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Mar 23, 2004 09:05 PM

Best Cuban Sandwich in Chicago

  • c

The post below about ten best sandwiches and an ongoing post on NYC board prompts me to ask for recommendations of the best Cuban in Chicago. I will be in NYC soon and will check out some of those recos, but I am in Chicago much more often and would love to learn about and enjoy this sandwich experience. I must say that from my reading, there seem to be a lot of variations on the theme, or maybe there is not a quintessential Cuban.

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  1. Cappy, I am still looking for that perfect Cuban here. Many recommend San Juan Bakery, but I cannot endorse it becuase of the Kraft American Slices that go on the sanwich.

    I made regular stops during my years in New York at Havana Chelsea on Eighth Avenue around 19th Street, a non descript diner run by a Cuban family. Great food with daily specials. The large Cuban is a crispy belly buster for four bucks...a more than satisfying version IMO. There's also a small deli on the Ground Floor of Independence Plaza at Harrison and Greenwich STREET that outs together a pretty good cuban. It's called simply IP Deli.

    A couple of folks here have mentioned a good deli on Irving Park with a steam table of caribbean delights. The name escapes me at this point. But, they have been accused of making a good cuban.

    In my opinion, the typical Gonnella bread that one finds at a Chicago deli or beef place is the problem with the Chicago Cuban. It gets tough when its pressed rather than crispy. San Juan would be the clear winner if they would add a little garlicky aoli and swiss cheese. Their bread is tops.

    That thread has certainly

    4 Replies
    1. re: YourPalWill

      Opps, the "place on Irving Park" is actually on Devon. It's called La Unica.

      1. re: Your PalWill

        As a sidebar to this discussion, having just been to Cuba earlier this year, there is no such thing as an authentic Cuban sandwich here in Chicago. If there were, there would be no Chowhound discussion about them, as they looked perfectly dreadful in Havana. Food is rationed for the Cuban people and only tourists have access to what little they have in the way of meat. I saw no "Cuban" sandwiches in restaurants and the sandwiches I saw being sold on the streets or in tiny storefronts to locals looked like they consisted of a lousy bun, a piece of lettuce, tomato, and mystery meat. My wife and I are usually game to try any local specialty but these looked atrocious. Unfortunately, until El Commandante has a much needed reunion with Stalin, Mao, etc.,(which most Cuban people are praying for)the best Cuban food will be outside Cuba.

        1. re: RevrendAndy

          I think the roots of the "authentic" Cuban sandwiche can be found in Miami, not Havanna.

          1. re: Steve Z

            Well, maybe not. It seems pretty clear that the sandwich originated in Havana or Tampa, or both around 1900. At that point, there was no "Miami," just an idea hatched by Henry Flagler who had just extended the rail line to Base Town. Certainly no Cubans there. PS, that's a good point Reverend, about the sad state of food (and more important, human existence) in Cuba today. Again, the idea that Cuban sandwiches (or any other Cuban food) made by balseros or other very recent Cuban immigrants are more "authentic" is a little specious. That might hold true for just about any other immigrant group (see the vast discussions of why Chicago Mexican is closer to its roots than more established, more "Americanized" Mexican in the Southwest). But in Cuba, by all accounts, the glory days of the cuisine are in the distant past. Little if any culinary evolution has happened since then.

    2. You know, if you look back at posts here and on other boards (notably Florida) as well as a good article by Johnny Apple in the NYTimes a few years back, you'll have a good primer on Cuban sandwiches.

      In fact, like other great sandwiches, although there exists some acceptable variation, the real deal is quite narrowly defined. I've written this before, but its easier to rewrite than to find.

      First things first: the bread. Understand that true Cuban bread is a very serious and fine form in and of itself. The greatest Cuban bread factory, La Segunda in Tampa, has been making Cuban bread since 1915. According to people who know about this stuff, it is a fairly complicated thing to do right. Outside of Tampa and Miami, it simply does not exist. The Apple article quotes NY chefs who readily admit that a great Cuban cannot be had in NYC because the bread does not exist. See the link about La Segunda, below. Cuban bread itself has some variation. Both the Segunda recipe and the recipes used in Miami (which call for much more lard) are from Cuba. Here, in Chicago, there used to be a Cuban bakery, Las Villas, that made passable Cuban bread as recently as the mid-90's. Not so now.

