By Christopher Nank, Gulf Coast Correspondent
To call the 2nd annual Cuban Sandwich Festival merely a contest to determine the best Cuban sandwich in Florida would be grossly understating the scope of the event. Set entirely within the one square block of Centennial Park in Tampa’s historic Ybor City, the scene had the feel of a Latin food festival, a farmer’s market, crafts fair and music showcase rolled into a single glorious spectacle. Not even the absence of a beer truck could overshadow a beautiful late March day spent amid the wafting scents of grilled, fried and smoked food.
The 20 vendors entered in the contest were identified as such with simple printouts at their trucks indicating a unique vote-for number that could be texted to the coordinators. While I intended — and initially attempted — to make the rounds and sample all 20 entries, I quickly discovered these sandwiches were too damn rich and filling to permit a wide sampling. I fell short by something like 17.
For the purposes of the contest, which was sponsored by The Latin Times, a “traditional” Tampa Cuban contains only pork, ham, salami, pickles, mustard and Swiss cheese. My first Cuban was at the tent (no truck here) of Country Deli & Market, out of St. Petersburg, whose version included lettuce and tomato in addition to the standard ingredients. These seemingly innocuous add-ons relegated their offering to the “non-traditional” category. Country Deli & Market was a good place to start. The bread was very good, the sandwich fillings were tasty and satisfying, but I knew immediately that it wouldn’t win. “Satisfying” and “tasty” are adjectives that describe an adequate sandwich, not a prize-winning one.
The only Cuban I sampled from the traditional category came from the folks at La Teresita, a perennial contender and occasional winner of Best Cuban Restaurant in Tampa honors as decided by a number of local publications. Their Cuban sandwich upholds this distinction. The bread was appropriately crusty and fluffy by turns, the meats achieved a delicious synergy with the cheese, and there was not too much mustard — this last point can’t be overstated. The problem, such as it is, is that if I’m going to La Teresita, I’m not ordering a sandwich. A quick glance through the menu reveals more than a few can’t-miss entrees that would inevitably take precedence.
My personal favorite from the festival is an old favorite and quite possibly the subject of a developing personal fascination-obsession-addiction. In my world, the Monte Castro from Dochos Concessions in Clearwater would be a shoo-in for best of the non-traditional Cubans, but I appreciate that not everyone’s tastes are as refined and nuanced as mine. What more is there to say about this guy that I haven’t already waxed lovingly about? A battered, deep-fried Cuban, cut in half for the perfect cross-section… even waiting outside the truck for your sandwich to be prepared is part of the experience, sampling the scents of frying grease and dough and bread. It’s worth noting that the ingredients would qualify the sandwich for the traditional category if not for, you know, it being deep-fried in pancake batter. This is my winner, although from an admittedly small sample size.
I ended my day with some delights from the stand operated by Fort Myers-based Sabor Boricua, where I’d intended just to order some tostones but somehow ended up with a chicken empanada and chicharron, as well. In hindsight, it’s probably best that there was no beer, as my uncomfortable fullness might have well crossed the line into acute illness. A recap of the contest and the winners is available here, but I’d prefer to end with this unabashed solicitation: If you are in the Tampa Bay area, I urge you to track down the Dochos Concessions truck. Trust me on this. Split the Monte Castro with a buddy if you need to — it’ll be more than enough for two.