As far as Tampa native Victor Padilla is concerned, his grandmother Dona Aurelia made the best Cuban sandwich in the world.
After slow-roasting the mojo-marinated pork for hours and gently baking the ham for almost as long as it took to raise the pig, she would dress the sandwich with traditional Swiss cheese and then add only the best Genoa salami. A few pickle slices and mustard would find its way inside. Surrounding all of it was a loaf of Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City.
“She would put a little butter on the inside of the bread and on the outside, but not too much, before she pressed it,” says Padilla, who is vice president of Latin Times magazine. “It was always a golden brown on the crust. It was perfection.”
Pursuit of the ultimate Cuban sandwich inspired Padilla and Latin Times publisher Jolie Gonzalez to create a festival glorifying the tropical delicacy in its Ybor City birthplace.
The day-long event Saturday in Centennial Park will feature more than 30 restaurants, some from as far away as Miami, making their versions of the classic sandwich. All will be vying for the title of Best Cuban in the traditional and non-traditional categories.
“We started promoting it in October on social media and people went crazy over it,” Padilla says “It took off like a rocket. We started getting calls and messages on Facebook saying ‘You need to put this sandwich shop and this restaurant in the festival.’ ”
Festival planning began late last year, long before a Miami Herald article in April that mocked Tampa City Council’s adoption of the Cuban as the city’s official sandwich.
The turf war escalated after Miami’s Mayor Tomas Regalado, a Cuban exile, told a reporter that salami didn’t belong in the Cubano.
“Tampa certainly has a tradition, but salami is for pizza,” the Herald quoted him saying.
Civic pride has attracted big names to judge this weekend’s contest. Celebrity judges scheduled to attend include Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, State Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Columbia Restaurant president Richard Gonzmart.
The festival also will feature artists, a cigar and café area, antique cars, barbers offering shaves and a play area for children, as well as the offerings found weekly at the Saturday Market in Centennial Park.
Padilla says the passions the sandwich stirs are understandable.
“The ingredients represent the history of Tampa and the people from different countries who have migrated here,” he says.
“The salami represents the Italians. Jewish immigrants brought the pickles. Germans put the cheese on it. It’s a conglomeration of different countries. It’s not only the taste.”
MUST CHEW LIST
This got me thinking about a list of Cubans that locals absolutely had to try.
There are lots to choose from. Here are some of my favorites
The Columbia Restaurant – In Ybor City’s earliest days, The Columbia had a window along Seventh Avenue where customers could drive up and get a sandwich. You can still get a taste of those years with a Cuban (pictured above) made according to an old family recipe that includes imported salami with peppercorns.
Brocato’s Sandwich Shop – Patience during hectic lunchtime hours at this landmark on East Columbus Drive pays off in the form of aircraft carrier-size Cubans that easily could feed two people. Get a stuffed potato or a devil crab and take the leftovers home.
West Tampa Sandwich Shop – The warm and sometimes raucous neighborhood West Tampa atmosphere is as delicious as the sandwich. Be sure to order a bowl of garbanzo bean soup and get an empanada with picadillo to share at the table.
Interbay Meat Market – MacDill-area diners know this South Tampa neighborhood market for its meaty, crispy Cubans and perfectly sloppy cheeseburgers. Sit on the picnic benches outside and enjoy your meal. You won’t be able to resist eating before you get to your car.
La Cubanita – If you like your Cuban with a more of that drippy, succulent, delicious roast pork, the Alex Special at this eatery’s locations on Lumsden Road in Brandon and on Lithia Pinecrest Road in Valrico will hit the spot. Bring a bib and extra napkins. Yes, I know the photo shows it with lettuce. It was a phase I was going through.
Wright’s Gourmet House – A six-time champion of the Tampa Tribune’s best Cuban sandwich contest, this sandwich features seasoned, roasted pork, ham, Genoa salami, turkey breast, pickles and Jarlsberg cheese with mustard. (Photo by Todd Sturtz of TastingTampa.com)
I asked readers for their favorite Cuban sandwich spots
@Santos_Dat_Dude – “Roberts Meats, 3435 S. West Shore Blvd., Tampa.”
@jenjenjen731 – “Aguila Sandwich Shop off Hillsborough Avenue. (pictured at the top) There’s a reason that place is always packed. Also, Mambo’s Cafe off Armenia Avenue.”
@KeepDwightGirl – “Alessi Bakery in Tampa.”
@JulesBTV – “Arco Iris on Columbus Avenue in Tampa.”
@MJH3bucs – “The Floridian on Treasure Island.”
@JoeBucsFan – “La Teresita on Columbus Avenue in Tampa.
@LorieBriggs – “Silver Ring Café in Riverview, La Septima in Brandon and, surprisingly, Subs N Such in Lutz.”
@StPeteFoodie – “La Ideal Sandwich Shop in West Tampa.”
And now, the details
CUBAN SANDWICH FESTIVAL
Where Centennial Park, 1800 E. Eighth Ave., Tampa
When 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
* Foodspotting’s guide to the Cuban Sandwich Festival (Link)
* Rebuilding the perfect Cuban sandwich (Link)
* All Hail The Cuban Sandwich gallery on Pinterest (Link)