      A Cuban sandwich must have the following: ham, Swiss cheese, and roast pork. It should also have mustard and pickles. It may also have Genoa salami. It rarely, but sometimes, has mortadella. Buttering the bread is a good idea, too. The genoa and mort variations are mostly to be had in Tampa, where many argue the sandwich was invented to feed the Cuban, Spanish, and Sicilian cigar rollers. Relatives from Cuba (who never lived in Tampa) put salami on Cubans. Commercial pork roast "lunchmeat" from Boars Head, etc, is disgusting and shouldn't be used. Deli turkey is no substitute for lechon. (However, the day after Thanksgiving each year, we use the dark meat from our leftover turkey "chon" for Cubans. Pretty good.)

      The sandwich should be wrapped in white paper, pressed on a "plancha," and sliced diagonally. The very best Cubans come from bakeries that make their own bread and also use their ovens to roast the pork and bake the ham. There was one such place in Tampa, since shuttered, called the Vienna Bakery. I have yet to find a replacement. At a minimum, you want to find a place that roasts its own pork. Here, La Unica is an example. Eat the sandwich there. Otherwise, do not have it pressed. You can press it at home on a George Foreman grill or in a hot pan with a brick on top. This is not a sloppy overstuffed sandwich. It is a model of balance and restraint. The fillings should be contained by the bread.

      In Tampa, you might also see a "super" with lettuce, tomato, and mayo added. In Miami, you might see a "Miami sandwich," which, by adding bacon to the super, makes for a Cuban-meets-BLT. Not bad, but not really a Cuban.

      But you asked about good Cubans here in Chicago. That's a question that's been answered probably scores of times. For the best all-around experience, including the bread (a Mexican-style French that well approximates Cuban, according to an interesting post last year), go to Marianao. The downside is the use of processed "Swiss." La Unica is also great. Have a bowl of garbanzos and an Iron Beer with your sandwich. Ambassador makes an ok Cuban, but the pan con lechon (more roast pork, wet with mojo and onions, but none of the other stuff) is better on the chewy, Italian beef-type bread.

      Also interesting is the folk art that comes with Cuban sandwich shops in Florida. The typical sign has a dramatic Cuban presented in dwindling perspective like a rushing train engine. Wish someone would do a Cuban project like our own Gyros project to document these vanishing treasures.


      13 Replies
      1. re: JeffB


        Interesting post. I've read the Apple article, which is how I found Latin American Cafeteria on Coral Way in Miami, my benchmark Cuban Sandwich.

        My two favorite Chicago Cuban sandwiches are, as your's Marianao and La Unica, though I, slightly, prefer Marianao.

        There is a fun to read mustard/no mustard thread on Chowhound, it is at least 50-posts long and a few people get mildly worked up. (smile)


        La Unica
        1515 W. Devon Ave.
        Chicago, IL

        Cafeteria Marianao
        2246 N. Milwaukee Ave.
        Chicago, IL 60647
        M-Sat 7-7
        Sunday 7-6
        Parking lot.

        The Latin American Cafeteria
        2940 Coral Way
        Miami, FL.


        1. re: G Wiv

          Wow, what a string. That's way before my Chowhound time. I wish I had been there to weigh in. The thing that struck me most was Jonathan Gold's fundamentally misinformed and ad hominem response to the Tampa posters regarding the origins of the sandwich and its accepted ingredients. He claims that the Cuban "diaspora" in the US is recent enough to permit him to make facile claims about authenticity. This misses the point that Cuba is a big country with regional traditions and differences. It also misses the point that there have been significant Cuban populations in Key West and Tampa since the late 1800's, and that there was a very regular exchange of ideas, food and people among these places long before Castro. I happen to have grown up in a Cuban neighborhood in Tampa. I also married into a restaurant-owning family that moved to Chicago, Miami and LA from Havana and Oriente in the 50's, so I have a couple of pretty good sources of information. I like the guy's work in general, but he really showed his ass in that Cubano string.

