may have a chance to get their hands on one, as Tampa Sandwich Bar is poised to take it up a level.
First, the Columbia Restaurant mailed a care package last week: a Columbia Restaurant cookbook, Spanish rice, sangria mix, Cuban coffee, saffron and smoked paprika along with a paella pan, a bottle of the famous 1905 salad dressing and some mood music that includes a CD called Music from the Latin Quarter.
Visit Tampa Bay is also getting in on the fun. Ciarra Luster, who does digital engagement for the organization, saw a recent article on the sandwich shop in the magazine Suburban Apologist. This week she packed up a box of Cigar City Brewing-abilia, Gasparilla beads, brochures and other Tampa-centric swag to gussy up the sandwich shop.
But it's March 2017 when their mettle will be tested. They will come to Tampa as contestants in the sixth annual Cuban Sandwich Festival. Kang and Cho have been grilling Houck about the precise recipe for the roast pork.
"They really seemed to care about getting it right," Houck said. "If you look at their logo, they've clearly been on the city of Tampa's website. It looks like an official font."
He says observing Kang and Cho's efforts and the details of the Tampa Sandwich Bar provides a window into how Tampa is perceived internationally. But will all this long-distance adulation mean they have a shot at winning top Cuban? Maybe what the iconic Tampa sandwich needed all along was a little bit of Seoul.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.