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Searching for the perfect Cuban

By ALEXANDRA TIRADO

For a common food here, the Cuban sandwich is definitely well-regarded compared to all its peers. Sure, the grilled cheese and its croque-monsieur cousin are beloved by sandwich lovers, but there just seems to be something about the Cuban that makes it stand out. Maybe it is the cultural charge that it brings along. After all, its conception is shaped by the stories of the Cuban immigration to Tampa and Key West during the late 1800s. Or it may just be the fact that pickles, salami and a bit of mustard was really all the ham and cheese sandwich needed to achieve perfection. Either way, that and so much more was celebrated at the Cuban Sandwich Festival in Ybor city on April 1.

THE FESTIVAL

Rather than an exclusively Cuban festival, this event was more of a Latin festival. There was live salsa music and the trucks didn’t limit themselves to Cuban sandwiches. Instead, while almost all of the carts included some variation of the  Cuban on their menu, some had other typical Latin foods like empanadas and choclos (a type of sweet corn cake). There was also classic Latin American attire and accessories for sale in some carts.

THE UNNECESSARY NECESSITY

The Best Piña Colada truck

You would think that the sandwiches would be the main attraction at a Cuban sandwich festival, but at a street with no tents and the temperature at 82 degrees plus humidity, it was no surprise that piña coladas and coconut water stole the show. You could hardly look around without seeing a giant coconut or pineapple in people’s hands. And, with all the delicious food to eat and the heat from the sun beating down, it was really the perfect marriage.

THE OL’ RELIABLE

Authentic Latin truck

Of course, one of the most crowded trucks was the 2015 World’s Best Cuban winner. Unlike the other trucks, they only sold Cuban sandwiches and drinks, but their main attraction was worth the wait. Their Cuban sandwich was amazing; the bread struck a perfect balance between soft and crunchy. The only thing I found weird was the fact that it didn’t really have mustard, which is one of the main ingredients of a Cuban. Nevertheless, it did not disappoint.

THE MOST DISAPPOINTING

Smoke Showin’ Catering truck

Of all the trucks, the most appealing one was The Smoke. It had a big black tent, a lot of signs and, on top of everything, everything there was smoked. Their version of the Cuban sandwich looked and smelled amazing! Aside from all the traditional ingredients, they added smoked guava pork, BBQ sauce, sweet ham and Jerk Mayo. After a long ten minutes, the first bite finally came, and it was… disappointing. The flavors did not blend well. There was too much sweetness and not enough saltiness. What was expected to be a glorious parade of flavors turned into a homogeneous sweet aftertaste that just didn’t live up to the expectations. It was not that it was bad, it just wasn’t good enough.

THE FRANKENSTEIN  

Authentic Empanadas truck

People are calling Infinity Wars the most ambitious crossover in history, but after Sunday, I think that award needs to go to Authentic Empanadas. Three words: Cuban sandwich empanada. It is literally an empanada filled with the ingredients of a Cuban sandwich. Not much can be said to explain the genius deliciousness of this dish.

THE “WHY IS THIS EVEN A THING”

Hawaiian Honey Cones tent

“It looks as if someone grabbed a giant bugle, filled it with okay ice cream, put honey over it, and shaped it like a dildo.”

That was what my friend Sara Diaz, a UT alumna, said after she saw me eating the Hawaiian Honey Cone. Why there was a tent selling Hawaiian Honey Cones in a Cuban sandwich festival, I’ll never know. But, in the corner of the festival, there was a quirky old man who was telling people about corn. The man explained that they took their finest corn, turned it into a J-shaped cone and filled it with rare honey and specially-made ice cream. After spending $6.75 on the novelty snack, I can say that Sara’s explanation was pretty on-point. The taste was underwhelming, or maybe I didn’t get enough time to savor it since it was melting from both sides and had to be eaten quickly, and I definitely felt a little uncomfortable eating it in front of little kids. Not a good look.

THE BEST ONE

Manolito’s Food truck

Simplicity is often times the best answer. This overlooked tent was placed right in front of the stage. Not a lot of people came by, and they took about 15 minutes to prepare a sandwich. I stopped on my way out, and I regret nothing. It was a traditional Cuban sandwich – salami, ham, cheese, mustard and pickles. However, the bread was buttery and soft, the ratio of the ingredients was on point and the overall taste was glorious. The perfect ending to a delicious culinary journey.

Alexandra Tirado can be reached at alexandra.tirado@theminaretonline.com

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