Really, Miami? Tampa lays rightful claim to the Cuban sandwich

A clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle reignites a debate over which city owns the Cuban sandwich. No contest, Sue Carlton says.
Give it up, Miami. The Cuban's roots are in Tampa. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Give it up, Miami. The Cuban's roots are in Tampa. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 28
Updated May 28

I happened to be visiting Cuba when the latest skirmish broke out back home over which Florida city — my hometown Miami or Tampa, where I have long lived since — has bragging rights to the noble Cuban sandwich.

Or just the "Cuban," as we shorthand it around here.

These are proud towns with proud traditions. So when the 1 Down clue in the New York Times crossword was "city famous for its Cuban sandwiches," some knew it was Tampa. Others thought Miami.

And though the two towns have equal letters, the correct answer was, and has always been, Tampa.

Read it and weep, Miami, right there in the Sunday Times.

Now, if you are not from here, the cultural significance in this — and the passion with which each side lays claim to the Cuban — might seem odd. It's just a really good sandwich, right?

Yes, but also reflective of what made Tampa Tampa and therefore worth fighting for.

We duked it out back in 2012 when Tampa City Council voted to make the "historic" Cuban this city's signature sandwich (or "sengwich," as once council member liked to say) despite Miami's claims of ownership and superiority.

Then came the crossword puzzle to fan the flames again. And there was Andrea Gonzmart, fifth generation of Tampa's Columbia restaurant family, on NPR, schooling everyone on culinary history as rich as the immigrant roots of Ybor City itself.

She spelled it out in the ingredients of a proper Cuban: Ham representing Spaniards, roast pork for Cubans, salami for Italians and mustard and pickles for Germans.

All of which, as anyone who has ordered an authentic Cuban in Ybor or West Tampa knows, comes on fresh Cuban bread baked with palm frond leaves down the middle to give it that nice split. Tampenos know it's a bread like no other, shattering crisp crumbs when you bite into its pillowy middle — preferably from La Segunda bakery, which dates back more than a century.

Whether to order your Cuban pressed and warm, or with mayo, which can give traditionalists the vapors, are battles for another day.

Miami proclaims its version as the best and most authentic. A mayor there once sniffed that our sliced salami, which theirs does not include, is "for pizza."

Bottom line?

The people who study such things will tell you Cubans were fuel for cigar factory workers in Tampa a century ago and Ybor was making these sandwiches before Miami was really even Miami.

So, sorry, Miami. I'm sure yours is nice, too. Different towns, different flavors.

At a Havana hotel where we had lunch while on vacation, a sandwich was artfully displayed on the bar, sliced down the middle to show stacked meat and bright mustard. It was a hulking version of our Cuban.

Though on closer inspection, it was sadly lacking in salami and topped not with pickles but a toothpick-speared olive.

I asked the waiter if that was a Cuban.

That, he said as if I were a little slow, was a sandwich.

"I," he said, "am a Cuban."

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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