In Search of the Perfect Cubano
I spent the last month holed up in Massachusetts, writing. Staring out at a field covered in snow (which is still there!) I began yearning for warmer climes and the food that comes with them. I was desperate for a good Cuban sandwich. But where, upon my return to DC, would I find the best one? I asked my friends to do a little research. The recommendations came flowing in, but several friends went out and did the hard work of eating the sandwich in question and reporting back with tasting notes.
Of Course It's Cuban! Mi Cuba Café
My friend Mark ordered his favorite Cubano at Mi Cuba Café (1424 Park Rd. NW, micubacafe.net) in Columbia Heights. He reports that it felt like home, reminding him of visits with his by-marriage cousin's family years ago. The restaurant is welcoming, with the sound of Spanish being spoken and quaint tropical decor. “The trick to a great Cuban,” says Mark, “is the correct melding of texture and taste; this treat did not disappoint.”
What makes a great Cuban for Mark? It’s the balance of rich, salty pork and ham balanced by sharp mustard and the fresh garlicky flavor of the pickles. The texture of the bread from the sandwich press is its own element, the crisp grilled flavor from the press giving way to the softer sides, adding depth to the bite. “Pressed thin, you get all of the elements in your mouth at the same time,” he says.
“You need enough mustard to play with the pickle, to enhance the pork and cured ham and melted cheese,” Mark says. “The crunch from the pressed bread, with that clear toasted flavor, lets the pickle and mustard paint a piquant flavor over the combination of salty sweet ham and subtle, clean roast pork. Yum!”
“And of course it's Cuban!” he added. “These flavors take me right back to my Cuban family's kitchen years ago. Glasses of sweet, smooth homemade Sangria only makes it all that more comforting.”
Creative Cuban at G Street Food
“The best part of most sandwiches at G Street Food (1706 G St. NW and 1030 15th St. NW, gstreetfood.com) is the bread,” says my friend Matthew, “which is no surprise since Mark Furstenberg [of Marvelous Market and Breadline fame] opened it.”
However, G Street Food’s Cubano, Matthew says, toasts up perfectly crusty and crackly without being too hard or pillowy, “which is a major issue with many sandwiches that try to use ‘fancy’ bread that overwhelms everything else.” He also praises the quick grilling of the bread, which imparts a charred flavor and makes the bread more pliable and flavorful.
On the inside the sandwich is loaded with a ton of thin-sliced roasted pork, the ham is nicely salty, the cheese is nutty as you would expect. G Street Food adds chopped, pickled jalapenos which Matthew promises contribute plenty of tang and just the right amount of heat without being overpowering. “It's very well balanced,” he says, “and I like that each bite is a little different, which helps keep my interest when eating a big sandwich like this. It's complex but not overwhelming or overdone.”
The pickled jalapeños aren’t the only place G Street gets creative. Their bread is toasted but not pressed, the pork is flavored with a Dijon-lime marinade, the cheese is melted but not “ooey-gooey” and comes topped with mesclun greens on top. “This is probably controversial among purists,” Matthew warns, “but I think it works. If you're looking for a textbook Cuban then this isn't it, but if you want the traditional Cuban elements rearranged into something a little different but still familiar then this is really, really good.”
Comfort Cuban at Banana Café
Back in town I was ready to try a couple of Cubans for myself. My friend Patrick urged me to hit Banana Café (500 8th St. SE, bananacafedc.com) on the Hill. “I’m in Korea for work right now,” Patrick wrote, “but I could write about that sandwich from many, many fond memories.” Convinced, I swung by for lunch.
I’ve had many great meals and a few too many mango margaritas at Banana Café, but had never ordered the Cuban. After three weeks in snowbound Massachusetts it was perfect. Banana Cafe serves up the comfort-food Cuban. The texture starts with crisp pressed bread. Then you bite through tender, slow-roasted pork and soft, salty ham before your teeth sink into gooey, melted Swiss cheese.
The flavor also offers comfort. The pork is mild, with a sweet richness earned from hours in the oven. The ham is not too salty, nor are the pickles particularly sharp with vinegar or garlic. The mustard is mellowed by a smear of mayonnaise. This is the Cuban you want to cuddle with on the couch while watching a good rom-com, and well worth returning to DC for whether down I-95 from New England or across the ocean from Korea.
Bright and Balanced from Fast Gourmet
At the recommendation of my friend Mike, my husband Jason and I hit Fast Gourmet (1400 W St. NW, fastgourmetdc.com) for a quick dinner. Located in a gas station right off U Street, Fast Gourmet has built a name on great sandwiches and fresh ingredients, including the hand-chopped salsa that appeared on Jason’s fish tacos (without any dried-out cabbage, thank you very much!).
As for the Cubano? First I should let you know what my perfect Cuban sandwich is. I love the play of texture from the crisp pressed bread, the tender chew of the meat, and the feel of thick, gooey melted cheese rising up around my teeth. I love the contrasts of flavor, the slight char on the bread, rich, caramelized roast pork, the salty-sweet hit of ham, and the sharp contrast of grainy mustard and bright garlicky pickles.
Fast Gourmet delivered. The cross hatch from the grill delivered toasty goodness. The rich pork was fatty and tender, above a thick slice fresh from a whole ham. The pickle slabs offered full coverage and the grainy mustard rolled nicely over my tongue. The bread pulled away from the cheese like the first slice of pizza in every TV ad. I was in heaven. Plus I ate most of the fried yucca off of Jason’s plate while he went to the restroom, which made the meal even better.
What’s Your Cuban?
Whether you want it classic, creative, comfortable, or bold, DC is a good town to be in for a great Cuban sandwich. Have I missed a great local Cubano? I’d love to know. Please drop me a note on my Facebook page @JonathanBardzik. Look for the photo of the guy in the red shirt, and feel free to invite me out for lunch.
Jonathan Bardzik is a cook, storyteller, and author living in Washington, DC. Known for his live cooking demos at Eastern Market, Jonathan loves cooking fresh ingredients as much as seeking them out in DC’s exciting restaurant scene. His first cookbook, “Simple Summer: A Recipe for Cooking and Entertaining with Ease,” is available now on Amazon (and he’s busy working on number two!). Grab a copy and find out what Jonathan is cooking at www.jonathanbardzik.com or his Facebook page, “Jonathan Bardzik.” Need some food porn? Follow @JonathanBardzik on Twitter and Instagram.