A sandwich grail is a personal thing. One person’s quest for a Philly cheese steak of perfection is another person’s search for the ultimate beef on weck.
Whatever your sandwich grail is, it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread to you, even if no one else gets it except people who grew up in the same place, eating the same thing. Perfection is in the details: You can’t just change out the brand of mayonnaise or swap in a bread that looks sort of like the right kind and achieve sandwich nirvana.
My sandwich grail has been the perfect Cuban sandwich. The search has taken me through years of disappointment, through encounters with stale bread, the wrong fillings (no, barbecue doesn’t belong in a Cubano) and barely crisp crusts.
And it’s a search that has finally come to an end, right here in Charlotte, in my own kitchen.
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In the South Florida of my youth, in the 1970s, the best Cuban food wasn’t served in restaurants yet. After Fidel Castro took over the government in 1959, Cuban immigrants spent the next decade or so getting back on their feet in America. Most of my family’s Cuban friends were surviving with any job they could get, not building white-tablecloth places to serve the food their mothers and grandmothers cooked at home.
Back then, there were two kinds of Cuban food in Florida. If you wanted classics like ropa viejo or mojo-marinated roast pork, you did what everyone else did: You made friends with a Cuban family and got yourself invited home for Sunday dinner.
Or you found the tiny spots – small bakeries with worn linoleum floors where you could get a guava pastry and a shooter-size cup of high-octane Cuban coffee, or gas stations that had foil-covered sandwich presses dusted with crumbs behind the counter.
Those gas stations were where I honed my love of a good Cuban sandwich. A good Cuban sandwich has a few necessary elements: It has to have the right combination of ham, sliced roast pork, Swiss cheese and paper-thin slices of pickle. The only condiment allowed is mustard – the neon-yellow ballpark kind, not Frenchified Dijon.
The most important ingredient though, the one thing that has to be right, is the bread.
Made with lard, high-gluten flour, yeast and a little salt, it should have a crust that shatters in shards, like glass. With no preservatives, the shelf life is hours, not days. But when you put a little butter on the outside, fill the inside with ham, pork, Swiss cheese and mustard and press it in a sandwich press, it condenses to exactly the right ratio of crunchy, hammy, cheesy and mustardy.
(And before anyone from the West Coast of Florida screams: There is a difference between the Miami version and the Tampa version. The Tampa version has salami, it sometimes has mayonnaise and the bread is different. For me, that’s three strikes against it. Let us acknowledge its existence, and agree to speak of it no more.)
In the years since I grew up and moved away, Cuban food has changed in South Florida. There are plenty of Cuban restaurants now, places like Havana and Don Ramon on U.S. 1 in West Palm Beach. On visits home, I can order plates of mojo pork and sweet plantains anytime I want. The bakery that sold guava pastries is a chain now, with spiffy glass cases and nice tile floors.
But Cuban sandwiches, on my trips back, have gotten scarce. Nobody gets a sandwich from a gas station, at least not from gas stations I’ve found.
I’ve tried a few sandwiches around Charlotte, but the bread is never fresh enough, never pressed enough, never filled with the right stuff. I had one that I swear had lettuce and tomato. Who puts lettuce in a pressed sandwich? Someone who likes soggy lettuce, that’s who.
I had given up and consigned a great Cuban sandwich to the mists of my youth. And then I heard that Suarez Bakery in Park Road Shopping Center makes Cuban bread. Real Cuban bread, with the right crust and the right ingredients.
“The secret really is the bread,” says owner Carlos Suarez. “The thing about Cuban bread, it’s not like a baguette, where it’s real doughy in there. The Cuban bread is crusty on the outside, but you press it and it gets thin.”
For years, Suarez has been making Cuban bread on Saturday mornings at the bakery, putting it on sale at 1 p.m. It sells out quickly, so you have to time it just right. Some people call and order 10 loaves at a time. Since the shelf life is short, he’s careful to make just enough to fill orders.
“That bread, if you don’t sell it, you can’t sell it the next day.”
There’s good news, though: When Suarez opens his new space in Optimist Hall this spring, he’s going to feature Cuban sandwiches. And that means he’ll start making bread every day and sell any extra loaves at the bakery.
Even better news: Suarez’s bread is exactly right. Filled with a few slices of good deli ham, some thin slices of roast pork (Harris Teeter sells Cajun-spiced tasso ham that works beautifully if you slice it very thin), Swiss cheese and mustard, and you’re on your way.
A panini press would work great, but I don’t have one. Instead, I use cast-iron skillets: Melt a little butter in one, add the assembled sandwich, place a second skillet on top and weigh it down with a big can of tomatoes. Press it for 4 or 5 minutes over medium heat (use your nose to make sure it doesn’t burn) and take the sandwich out. Melt a little more butter, turn the sandwich over and press it again for 3 to 4 minutes longer, until the bread is just a little darker brown and flattened on both sides.
Slice it on the diagonal, just like they did it in the little gas stations in Florida, and it’s perfect: Crunchy, hammy, mustardy, cheesy.
Don’t forget to add a couple of long, paper-thin slices of pickle to the filling. Perfection is all in the details.
Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis