Saved by a Cuban Coffee and Sandwich

"Café con leche, sin azucar. Un cubano, sin mayonesa. Si, caldo."

That's Spanish for a kick-in-the-pants coffee with steamed evaporated milk, hold the sugar, and a Cuban sandwich, without mayonnaise, heated under a sandwich press (called a plancha). It's also become my standing order at La Carreta, a local Cuban restaurant chain that has a corner location in Concourse D of Miami International Airport.

Upon arriving in Miami, I grab my bag at baggage claim, check in at the car rental counter and return upstairs to the La Carreta for my usual. In weak Spanish, I place my order with one of the guayabera-outfitted women behind the counter and take in the flurry of activity. The customers are a mix of travelers and airport employees, speaking both Spanish and English, and they're all there, returning over and again for the strong coffee and the tasty array of Cuban treats, from guava and cheese pastellitos to papas rellenos.

I take my food into the always-bustling dining room, where I notice a line of people ordering from the cafeteria menu. I suppose I could break out of my routine and try the sopa de frijoles negros (black bean soup) or the pollo asado (roast chicken), but right now, in the midst of a family crisis, I'm comforted by the sameness of my ritual. Perched on a high bar-like chair, I remove the paper wrapping that protects my sandwich and dive in.

A Cuban sandwich is a carnivorous experience. Slices of ham, roast pork (lechon asado) mingle with swiss (or is it provolone?) and thick slices of pickle, in between two slices of Cuban bread. The closest thing to Cuban bread is French bread (but not a baguette), but it's got a thinner crust and a softer tooth.

For a few minutes, it's all about me, the Cubano and the café con leche. No one can bother me, no one can get in the way, even when my thoughts turn to another round of hospital visits. It's all I need to gear up for the emotional journey ahead.

When it's time to pack up and return home, I repeat my ritual, just before entering the security line (La Carreta is conveniently located outside Concourse D gates.). After an intense few days, the coffee-sandwich combo allows time for reflection and a deep breath of relief that my brother is still alive.

Cuban Sandwich
From "Three Guys from Miami" (Emphasis and comments are theirs)

Ingredients

Cuban bread (Substitute French bread if you must, but NOT a baguette!)
Butter, softened
1/4 pound ham sliced (Use a good quality ham.)
¼ pound lechón asado (roasted Cuban pork) sliced
1/8 pound Swiss cheese, sliced (Use a mild Swiss -- we like Baby Swiss -- it has only a few holes.)
Sliced dill pickles (dill "Sandwich Stackers" work great)
Yellow mustard (optional)
Mayonnaise (NEVER)

Method
Place the sandwich on the hot griddle (fry pan) sprayed with a little "Pam" or lightly greased. Place a heavy iron skillet or bacon press on top of the sandwich to flatten. (You really want to smash the sandwich, compressing the bread to about 1/3 its original size!) Grill the sandwiches for two to three minutes on each side, until the cheese is melted and the bread is golden. Make sure your griddle or fry pan is not TOO HOT! Otherwise, the crust will burn before the cheese melts. Slice the sandwich in half diagonally and serve.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 10, 2006; 11:36 AM ET Kitchen Musings , Travel
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Comments

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Kim,
Thank you for bringning the Cuban Sandwich into the spotlight, it is one of Florida's greatest treasures and no one should leave Tampa or Miami (I can't speak for the rest of the state...) without tasting one. Unfortunately, your recipe, while complete, doesn't tell the whole story. It's a bit like saying you make an atomic bomb with 5 lbs. of dyanamite and some plutonium. Sure it's a simple mix, but the ingredients are hard to come by.
I'll grudingly accept the french bread, since most bakeries can't put palm fronds on their bread in the cuban tradition. You're dead on about the swiss (no, not provolone) in that it needs to be sweet and light, not too sharp and not too aromatic. Also, most sandwich shops add salami here in Tampa.
But the real key is the roast pork, the plutonium if you will. Savvy sandwich consumers should look at the cross section of that diagonal slice and see equal parts ham and roast pork. Otherwise, this is nothing more than a ham sandwich.

Posted by: Ed | November 10, 2006 2:04 PM

Here in DC The Bread Line makes a great version. Only on Thursdays, though. Better than the one I had at Versailles in Miami's Little Havana.

Posted by: Adams-Morgan | November 10, 2006 3:25 PM

Next time you are in Miami go to the Latin American Cafeteria and ask for a Cubano especial. They make the best Cuban sandwich in the world!

Posted by: juan carlos pelaez | November 10, 2006 4:31 PM

I second the last post. The Latin American restaurant makes the best Cuban Sandwich available. If you have a group of people have someone get the Media Noche (sandwich) also and share. It's great.

Posted by: Media Cubano | November 10, 2006 4:57 PM

Juan/Media Cubano: Address info for Latin American Cafeteria, por favor! I will be going back to Miami in a few weeks and would love to make it there.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 10, 2006 5:09 PM

Kim, I love Cubanos, they are one of my most favorite sandwiches. Thanks for posting a recipe.

I know it's none of our business if you don't want to share it, but as I posted elsewhere, there is a lot of love out here for you and for Tim. If you want to keep us updated, we'd be very grateful.

We missed you Tuesday and have missed your blog updates. Glad you were able to do the veggie Thanksgiving chat.

Best to you and to Tim.

Posted by: Pat | November 10, 2006 5:38 PM

Spanglish--

Posted by: Joe inna Keys | November 10, 2006 6:05 PM

Kim,

The Latin American Cafeteria has several locations throughout Miami. Here's a list (bottom of page):

http://3guysfrommiami.com/cubansandwich.html

I really enjoy your columns, BTW.

Posted by: Roberto | November 10, 2006 6:20 PM

If you need a cuban sandwich closer to home, try the Banana Cafe on 8th St. SE. They are delicious!

Posted by: Bowie, MD | November 13, 2006 3:51 PM

Kim, you are SO right. I do the same thing at MIA, but I get the croquetas (fried fingers of potato and ham) too. Versailles is across the hallway and has prettier coffee cups though, but it is out of the way and hard to find.

By the way, the Latin American Cafeteria is OK but the original Versailles on Calle Ocho (3501 SW 8th St.) is the real deal. Go there any time of day or night, stand outside at the window, and soak up the real Miami. Go inside the bakery section and drool.

Posted by: Bobo | November 13, 2006 7:06 PM

Three cheers for this posting!
But I have to confess I'm probably most fond of the medianoche, which is a cuban sandwich on a sweet yellow bread.

This, to me, is the ultimate comfort food, especially in times of strife or tragedy. I suspect I'm not alone. It seems every hospital and funeral home in Miami seems to be within walking distance from a place to get Cuban sandwiches and coffee.

Posted by: Figa | November 14, 2006 2:37 PM

Caribbean Grill in Arlington!! Of course the authentic Cuban bread in Florida can't be beat, but I love the Caribbean Grill for my Cuban sandwich "fix" and the price is right!!

Posted by: gringaloca | November 14, 2006 2:51 PM

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