WASHINGTON — Chili, wings and pizza are all fine fare for football Sundays, but if you’re looking to up your game and impress your party guests, it’s time to mix up the menu.
And we suggest doing so with the tasty and toasty goodness of a Cuban sandwich.
Only, don’t be fooled: The Cuban sandwich isn’t actually from Cuba. Celebrity chef Alex Garcia says the pressed pork and ham panini originated in Tampa, Florida.
“In the early 1900s, they had a lot of tobacco field workers from Cuba in Tampa, and they needed one sandwich, or one meal a day, that they could take to work that would hold them over in the fields, so that’s what it’s from,” says Garcia, who is the chef behind several New York restaurants, including A.G. Kitchen, which opened its second location this summer in Silver Spring, Maryland.
While the menu at A.G. Kitchen is stacked with Latin American favorites, such as empanadas, arepas and tacos, the Cuban sandwich is Garcia’s biggest seller.
“Like every great simple dish, it’s all about quality ingredients,” he says.
Garcia starts out by studding a pork loin with garlic and rubbing it with oregano, cumin and a bit of cilantro. He lets the spices marinate with the meat overnight and then roasts the pork.
The Cubano traditionally calls for a meat ratio of three-fourths ham to one-fourth pork, but Garcia says he prefers to stick to an even proportion. He also strays from tradition when it comes to the bread. Rather than using Cuban bread in his restaurant, Garcia opts for a sweeter, egg-based bread, that has a flavor comparable to challah.
On each slice of bread, he slathers spicy whole grain mustard, and layers the Swiss cheese, pickles and meat (pork on one side, ham on the other). Then, he grills the sandwich sides facedown to warm the meat and toast the inside of the bread, before combining the two slices and toasting each side to add a crunch to the outside of the bread.
“The original Cubano version is all about toasting the bread,” Garcia says, adding that it can get a bit messy to eat. He jokes that sometimes it’s easier to ditch the plate and eat the sandwich over the sink so that the drain can catch the crumbs, directly.
If you want to get really crazy, Garcia suggests shoving some croquettes (a bite-sized fried food, usually stuffed with mashed potatoes and/or ground meat) into the sandwich. Think of it as the Latin spin on a hoagie topped with potato chips.
Whatever you do, Garcia says it’s imperative to leave off the lettuce and tomato. “You’re supposed to heat through the bread into the meat, so the lettuce and tomato would become soggy and it would not be good.”
Ever since Garcia launched his culinary career, the Cuban native has made it his mission to grow Latin culture and cuisine in the U.S. through food and education.
“I think we have come miles,” he says about the progress he’s seen over the years.
And he’s not just talking about food.
“I think a mojito is part of any staple bar menu at this point,” says Garcia, who is also the host of Food Network’s “The Melting Pot.” “And I think ingredients have crawled onto Americans’ plates too — plantains, yucca, paella.”
With U.S. and Cuba travel restrictions easing and curiosity peaking, Garcia expects Cuban food will only grow more popular among American diners. He predicts there will always be a place for the “nostalgic” classics — such as fried plantains and ropa vieja — but with Cuba’s current food revolution, new menu items will likely hit the scene as well.
“With the creation of free enterprise, people are coming out with new dishes,” he says, adding that Cuban chefs are experimenting with lobster, game and other novel ingredients.
“People have just become adventurous about food.”
Chef Alex Garcia’s Cubano Sandwich
Recreate Chef Alex Garcia’s Cuban sandwich at home.
- 4 eight inch pieces of Cuban bread or French baguette (you could also try an egg-based bread, similar to the one Garcia uses at A.G. Kitchen)
- 8 ounces roasted pork, from shoulder or leg, thinly sliced
- 8 ounces thinly sliced ham
- 4 ounces thinly sliced Swiss cheese
- 2 pickles, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 4 tablespoons mustard
- 6 ounces butter
- Slice all the bread lengthwise.
- Divide meat and cheese equally.
- Assemble sandwich by placing roasted pork, ham and cheese on top of one half of the bread.
- Place pickle slices on top.
- Spread one tablespoon mustard, per sandwich, on the inside of the other half of the bread.
- Place the top of the bread over the sandwich, to close.
- Spread butter on the outside of the top and bottom of the sandwich.
- Cook in a very hot cast-iron griddle, or electric flat top, until heated through and golden brown on the outside.