Romancing the sandwich

An expatriate's search for the best Cuban sandwich in San Antonio

click to enlarge A Cuban sandwich at La Marginal, flanked by plantain chips.
A Cuban sandwich at La Marginal, flanked by plantain chips.
Release Date: 2004-03-11

At the 45th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, America's frigid foreign policy with the Carribbean island has barely changed. Despite Americans' demand for the country's rich and eclectic culture - and for all things Cuban - Americans are forbidden to spend money in Cuba, and the embargo has prevented Cuban products from legally entering the United States. At least one of the island's treasures - the Cuban sandwich - can be found at a few locations in San Antonio.

In salty air with light breezes wafting through open windows, Havana abuelas are still cutting thick slices of roast pork and ham and French bread, and pressing them together on a toaster with mustard, pickles, and Swiss cheese. The result is a hearty, meaty taste sweetened by the pickles, as hot as the white sands of Varadero beach.

During the flood of Cuban immigration to the U.S. in the 1960s, a few souls made it past the palm trees to south Texas, bringing with them the sensual pleasure of sweet fried ripe plantain bananas (maduros), freshly cut and double-fried tostones, soft fried yucca with garlic sauce, and a thick, hot sandwich worth swimming the Florida Straits for. In Texas, a handful of would-be socialist sandwich chefs think they can jump on the raft of authentic Medianoche-makers by labeling a sandwich "Cuban" - without subscribing to the standards that are as sincere as Jose Martí himself.

The Texas version is noticeably smaller, compared to the half-sandwich you would take home from any cafetería in Miami's Little Havana. This goes for all four of the restaurants where the writer presented his pesos: the Puerto Rican restaurants Bruno's (527 W. Hildebrand, 735-3605) and La Marginal (2447 Nacogdoches, 804-2242), as well as the Latin American café Azúca (713 S. Alamo, 225-5550), and the deli at Central Market (4821 Broadway, 368-8600).

The dingy feel of Bruno's harkens to Soviet-era Cuba, with red chairs and floors. It's best visited after siesta, as its Puerto Rican owners are slow to start the work day. Spanish soap operas blare from the dining room television, illuminated by a single window in the front of the narrow building. The food is equally mediocre, and served warm - not hot.

Bruno's menu boasts a variety of Cuban dishes such as Ropa Vieja (shredded beef), Bistec Empanizado (breaded, fried steak), and Paella (seafood with rice). Their Cuban sandwich is hot, but not crisp, and on this occasion was served without pickles, an ommission that would cause Che to roll over in his grave. The pork and ham were good, but thin. Bruno's fried tostones were tasty, unlike the over-fried yucca, with its thick globules of garlic sauce. One special treat at Bruno's is ham croquetas. This mixed meaty paste with a fried bread coating would be worth a night's stay at the Isla de Joventude's political prison. I recommend enjoying the dish with a glass of Goya malta or Iron Beer soda.

Although representative of the imperialist order that has suppressed the island nation for nearly a half-century, the H-E-B Central Market deli makes a fine "Cuban Press." This sandwich is served hot and properly toasted, with tender and juicy slices of pepper-crusted pork and ham, but the flavor is adulterated by one Italian immigrant that should be sent back to Argentina: salami. The sandwich is still excellent, and crunchy, with the meat's juices blending with the melted cheese and pickles just as they should. Enjoy your sandwich with a bag of Chifles plantain chips plucked from the grocery's chips aisle.

Azúca is a glamorous South Beach style café with flashy colors and a Latin style that is more atune to Havana's heyday, and offers a variety of dishes from around the hemisphere. Their Cuban sandwich, served with papitas fritas (french fries), is a filling and tasty effort, true to tradition, especially delightful with a mojito from the bar. Due to the embargo, Habana Club rum is not available, but Bacardi and crushed mint, sugar, and ice cubes (a commodity in the typical Cuban household), make for a fine drink. I also recommend sampling their fried yucca, served with Yankee sour cream.

Finally, as hidden as Fidel's guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra mountains, is a small Puerto Rican restaurant called La Marginal. The café truthfully declares itself as having the "Best Cuban Sandwiches" on its window, in glass paint that mimics the hand-drawn styles of Cuban particular (semi-private) shops. The interior is a refreshing mix of 1950s colors, with seats of bright teal, and walls adorned with images from the former Spanish bastion.

You can't find a better sandwich in Cuba's mano negra (black market). The sandwich is served with french fries, though I recommend substituting La Marginal's sweet and juicy platanos maduros, a welcome flavor in a city so far from the Banana Republics of the south. I believe no Cuban sandwich can be enjoyed without a can of Materva soda, which at La Marginal will be poured over a glass of ice and served with a straw. And, as if the delicious marriage of atmosphere, sandwich, and drink were not enough, La Marginal easily has the best fried yucca - enough to serve a whole barrio for $2.50. The yucca is served lightly fried and soft with a strong garlic paste that will tingle your palate, leaving you the happiest Communist this side of the Malecón. •

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