Can you find a good Cuban sandwich this far inland? I found the answer at Three Flags Tavern recently. The tasty, toasted sandwich does not get much play outside south Florida, but it shows up respectably on several menus in the St. Louis area, including Pickles Deli, Cheesecake Factory, and Boogaloo.
The hearty sandwich evolved in the 1800s as a lunch time favorites of immigrants factory workers, mostly Cuban, working in Tampa’s cigar factories.
Even today the proper ingredients are disputed, though the traditional version always included ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and crusty Cuban bread made with lard. What the authentic sandwich doesn’t have is mayo, lettuce, onion, and tomato. Butter and mustard seem to be optional, but grilling on a heavy press, preferably a plancha, is mandatory.
As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention,” so creative substitutions have emerged. In the absence of real Cuban bread, a soft-crusted Italian or French loaf is often used. Tampa food vendors often add salami. According to historian Loy Glenn Westfall, “the sandwich was born in Cuba, but educated in Key West.”
Strangely, I saw no Cuban sandwiches, when I was on the island a decade ago, but then there was very little meat either. The best I’ve eaten was in the Virgin Islands. A friend said the best version he’d had was in New England.
It’s always surprising where these delicacies will turn up. That’s what makes the adventure so tantalizing.
Three Flags Tavern, 4940 Southwest Avenue; Open: Tue.-Sat. 11a-10p (limited menu 2a-5p). Update: (NO LONGER IN BUSINESS)