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  • Allen Pierleoni /

    The Cuban sandwich at Togo’s

  • Allen Pierleoni /

    The Cuban sandwich at El Sol Cubano is made with pork shoulder (marinated in mojo sauce and cooked for six hours), smoked ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickle chips.

  • Allen Pierleoni /

    The El Cubano at the Bread Store

‘Chef’ inspires a local hunt for Cuban sandwiches

Published: Sunday, Jun. 15, 2014 - 12:00 am

In the indie movie “Chef,” a recently fired chef played by Jon Favreau leaves Los Angeles and ends up operating a food truck in Miami, where the specialty of “the house” is a Cuban sandwich. That Florida staple has such a presence in the film that we left the theater hungry for one. Or two.

Cuban sandwiches are sold everywhere in South Florida, especially in the restaurants and kiosks in what’s known as the Little Havana section of Miami, aka Calle Ocho. There, they are as common as burgers and pizza are here.

As we left the movie theater, the question was: Where to go for a Cuban sandwich? We knew the answer, but figured most folks don’t.

A few days later, our first stop was El Sol Cubano in North Highlands, the only Cuban restaurant we know of in our area. The second choice was the Bread Store in Sacramento, which sells a version of the template. By coincidence, Togo’s chain sandwich shop is promoting its version of the Cubano “for a limited time,” so we grabbed one there, too.

Whether you saw “Chef” or not, a Cuban sandwich is always worth a bite. It has flavor, texture, heft and heritage, plus a blue-collar feel. After all, it was originally made in the cafes of the Cuban enclave cities of Key West and Tampa as an inexpensive yet filling lunch for Cuban workers.

Cuban food represents a fusion of cultures, including Spanish, African, Portuguese, French and Chinese. It’s not spicy or fiery, instead deriving its blend of flavors from garlic, oregano, cumin, bay leaf and sofrito, a sautéed mixture of produce that includes onion, garlic and green bell pepper.

At Cuban restaurants, typical menu items are black beans over white rice, chicken with saffron rice, picadillo (seasoned ground beef with olives and/or raisins), fried plantains (green or ripe) and ham croquettes. If there’s a trademark Cuban dish (other than whole fried red snapper), it’s roasted pork (lechon asado).

A real Cuban sandwich is assembled from pulled or sliced marinated and slow-roasted pork, top-quality ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickle chips layered on Cuban bread that has been smeared with ballpark mustard and butter or olive oil. It’s then grilled on a “plancha,” sort of a panini press without the ridges. It never includes lettuce, tomato, onion or mayo.

A sister sandwich is the media noche, or “midnight sandwich,” so called because it’s often concocted after a night of partying, as a snack before bed. It’s a smaller version of the Cuban sandwich, usually served on sweetish egg bread.

Cuban bread – shaped into baguettes 3 feet long – is feather-light, with a firm but fragile crust and a soft, airy interior. Its flavor is derived from three of its ingredients – lard, salt and sugar. “Pan Cubano” is as regional to Florida as sourdough is to San Francisco.

The main ingredient in a Cuban sandwich is the roasted pork, at its best when marinated in “mojo criollo” sauce, a piquant marriage of olive oil, garlic, onion, spices and citrus juice, usually lime but often sour orange. Some cooks toss in cumin, paprika and vinegar.

At El Sol Cubano, the owners know all this. They’re husband-wife Abel Milan, who is from Cuba, and Margarita Chang. They met on the island and later opened their tropics-themed restaurant four years ago.

Their Cuban sandwich is made with pork shoulder (marinated in mojo sauce and cooked for six hours), smoked ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickle chips. The ingredients are piled on a 12-inch house-baked Cuban roll that’s smeared with butter and squirts of mustard. It’s then placed in a press until it’s hot and crispy. “It’s very popular,” said Chang.

The Cubano is a deal at $8, easily enough to share, and as close to the Florida version as you’ll find in Sacramento.

El Sol Cubano, 5734 Watt Ave., Sacramento; (916) 332-2883.

The Bread Store opened in 1990 with a limited menu, but has evolved to become one of Sacramento’s most popular lunchtime destinations. Its El Cubano is built from precooked pork loin, ham, Swiss, pickle chips and “tangy Caribbean aioli” on a ciabatta roll, then heated in a press ($8.99). “We sell close to 100 of them a week,” said owner Andy Smith.

We liked the zingy aioli a lot, and the sandwich is huge, but we agreed too much bread made the ingredients somewhat hard to find.

The Bread Store, 1716 J St., Sacramento; (916-557-1600),

Someone at the fast-casual chain Togo’s emailed a press release about its “latest premium pork sandwich – the new Toasted Cuban. ... With the recent success of our BBQ Pulled Pork sandwich, we knew we had to do something big for this year’s promotion.”

At the Togo’s we visited, the crew wore T-shirts promoting the Cuban, and a mini-billboard sat on the order counter, listing its ingredients: pulled pork, Black Forest ham, Swiss cheese, “tangy” pickle chips and “Cuban mustard dressing” (described in the press release as “Cuban-inspired Dijon mustard vinaigrette”) served on “classic white” bread, spotted with strange-looking “scorch” marks.

“Do you want sourdough?” asked the accommodating sandwich-maker. “Do you want to add anything to it?” No, we’ll take it according to the promo recipe. He microwaved the pulled pork and put it on top of the sandwich, which had been microwaved to melt the cheese and warm the ham.

Having been microwaved, the bread was mushy, of course, but the sandwich was filling for the price. However, we’re not sure what the price is – our 6-inch sandwich was $5.50, but the press release listed it for $6.50 – or how long the promotion will be around.

We wanted clarification, but Togo’s “corporate spokesperson” never got back to us.

How do you say that in Spanish?

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Read more articles by Allen Pierleoni

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