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Tampa's Cuban Sandwich Defense: It's the Bread and History

Cuban bread just out of the ovens at La Segunda Central Bakery in Tampa.

Two cities -- Tampa and Miami -- are locked in a battle to claim the Cuban sandwich as its own. Last Thursday, the opening salvo was fired by Tampa City Council when it officially renamed it the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich.”

Reporters at the two public radio stations were assigned to make the case for their city’s claim to the Cuban sandwich. Kenny Malone from Miami’s WLRN goes for an attack ad. WUSF's Bobbie O'Brien took this more descriptive, evocative approach:

It all starts with the bread.

“Tampa bread you know that you’ve eaten a piece of it because crumbs are everywhere,” said Andrew Huse. He wrote the history of Florida's first Spanish-Cuban restaurant,  the Columbia which is in Tampa.

“If you go to Miami you’re not going to find that bread you’re going to find a squishy bread,” he said.

The Tampa sandwich is named after Cuban cigar factory workers from the historic, Ybor City neighborhood. They layered sweet shaved ham, Genoa salami, shredded mojo-marinated pork, dry Swiss cheese, tangy mustard and crisp dill pickle slices.

A good Cuban is like a hand-made cigar according to the owner of King Corona Café, Don Barco.

“You have this different blending of tobaccos, and it’s the same things with the Cuban sandwich,” Barco said. “All those different ingredients marry, and that's what gives you the flavors of the Cuban sandwich.”

Melissa Fair and David Audet are self-styled Cuban sandwich experts. Audet is founder of the Tampa Cuban Sandwich Art Festival and Fair has contributed works of art for previous shows.

Miami, to them, is neon, mojitos and surgically-enhanced women who wouldn't be caught dead eating the sandwich.

“They wouldn’t have eaten the bread for sure,” Fair laughs and then continues. “Pulled the meat off and eaten in the meat, and in private.”

“And then barfed it up,” Audet counters. “Barf.”

The traditional Cuban sandwich is a specialty of Michelle and Robert Faedo. They used to have a restaurant, but they now sell Cubans out of a food truck. They'll match their sandwich against anyone's -- especially Miami.

“Bring it on,” Michelle Faedo said.

“Now that would be a great contest, but Miami has to use their products and we stick to our product,” said Robert Faedo confident that Tampa’s Cuban bread is real star of the sandwich.

Tampa’s Cuban sandwich is about more than taste -- it's about history. Tampa residents have been eating Cuban sandwiches for more than 100 years. It is a proud symbol of the mixed heritage of Ybor City immigrants from Cuban, Spain and Italy.

Tampa's Cuban immigrant population has a heritage of financially supporting Jose Marti and Cuba's struggle for independence many decades before Miami's Cubans who backed fled Fidel Castro.

One last word: we’re told some Miami restaurants and even the Miami-Dade school district buys their Cuban bread from Tampa, the authentic home of Cuban bread and the Cuban sandwich.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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