Earlier this summer, writer/director Jon Favreau returned to his indie-filmmaking roots and released a film that seemed genetically-engineered for me to love it (Chefs + food trucks + sandwiches + Austin + social media!). “Chef” tells the story of a long-time restaurant chef who, after a rough and rage-filled encounter with an online food critic and the ensuing fallout, leaves the restaurant world in exchange for opening up a Cuban sandwich food truck. Along the way, Favreau, playing the titular “Chef,” also works to (re)build his relationship with his son, as the new crew takes the food truck across the country, experiencing the joys of passionately serving (and eating) delicious food to the raving masses.
Throughout the entire film, “Chef” featured glorious and evocative images showcasing the care and devotion that professional chefs put into creating their dishes, and if you weren’t hungry before seeing the film, you most certainly would be by the end. I was smart/lucky enough to have attended a special screening of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse, which had the forethought to offer a special Cuban sandwich on the menu for the screening. While not my first Cuban sandwich ever, the sensation of being able to eat the cuisine being highlighted in the film while actually watching it be prepared on screen, sparked an idea, and I soon embarked on my own "Chef"-inspired journey to try as many Cuban sandwiches that I could find in Austin…or at least as many as my appetite could handle!
In case anyone is unfamiliar with the elements of a Cuban sandwich, borne out of the immigration of Cubans into Florida in the early 20th century, the sandwich is composed of the following:
- “Pan Cubano” (Cuban bread) – Perhaps the most defining characteristic (at least, visually) of a Cuban sandwich is the pressed Cuban bread that holds the sandwich together. Cuban bread is made up of the typical bread ingredients (yeast, sugar, water, salt, flour), but with the added touch of lard to the dough. After constructing the sandwich, the outsides of the sandwich are brushed with butter and are pressed on a hot plancha (griddle). The sandwich is flattened, the cheese oozes, and the bread transforms to a crusty, yet light delivery device of delicious Cuban flavors.
- Dill pickle slices
- Mustard – most often, just plain ol’ yellow mustard.
- Ham – After the mustard, a few slices of (optionally griddled) deli ham.
- “Lechon asado” (Roast pork) – Pork shoulder that has been marinated in citrus and (lots of) garlic and slow roasted until tender.
- Swiss cheese – just the right amount of cheese, melted by the Panini press, to hold together the components of the Cuban sandwich.
(*please note that this is most certainly not an exhaustive list of every Cuban sandwich in town, nor is this any definitive list of what truly is the “best.” I understand the value that LISTS/BESTS provide for the internet and readership, but I also understand and respect the fact that taste is completely and utterly subjective. What I like, you may not like, and vice versa, so these are just some of my own personal opinions…which you very may well agree or disagree with...and that is quite alright by me. On with the show!)
Habana SoCo – I have lived on South Congress Avenue for over 5 years now and had probably driven past Habana, quite literally, thousands of times before finally making the ½ mile walk down the street to check out one of the few dedicated Cuban restaurants in Austin. On my first visit, at the recommendation of the friendly bartender, I ordered Habana’s signature lechon asado dish, as well as a side of maduros, or lightly fried, sweetened plantains. I could not have asked for a better introduction to Cuban food, and I have since been working my way through the rest of Habana’s traditional Cuban menu offerings. Of course, this meant eventually having my very first Cuban sandwich, even before this “Chef-inspired journey” began. Habana (rightfully) uses its excellent lechon asado in their Cuban sandwiches, and I cannot imagine finding a more legitimate setting to enjoy a little bit of Miami here in Texas.
Salt & Time – I have only had this website up for about 2 months, and this is already the 3rd time that I have brought up Salt & Time. The only way that you could possibly understand why this has happened would be for you to just go pay them a visit and experience what I have so far. Salt & Time focuses its lunch menu on a variety of sandwiches, including the butcher shop’s take on a Cuban sandwich. There is no question that Salt & Time serves some of the best meat in town, and when you order the Cuban, you get to try two different kinds: slow-cooked pulled pork and spicy ham! As one would expect, the meat is incredibly flavorful and juicy, and you also get to taste Salt & Time’s housemade pickles and spicy mustard. The Cuban sandwich here is not served on traditional, pressed Cuban bread, but rather a large, soft roll, but with a sandwich as good as this one, I don’t think anyone will be complaining.
