JP’s Food Adventures: Where to Eat a Cubano
The Cuban sandwich has been a neighborhood staple for decades. While Cuban expats in Florida take credit for its creation, Puerto Rican and Dominican diners and luncheonettes have been the bastions of this delicacy here. Variations have even made it to upscale menus, commanding a price of $14 or more. Fortunately great examples can still be found for $5.
This is not a sandwich for calorie counters or the fat phobic. It is, like a cheeseburger, a brilliant, pedestrian indulgence. Start with a hero roll, preferably of Cuban style bread. Slather with mayo, or garlic mayo for even better effect. Stuff with sliced pernil (garlic and oregano scented roast pork shoulder), ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickle. Use a sandwich press to compact until the cheese has melted and it’s hot throughout. The result is heavy with salty meat, juicy with fat and bursting with flavor – the pickle valiantly struggling to be the foil for so much richness. It’s enough to satisfy a serious appetite, or provide two modest meals (for those capable of exercising self-restraint).
Part of the fun of seeking out a good Cuban sandwich in the neighborhood is the places that make them: many are like walking back in time to a New York before gourmet coffee, $10+ cocktails and “small plates” restaurants. Order a café con leche, and there’s a good chance it’ll be made with Café Bustelo. (You may want to have one while waiting, as a proper Cubano has to be pressed for the greater part of ten minutes before it’s ready). The air will be thick with the aroma of roast pork, roast chicken and the sound of Dominican-accented Spanish. Sometimes there’ll even be a jukebox playing Latino hits. And I will be transported straight back to my starving artist days as a young musician, rehearsing all day on Ave C before going out at night to play for free beer and a few bucks. A Cuban sandwich was nothing short of an affordable luxury then, and I still consider it such.
Where to go for one? I wouldn’t recommend choosing at random just because “Cuban sandwich“ is on the menu. The heart of a Cubano is the pernil – the roast pork shoulder. If pernil is not also on the menu you can’t assume there’s proper roast pork for the sandwiches. Let your nose be your guide: if you can smell garlic, oregano and pork fat you’ve found a contender. If that scent is noticeable from the sidewalk you’re probably in good hands.
My top recommendation is El Castillo de Jagua (113 Rivington St). They’ve been turning out Dominican home cooking since before Rivington St was a nightlife destination. Though they’ve been mentioned in upscale tour guides, a consequence of close proximity to THOR, they still make a very generous Cuban sandwich for $5. It’s one of the best in the neighborhood, each ingredient in perfect balance contributing to the overall flavor. Their sister restaurant at 521 Grand St also turns out a decent example.
Another good Cubano can be found at Cibao Restaurant (72 Clinton St). Like El Castillo they’re an old-schooler now surrounded by fancy restaurants and nightlife establishments. And like El Castillo they remain steadfast, turning out solid Latino classics at diner prices. Cibao’s Cubano is a little smaller than Castillo’s, but it’s also fifty cents cheaper. Here the juicy, flavorful pernil is the star of the show, with the other ingredients playing supporting roles. They also make a noteworthy pressed roast chicken sandwich using dark meat. If you go for that pass on adding cheese, as the orange American cheese they use undermines the greatness of their roast chicken.
You can’t go wrong with those three. Clinton Restaurant used to be the fourth, but after a recent name and management change they’re no longer a sure bet. Have a favorite I didn’t mention? Feel free to share it in the comments section.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
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