          1. re: JeffB


            Before my Chowhound time as well, Zim turned me on to the thread last year.


            1. re: G Wiv


              I enjoyed the post and the sharing of your wealth of information about the Cuban Sandwich. I only have one comment in response to your:

              >>>Wish someone would do a Cuban project like our own Gyros project to document these vanishing treasures.>>>

              Like the little brown man from India used to say "Be the change you want to see...."

              Set the parameters, devise the strategy, inform the CH masses and holler "ready, set, go!"


        2. re: JeffB

          JeffB: Many thanks for the highly informative post and the link to the Cuban bakery site... The only thing I wanted more was a photo of a sandwich, but that might have been too much to bear...

          1. re: Antonius


            Incredibly enough, I haven't taken a picture of a Cuban sandwich. Looks like Marianao is in my very near future.

            How about a Jibarito from Borinquen to hold you over? [smile]


            Borinquen Restaurant
            1720 N. California Ave
            Chicago, IL

            Jibarito from Borinquen


            1. re: G Wiv

              AAAAAHHHHH... This is torture!... I know lots of people feel there is special dispensation to break the Lenten fast for St. Patrick's day. According to my calendar, today is the Festa di Santa Caterina di Svezia; is there dispensation granted for this Saint's day??? Or is that by any chance a piece of disguised tofu? (just hoping)...

              Thanks, Gary... I suspect Amata and I will be heading to Borinquen, Marianao and La Unica in the near future (I'm writing to the Pope now)...

          2. re: JeffB

            JeffB, and others - have you tried the cuban at express cafe on clark just south of devon? i ask because the reason I like their cuban better is because of IMO better bread (whether authentic or not I don't know, and they definitely don't bake or roast in house). I've had la unica, and they're fine for me and marianao's don't do much for me - I think where they shine are ont he steak sandwiches.

            1. re: zim

              Zim, I have not been to Express, but I'll put it at the top of my list.

              1. re: zim


                How long has Cuban Express been there? I don't remember ever seeing it before.

                High on my must try list though, thanks.



                1. re: zim

                  I stopped in Express Cafe, today, for a little lunch and the lowdown. I had tried the cubano prviously, but was left with very little impression of any sort. Zim's rave had me hightailing it back. ;)

                  Unless requested otherwise, the sandwich consists of split buttered Gonella bread (I asked), swiss, downmarket deli ham, shreds of roast pork, yellow mustard, and pickle chips.

                  I asked whether the roast pork in the sandwich was pressed into service for any of the Mexican menu items. "No," was the answer. As luck would have it, they were in the process of roasting a whole leg. The counterwoman described it as "pierna, Cuban-style."

                  As to the sandwich? Fine by me. I couldn't say it is any better than the one I had at Cafe LaGuardia, last year. Not having tried Mariano's, I can only say that my local favourite remains La Unica.

                  BTW, she strongly recommended a dish called "Lechon Asado," on the Cuban menu. It is this same shredded roast pork, tossed on the grill and liberally seasoned with spices. When I asked which spices, she pointed to a series of cannisters on top of the grill. ;) Apparently, given a headcount, they will prepare an entire Cuban-style feast, featuring the pork, as well as rice, beans, and plantains.

                  Erik M.

                  Express Cafe
                  5973 N. Clark Street

                  1. re: Erik M.


                    sorry to hear about your experience - went by after reading your post - same place, different folks, different bread, worse sandwich, and apparently its been different folks for a while.

                    ahh well

                2. re: JeffB

                  Thanks for all of the information, and not being constrained by Lenten considerations, I will make a trip to La Unica and Marianao soon! The R.W. Apple article to which you refer is attached for all who did not read it. Thanks again!

                  BTW, is there anyone who has a cooler job than Mr. Apple? Perhaps the Sterns, but not many others. I understand he was the NYT correspondent in Vietnam in the 1960's, so he has earned his stripes and deserves the current gig.