24 Diner – A rather new addition to the seasonal and local-focused menu at 24 Diner, the Cuban sandwich here features a couple of notable twists on the traditional ingredients. Like Salt & Time, 24 Diner goes against the grain (pun intended) and bypasses Cuban bread, in exchange for a housemade baguette roll. The swiss cheese found on most other Cuban sandwiches is swapped for rich Provolone cheese. The sandwich does get pressed, but does not get as quite as crusty as other Cubans that I have had on my quest. The ingredients here, including a hefty portion of all-natural and nitrate-free pork, are certainly of superb quality, as are the breads that come from the team at Easy Tiger (so you know they are great), but with that focus on quality, the prices at 24 Diner tend to be a bit higher than usual for a sandwich + side meal. I’m certainly not one to balk at paying a premium price for high quality food, though. You should see how much I’m willing to pay for a hamburger!
The Texas Cuban – With a name like “The Texas Cuban,” I knew that no Cuban sandwich journey would be complete without a stop at this food truck parked on the side of a hill on South Lamar, near Mary St. Perhaps it was just a rough day, but unfortunately, both the service and food were not really up-to-snuff for what I was hoping to find at The Texas Cuban. I’m certainly no authority, though, so take that with a grain of salt. I will probably be back to give them another shot, as I don’t see my new love of Cuban sandwiches going away anytime soon. I don’t feel the need to go into details, again because I’m just some joker who likes to eat and take photos of sandwiches, and as mentioned above, taste is totally subjective. I’m also well aware that restaurants/food trucks can have their good and bad days . The tostones (double fried, crispy plantains) here were quite good.
Pleasant Storage Room – After seeing tons of buzz about Pleasant Storage Room, this 1920s Cuban-themed Cuban restaurant and rum bar moved to the very top of my priority-eating list. I am happy to say that after trying their Cuban sandwich and tostones, they remain at the top of that list. I am very eager to return to try more of their Cuban street food, as well as to delve into the unknown-to-me world of rum-based cocktails. Pleasant Storage Room brings us back around to a traditionally constructed Cuban sandwich, with pressed Cuban bread, swiss cheese…the whole deal. A…PLEASANT surprise (I’m awful) can be found on each table at Pleasant Storage Room, as they supply diners with an absolutely delicious garlic-citrus-olive oil-herb sauce that goes great with…well, everything, according to my waiter. I can definitely attest that it was a fantastic addition to the Cuban sandwich and tostones. I couldn’t stop smelling it and definitely want more! Can’t wait to return to PSR!
Odd Duck – Like Pleasant Storage Room, but for an even longer period of time, I had really been dying to try Odd Duck, especially after hearing so many reports about how great the food was, as well my previous experience with the original Odd Duck Farm to Trailer that has been closed since the end of 2011. As the menu at Odd Duck can change at a moment’s notice, due to the availability of local and seasonal ingredients, I cannot guarantee that you will see their Cuban sandwich when you arrive for lunch on any particular day, but that definitely does not mean that you shouldn’t try your luck, because this sandwich is exceptional. Odd Duck cures its own Canadian bacon, and instead of the usual pork shoulder, they elevate their Cuban with a little pulled pig face (just go with it…delicious!). Everything on the sandwich is housemade…bread, pickles, spicy mustard…and everything is excellent. I likened the pressed bread to two perfectly crispy upside-down slices of pizza, with the Cuban elements sandwiched in-between (that is a high compliment from me). While we may have seen some consistency issues, with my friend Mike’s sandwich not being quite as nice looking and including a fair amount of gristle/fat in the pork, my Cuban sandwich was spot-on and still gets my highest recommendation.
And because whenever I get fixated on a dish, I start looking at how to recreate that dish in my own home kitchen, so this past weekend, I decided to put forth the effort to see how my OWN Cuban sandwich would stack up against the competition! After doing a bit of (Twitter) research, I couldn’t really find a place that regularly sold Cuban bread (Cuban Sandwich Cafe way up north sells its Cuban bread only on Fridays and Saturdays), so I checked out my go-to Cuban food website, Three Guys from Miami, and used their recipe to bake my own loaves of Cuban bread. The recipe is pretty typical for a loaf of basic bread, but with the addition of melted lard (yay, fat!) to the dough. This concept kind of grossed me out, and admittedly, the melted lard smelled moderately disgusting, but the finished bread came out great!
I had some of my own lechon asado in the freezer, as I often do, so that was fairly easy to have prepped and ready. I gathered the additional ingredients and heated up a cast iron skillet to handle the role of Panini-press in my apartment. With a little butter on the bread and an additional cast iron skillet as a weight, the bread achieved a perfect level of crispy exterior and light interior. I tried a BAKED tostones recipe, as well, and while they definitely did not get as crispy as double-frying would produce, I was pretty pleased with how everything came out!
While there are still more Cuban sandwiches out there for me to try in Austin (Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue’s smoked pulled pork Cuban, the aforementioned Cuban Sandwich Café, etc), I think I’m all “Cubaned out” for awhile. I wonder what movie will inspire my next quest…any ideas?