MIAMI -- Call it a hoagie, sub, grinder, wedge, spukkie or zeppelin, a po' boy or a muffuletta, a Fresno sandwich or a bomber, Americans are in love with loaves of bread stuffed with meats and cheeses. One of the most elegant of the behemoths is the Cuban sandwich -- a crisp-crusted, light-bodied loaf (known as a "flauta" or a Cuban loaf) sliced lengthwise, buttered and layered with ham, slow-roasted pork, Swiss cheese and pickle wedges, then toasted until barely warm. Serve it with a Coke, then follow it with a cup of strong Cuban coffee (and maybe a cigar), and you've got yourself a four-star taste of Florida.
Gastronomic historians have traced the origin of the Cuban sandwich to the Cedars of Lebanon Cafeteria of Artemisa, Cuba (west of Havana), where restaurateur Jose Sacre is said to have invented it in the 1940s. It didn't really begin to make a serious mark in the United States until the 1960s, after the Cuban revolution, when so many Havanans, including restaurateurs, settled in Miami and Tampa. Now in Miami's Little Havana and Tampa's Ybor City, as well as in sandwich shops, cafes and restaurants throughout Florida, the Cuban, known to its devotees and among waiters simply as "a sandwich" (there's no other kind!), is a menu staple.
The basic sandwich is a simple configuration with a lot of subtle nuance that separates the great ones from the also-rans. The most important element is the bread. A Cuban loaf is a light and fluffy-textured torpedo with a thin, brittle skin. Most sandwich shops serve it for breakfast -- bisected, toasted and buttered -- along with cafe con leche. It must be absolutely fresh; and when it is used to make a Cuban sandwich it is often toasted very lightly after the sandwich is assembled, thus crisping its crust and warming the ingredients, the cheese in particular, into a state of limp lusciousness.
The best Cuban sandwich restaurants take pride in the meats, too. At the Latin-American Cafeteria in Miami (one of five Latin-American cafeterias in the area, each owned by one of the Galindo brothers), Reinaldo Galindo cooks his pork roasts for 10 full hours in a slow oven after coating them with a mixture of herbs, garlic and lime juice. The result is a flap of juicy, delicate-flavored pork that fairly glows with zest. It is inserted in the bread along with ham and cheese and butter, but usually without such adornments as lettuce, tomato or sloppy condiments. No matter how long it is, a Cuban sandwich tends to be a wieldy handful -- flattened and intense.
The Latin-American Cafeteria offers variations on the basic Cuban sandwich formula, including a pound-plus Virginia ham special, and Cubans stuffed with salami and other cold cuts, various cheeses and meats. There are plenty of other good things to eat in this inexpensive and informal place, including fried chicken with rice, beans and sweet plantains, and a wondrous dessert of cream cheese and guava shells; but the dish every newcomer ought to try is a classically configured Cuban sandwich -- one of America's matchless regional specialties.
2 loaves Cuban (or French) bread, about 48 inches total
butter, mustard and/or mayonnaise to taste
3/4 pound boiled ham, sliced thin
2/3 pound roast pork, sliced thin (turkey may be substituted)
1/2 pound Swiss cheese, sliced thin
sour pickle slices
Cut each loaf in half, then slice lengthwise. Spread bottom with butter, top with mustard and/or mayo, to taste. (Shredded lettuce and thinly sliced tomato may be strewn across the mayo or mustard, if desired.)
Layer cold cuts and cheese onto bottom half of loaf in order given. Top with pickles. Replace top.
Place sandwich in cold oven and turn heat to high. As oven warms, watch it. You want everything warm and the bread barely crisp but not toasted.
Latin-American Cafeteria, 2740 S.W. 27th Ave., Miami, Fla. 33133; (305) 445-6040.