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It's All About The Pickle

Or maybe the perfect Cuban sandwich is in the taste of the beholder

October 23, 2005|Kent Black

Several years ago I worked for a magazine near Bryant Park in New York. A couple of blocks away was a sandwich shop so narrow that, to pass the time in the long lunchtime line, I'd stretch my arms to see if I could touch both side walls at once. There were a dozen or so sandwich selections on the menu board, but no one seemed to order anything but the Cuban sandwich, a.k.a. cubano.

It was a revelation. Layers of sliced pork, Swiss cheese, ham and pickles were tucked between two slices of white bread, which resembled a wide baguette. The sandwich was then placed in a heated waffle iron-like contraption called la plancha. The sandwich maker would press down on it with just enough force to crisp the bread crust and meld the ingredients. I thought I had discovered perfection. Each bite contained a variety of textures and flavors: the soft but crunchy bread, the smoky pork, the salty ham and the rich cheese, all bound together by the tartness of dill pickles.

I was addicted. I made it a daily fix. Sometimes I'd get a cubano and a medianoche, which is like a cubano but made with a sweeter egg bread. I paid for this indulgence in excess pounds. In the course of a month I found that not a single pair of trousers in my possession would close easily. Buttons popped. Seams split.

I had to control myself. I limited my cubano intake to every other Friday. It was tough, but I did it.

When I moved to L.A. I casually asked around for places to buy cubanos. Not on a regular basis, you understand. Just if I happened to be driving by. Or in an emergency.

Woe is my waist. My list now has nearly a dozen sources on it, and I admit to having tested sandwiches at eight of them. Repeatedly. I'm able to rationalize this excess by framing it as a quest to find the perfect cubano in L.A.

Although Xiomara Ardolina, owner of Xiomara in Pasadena and Hollywood and Cafe Atlantic in Pasadena, left Cuba as a young girl, she remembers the sandwich as pan con lechon, "which is roasted pork from young pig between slices of pan de agua," she says. "It was grilled in la plancha, but there wasn't mayonnaise or pickle . . . just the fat from the pork."

Ardolina recalls her father telling her that the current version came about when immigrant Cuban sandwich makers in Florida noticed that the most popular sandwich for Americans was ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. "So they just combined that sandwich with a pan con lechon, and the Cuban sandwich was born," she says.

Though its origins are uncertain (and liable to stir up hot debate), there are certain aspects of the sandwich that are inviolate. At Porto's Bakery in Glendale, a 30-year-old institution that inspires those of Cuban heritage in Southern California to make the occasional pilgrimage, the Porto family has been making Cuban baked goods such as pan de agua (similar to a soft French bread) and the doughier pan de manteca. Betty Porto and her siblings, Raul and Margarita, now run the bakery that their mother, Rosa, started in her garage. "The most important ingredient is the bread, the pan de agua," she says. "It is thin and light and toasts well in la plancha. You can't use pan de manteca because it is too thick and the sandwich comes out too doughy. The pan de agua gives a nice crunch when you bite into it."

The Portos are traditionalists when it comes to cubanos. In addition to pan de agua, they use thinly sliced ham, domestic Swiss cheese, French's mustard, dill pickles and pork leg that they slow roast for seven to 10 hours. And it's important to eat the cubano hot off la plancha. "If you wait an hour and reheat it, it will be soggy and terrible," Betty says.

If the Portos' cubano is the salt of the earth, then Ardolina's sandwich at Cafe Atlantic is the sophisticate, with Black Forest ham, imported Swiss cheese, slow-roasted pork leg and Dijon mustard mixed with freshly made mayonnaise between slices of pan de agua from Porto's. It's a sinfully rich variation. "I had an uncle come from Miami and he tasted it," she says. "He said, 'Xiomara, that's a delicious sandwich . . . but it's much too upscale to be called a Cuban sandwich.' "

In the course of my research, I've heard debate over the use of butter, the right kind of mustard, the bread, the type of ham, the cheese and whether the roast pork should come from a young or mature pig. And I've learned not to incite arguments over the correct technique for manning la plancha.

Me, I think it's all about the pickle.

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RESOURCE GUIDE

FOOD: Cuban sandwiches are featured at Porto's Bakery, 315 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 956-5996; Cafe Atlantic, 53 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 796-7350; Cafe Tropical, 2900 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 661-8391; Versailles, 1415 S. La Cienega Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 289-0392.

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