Year of the Sandwich Goes to Cuba

One of my favorite sandwiches ever, the torta Cubana at the Vallarta Mexican grocery store, is a towering affair with ham, beans, bacon, salsa, jalapeños and an egg, all on a soft telera roll. It is delicious, but it is most definitely a Mexican sandwich.

So, in preparing for our recent spring break trip to Havana, I was excited to try the actual Cuban sandwich. According to my research, there would be sandwiches on pretty much every corner.

Coursing through the dusty streets from the airport into Havana, I could see that this was not an exaggeration. There were sandwich stands all over the place. Sandwiches — cheap, ubiquitous and delicious — are a pillar of dining in Havana. And they would be a staple of our eight days in the city.

Flynn’s first Cubana

The first we had was purchased from a joint called Doña Liana that was indeed on a corner, about five blocks from our Airbnb on busy Neptuno street in Havana Centro. I bought two sandwiches, a peso each (about a dollar), while my pal Steve stood in line at a window around the corner to try some chicken rice that looked popular with the locals.

I watched the sandwich maestro as he prepared what would be a typical example of the defining sandwich we would eat, with variations on the theme, the entire of our stay: ham, roasted red peppers, condiments on a roll, toasted in a panini press, cut on the diagonal.

Willa digs in

The sandwich, while deceptively simple, was delicious. The fried chicken and rice box was even better, but that’s a subject for another post.

Cuba, being a state-controlled economy and relatively homogenous culturally, does not offer the breadth of choice you would have in even, say, Mexico.

“Was there sushi?” my brother asked.

There was no sushi. Nor was there Chinese restaurants nor falafel nor burritos nor vegan salad places nor a lot of other stuff. There were pizzas, though — lots of pizzas. Perhaps that was to cater to the planeload of Italians that arrive each day from Milan. Or maybe the Cubans just like pizza. Some of the pizza was good, some was not. Our philosophy was: When in Cuba, eat as the Cubans do.

Willa and Steve dig in

The Cubans eat a lot of sandwiches. So did we.

The sandwiches are all one peso, no matter where you go. My son Flynn especially liked a sandwich we got at a counter on a narrow alley in Old Havana that was nothing more than ham and bread. The bread, a thin rectangular roll, was soft, and when you put it in the panini press it took on the warm, doughy consistency of a freshly baked baguette. I agreed it was quite tasty, although my wife found it bland. Every time we passed the counter, we bought four.

We fell in love with Cuba — the incredible people, the history, the stunning architecture of Havana, the classic cars, the music. Until recently, it has been travel’s forbidden fruit for Americans. You still can’t “legally” go as a tourist, although 20 new direct flights to Havana debuted in 2017 from a selection of American cities — including Los Angeles. Havana is changing — Airbnb has arrived (our host was an Olympic gold medalist track & field star); there are new non-government restaurants serving modern interpretations of Cuban cuisine to the sophisticated tourists wandering the streets. More money will flood in, more crumbling palaces and belle époque apartments will be restored. Sushi will come.

But there will always be the sandwich. Hearty, filling, cheap and comforting as the hug of a wrinkled, beaming Cuban abuela. Some things should never change.

*    *    *

Havana street corner sandwich
serves 2

1 large, soft roll
4 oz. thinly sliced ham
4 oz. thinly sliced mortadella
2 oz. strips roasted red pepper, skin removed
hot sauce (if you’d like)

Slice the roll lengthwise. Brush both sides with mayonnaise, and add meats. Drape strips of red pepper over meat, sprinkle with hot sauce if desired, and close sandwich.

If you have a panini press, give the sandwich a pressing until warm and toasty. If not, place in an oven pre-heated to 400 degrees for 5 minutes.

For variety, you might add some pickles, sliced onion or cheese before placing in the panini press or oven.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Amanda Bower
    Apr 21, 2017 @ 16:57:33

    What a cool place to visit – I love a simple, hot sandwich.


  2. Michelle
    Apr 23, 2017 @ 12:36:01

    Oh how wonderful to be there before the sushi bars.


  3. Conor Bofin
    Apr 25, 2017 @ 18:20:31

    Havana is on my wish list. My daughter got there last year and loved it. She ate loads of sandwiches too!


  4. Trackback: Year of the Sandwich Goes to Cuba — skinny girls & mayonnaise – The Mavericks Rule!

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