In Tampa, Florida, the Cuban sandwich is an enduring source of pride, sustenance, and fierce debate. Connoisseurs take strong stands on each element.
Cuban sandwiches are derived from mixto sandwiches, which were popular in Cuba over a century ago. “As the sandwich emigrated from Cuba to Key West and eventually to Tampa, the name evolved from ‘mixto’ to ‘Cubano’ and ‘Cuban,’” says historian Jeff Houck.
The sandwich reflects the cultural makeup of the Ybor City community, including Spanish, Cuban, German, Jewish, and American influences.
The annual Cuban Sandwich Festival, created by Victor Padilla and Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla, has become a massive two day event in Centennial Park in Tampa’s Ybor City, which, most experts and historians agree, is the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich. The festival transforms the neighborhood with music, performances, and, in 2019, a winning attempt at a world record for the longest Cuban sandwich—183 feet.
The marquee event is a contest to crown the best Cuban sandwich maker in the world. Contestants like Daniel Navarro and Iliana Cordero often present twists on the theme to a strict panel of judges; for example, cooks from Miami may present sandwiches “Miami style,” in which the salami, essential in Tampa, is left off.
La Segunda Bakery in Ybor City sold its first loaf of Cuban bread in 1915. Today, employees including Anthony Sanches (below) produce 20,000 loaves of Cuban bread daily.
The massive operation lacks climate control, a challenge in Florida. “The bread takes on the personality of the weather—humidity and heat,” says co-owner Copeland More. Bakers adjust the process based on the weather that day—the dough might move in and out of the refrigerator or spend extra time in the steam-fed proof box to account for the temperature. Each loaf is baked with a palm frond on top for a signature La Segunda look.
Opened in 1905 as Columbia Saloon, Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City originally served as a tasting room for Florida Brewing Company. In addition to beer, they served cafe con leche and mixto sandwiches. They’ve been sourcing bread for their sandwiches, which they consider the definitive Cuban sandwiches, from La Segunda Bakery for nearly 100 years. Andrea Gonzmart-Williams is the fifth-generation owner.
“The architecture of the sandwich is absolutely paramount. It has to be precise to be that original flavor.” Even the application of the mustard is given serious consideration, and at Columbia it must only go on the top piece of bread. Historian Jeff Houck tells me, “If [the mustard] goes on the bottom it coats your tongue. When it’s on top, it blossoms on the roof of your mouth and colors the entire experience.”