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Cuban sandwich fest in Ybor aims to clear palate of Arby's fast-food version

Arby's Miami Cuban, as it arrived in the newsroom of the Tampa Bay Times for taste test. The buzz about the new menu item is negative among those involved in this weekend's Cuban Sandwich Festival in Ybor City. [Times photo]
Published Mar. 29, 2018

TAMPA — Arby's, synonymous with sandwiches thanks to its 3,400 restaurants in seven countries, introduced the "Miami Cuban" this month as one of three new U.S. regional favorites.

Critics found much not to like, including the idea that the classic Cuban could be anything but a Tampa invention.

Now, the annual Cuban Sandwich Festival is coming to Ybor City and the founders hope to clear the palate of this fast-food version with fresh-made delights from more than 40 teams competing for the title of best Cuban.

This weekend's event is in its seventh year, but founder Victor Padilla puts on a festival in Miami, too — even one in Kissimmee

"I don't think it should be named either," Padilla said. "They should just call it the Arby's Cuban."

Or maybe a "subcuban," he suggests, since it bears only passing resemblance to the traditional sandwich.

TASTE TEST: Tampa Bay Times staffers review Arby's new "Miami Cuban"

"It is offensive to call it a Cuban, but it is offensive to call it a Miami Cuban, too, because their Cubans aren't that way either."

Padilla's wife, Jolie González, has stronger feelings about the need to honor the sandwich's local roots.

"It should have been called the Tampa Sandwich," González said. "You can't go back and change history."

That history arises from Ybor City's status through the mid-1900s as the "Cigar Capital of the World." As many as 10,000 people came here to work in the cigar-making industry and many enjoyed a mixed-meat sandwich called a "mixto," which later evolved into the Cuban.

When cigar workers from Cuba first started eating their mixtos in Ybor City, Miami — which would later grow into the Cuban-American epicenter of the United States — was still in its early years.

A century later, in 2012, the Tampa City Council declared the "Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich" as the city's signature sandwich. The declaration includes a specific list of ingredients: sweet ham, mojo-marinated roast pork, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, mustard and Genoa salami.

ESSAY: How a Times writer invented National Cuban Sandwich Day

Salami distinguishes the Tampa version, paying tribute to the Italian influences that joined with those of Spanish and German immigrants to help give Ybor City its multicultural character.

Arby's, then, just added fuel to the fires of intrastate competition March 6 when it introduced its version of the Miami Cuban — along with the Texas Brisket and the New York Reuben.

"The Cuban sandwich on our menu does not include salami, which is the key ingredient in the traditional Tampa version," Arby's said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "Regardless of which side of the debate you're on, we're proud of the Cuban on our menu and we're confident our guests will enjoy it."

During a taste test, a half-dozen Times staffers gave the $5.49 cent Miami Cuban a lukewarm review, noting that it's missing the signature, crispy Cuban bread and wondering why it has so much mustard.

Said one, "It was not as horrible as I expected but also not right."

Sal Cañete, a Tampa native of Cuban descent, took to Twitter to express his dismay: "What is up with #Arby's #miamicuban Everyone knows Cuban sandwiches came from #Tampa what disrespect!"

MORE CUBANS: St. Pete sandwich specialist Bodega is opening in Tampa

"The reality is that it came from Tampa first," Cañete said during an interview.

Andrea Gonzmart is actually grateful that Arby's labeled the sandwich as the Miami Cuban because it lacks the salami. Gonzmart is great-great-granddaughter of the founder of the Columbia restaurant, the Ybor City landmark whose menu includes a story calling the Cuban "a snack for cigar workers in the 1890's."

"It is not a Tampa Cuban," Gonzmart insisted, adding, "They're not using the right bread."

That's not to say that champions of the authentic Cuban aren't willing to play around with the recipe now and then.

This weekend's Cuban Sandwich Festival, Padilla and González noted, will feature, for the first time, two vegetarian options.

VIDEO: Food Network star Alton Brown tries some Tampa Cuban sandwiches, isn't that impressed

IF YOU GO TO THE CUBAN SANDWICH FESTIVAL

Hillsborough Community College, 1320 E. Palm Ave., Ybor City

Kicks off Friday, then two days of events Saturday and Sunday, including live entertainment. Most events free; VIP tickets available.

Saturday

• Participants make "biggest Cuban sandwich in the world."

• 12 noon to 5 p.m.: Children and Teens Cook-off, ages 4-17 ($20 registration)

Sunday

• "Smackdown Sunday" contest to determine "Best Cuban Sandwich in the World" from more than 40 entries.

• 12 noon to 3 p.m.: Cubanito Easter Egg Hunt for kids

More information: www.thecubansandwichfestival.com

Contact Claudia Guerrero at hillsnews@tampabay.com

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