The sandwich has to be one of the greatest inventions of all time. It is hard to find something as satisfying as a perfectly melted grilled cheese, a proscuitto and mozzarella panino, or a heaping pastrami on rye.
Right up there among these greats is the Cubano.
I got hooked after seeing the movie Chef, in which the central character opens a Cuban food truck and serves the most beautiful Cubanos ever. I had to have one. Or two, or three, or 20.
Thus began the Great Cubano Search.
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But first, some background: Put very simply, the Cubano is a variant on ham and cheese, albeit a much more complex and flavorful version. Traditionally, the Cuban sandwich consists of ham, roasted pork (and sometimes salami, though this is highly contested), Swiss cheese, pickles, and spicy mustard on Cuban bread. Cuban bread is a simple, soft white bread shaped like a baguette. The loaves are brushed liberally with butter, cut vertically or diagonally, and toasted in a plancha (similar to a panini press, but with a smooth surface).
Naturally, I wanted one. I had a couple of leads in Lexington. I knew of Old San Juan, a small Cuban place off Nicholasville Road. Then there was Brasabana, a new restaurant on Lane Allen. The Cubano at Wallace Station, a deli in nearby Versailles, was also recommended. And lastly, I happened upon a Cuban sandwich at Shorty's Urban Market in downtown Lexington.
Old San Juan was my first stop. Just off Malabu Drive, it is half restaurant, half Cuban food store. There are no frills, but the employees are friendly and the food is delicious. Old San Juan easily wins for most authentic Cubano. The kitchen, just behind the counter, is visible from the tables. We watched as each flawless white loaf was brushed with butter, filled generously with ham and pork, pressed in the plancha till perfectly brown and melted, and then cut vertically into halves, each large enough to be a whole sandwich. Finally, two Cubanos arrived at our table. At $6.99 each, they were very affordable and a lot of food. Old San Juan's Cubano was exactly what you want in a sandwich: warm, comforting, full of flavor, cheese melted just enough, bread crisp without being hard, and overall wonderfully satisfying.
Next was Shorty's. Glancing over the menu on a weekday lunch break, I spotted "Cubano," and stopped looking. Trying to learn from experience, my companion and I split one sandwich. As it turned out, we could have done with two. At $8.50, Shorty's Cubano was about half as large as Old San Juan's, but it was very good. Shorty's uses quality meat and that, combined with a winning ratio of tangy pickles and spicy mustard, made it a great sandwich. They opted for a baguette instead of Cuban bread and a panini press instead of a plancha — not as authentic but still a delicious, and quick, lunch.
The record for most miles traveled for a Cubano goes to Wallace Station — a beautiful 12-mile drive from downtown Lexington out Old Frankfort Pike — where, on a beautiful afternoon, I ate yet another mouth-watering Cubano on a picnic table in the grass. This was the most unique take on the sandwich. Dubbed "The Wallace Cubano," the menu informed me that rather than pork roast, it contains Wallace Station's own pulled pork. The deli offers its own white, wheat or rye bread — no Cuban — and we opted for white. It was still brushed with butter and toasted, but the crunchiness of the white bread was significantly different from the softer Cuban bread. All in all, this Cubano was fantastic. The slight variations made it interesting, and the strong flavors of pork, ham, and mustard still came through as Cubano-like. Also — while not a whole hoagie's worth of bread, it was a very generous portion at $9.95.
My last Cubano did not let its predecessors down when I finally made it to Brasabana. Although the menu was full of tempting dishes, I stayed the course. I ordered my Cubano with a side of Cuban soup, very similar to French onion (my companion had plantain chips — delicious), and waited. Finally, for the fourth time in as many weeks, I saw a Cubano coming toward me. A look revealed Cuban bread — cut horizontally instead of vertically — marks from a plancha rather than a panini press, bread definitely brushed with butter but maybe pressed a bit too long, a good portion but not huge, and overall a great looking sandwich.
Of course, the most important part is the taste, which turned out to be quite, quite good. Brasabana, like Old San Juan, has a traditional Cubano — on Cuban bread, with all of the signature ingredients. Once again, the marriage of ham and cheese on buttered, toasted bread was delicious and comforting, although the mustard was a little strong. At $8.95, Brasabana's Cubano was authentic, well done, and satisfying.
This was the beginning but won't be the end of my Cubano odyssey. I may just have to expand my geographic boundaries — perhaps Florida, where the sandwich got its start. Or who knows, maybe one day I'll pick another sandwich to explore.... I hear there are a lot of variations on the Ramen Burger out there.