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Jun 23, 2009 11:46 AM

Birmingham - Kool Korner

Stopped in around 30 minutes ago to try a cubano from Kool Korner, formerly of Midtown (Atlanta).

More background here:

And from chowhound South searches from its former Atlanta incarnation.

I've loved Cubanos since I first tried one in El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain, MA circa 2002 or so. Multiple places in Boston served them, some super-traditional and some with the more bastardized versions including the lettuce, tomatoes, onions and mayo or a combination of the above. The short of it is that you have the Non-Ambiguously Awsome Pork Duo (ham and roasted pork, hopefully roasted on site). with pickles and yellow mustard, topped with cheese, and pressed between two pieces of cuban bread. But you all know that.

I ordered a Cubano and when she asked what toppings I thought I said traditional but it came out (eventually) loaded with the lettuce, tomatoes, onions and mayo. I say eventually because out of the +/- 10 cubano places in MA, GA and AL (no FL ones yet) at which I have eaten, all sandwiches are made to order by someone that would make a turtle's lack of speed pale in comparison. In this case per the story on and the chowhound posts, it's 86 year old Ildefonso Ramirez who has earned his Cubano street cred so I just happily thanked him as he brought out the sandwich with a big smile telling me (and every other customer) how much he hoped I would enjoy his sandwich.

Even though it included the other condiments and salad, it was still pretty awesome. Now mind you I have been lamenting the lack of good cubanos here since 280 Cuban Grill closed and it was only so-so anyway. Don't get me started on the thing at Cantina, a place I otherwise love.

The roasted pork … I heart me some pig so really this is not a stretch, but it was delicious and thankfully not dry, partially, I assume, as a result of all of the mojo. I never really go into too much detail on tastes as I think they're very subjective, but if you want porky, melty pressed sandwich goodness in the Magic City, this is your best shot.

FWIW, I never tried the cubano from Kool Korner when it was open in Atlanta. I do admit liking the ones at Havana Sandwich on Buford Hwy that I tried twice as takeout.

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  1. Thanks for the report...I will have to run by one evening after work.

    1. I agree on the Havana Sandwich Shop on Buford Highway. I started eating Cubanos there when I was still in high school in the 1970s.
      Alas, it burned down within the last year. Don't know if it has reopened, but articles at the time did not sound hopeful. Anyone know if it proved to be yet another Atlanta phoenix?

      2 Replies
      1. re: Big Daddy

        IIRC, they moved to the 'burbs. I'm envious of the KK in B'ham. With KK, Havana Sandwich, Happy Herman's, etc, gone, there aren't nearly as many options for Cuban sandwiches around.

        1. re: Big Daddy

          Aww man I ate there last a little over a year or so ago as my friend lived reasonably close on Roswell Rd.

          But found this recent blog article which indicates they a) plan to re-open again at Burford and Clairmont and b) opened another location in Canton, GA right after the fire.

        2. I'm new to B'ham, and was psyched to read about this place. I had never gotten a cuban with shredded lettuce, so that was a bit of a scare, but it was indeed very tasty. Definitely the pork that makes it happen. Btw, thanks to Big Daddy and Dax for the copious chow info on these boards. Slowly working my way through all of your recs...

          21 Replies
          1. re: tristana

            I went to Kool Korner today. Spare menu. Sandwiches only. No black bean soup or yellow rice (Havana Sandwich Shop spoiled me). But Kool Korner makes a great Cuban sandwich. Both the ham and roast pork are very good. The bread is awesome, crusty to begin with, then downright flaky after pressing.
            If you like to slather your Cubano with Mojo Criollo, I suggest you bring your own. There is none on the table, and my request for some earned me an ounce or so poured into a mini cup.

            1. re: Big Daddy

              The last time I went about a month back, I ordered the classic (no extra toppings/condiments this time) and they asked if I wanted mojo on the side. After saying yes, I received a solo souffle cup on the side which was enough.

              When I was in Tampa last week and had a cubano, the KK one was close in taste and prep.

              1. re: Big Daddy

                KK now has black bean soup, along with tamales and fabulous guava pastelitos for a measly 85 cents.

                  1. re: johnnystiletto

                    I agree both are great. I ate a pastelito two days later and it was still good.

                    1. re: johnnystiletto

                      I haven't been able to find a good tamale anywhere in Bham! What's your verdict on KK's tamales?

                      1. re: sheilal

                        haven't had the tamales YET, but have seen a number of people getting them to go. also saw a couple next to me eating them and they looked and smelled WONDERFUL. at $1.05 (i think) each, there's no reason for me not to try one next time i go.

                        1. re: johnnystiletto

                          The tamales are one of several improvements to Kool Korner.
                          They are very hearty for $1.05, and nice and moist with lots of flavor from the lard and broth mixed with the masa. It reminded me of a steamed version of Southern cornbread, with bits of pork instead of cracklins and green or red chiles added to the masa. Not heavy on the meat, but it's big on flavor.
                          The new(ish) black bean soup also is very good. Obviously house-made, brothier than the version I've had at other Cuban restaurants but very tasty. The bacon and vegetables add to the complexity of flavors.
                          The classic cuban sandwich is much improved, in my opinion. It was perfectly pressed and warm throughout (the latter has been a complaint in the past for me). The meat was plentiful. And the roast pork! Oh my, that was so good. The mojo marinade came through so well in the finished product, it tasted like it had been braised in mojo criollo. It was one of the best Cuban sandwiches I've ever had -- including from Kool Korner's former Atlanta rival Havana Sandwich Shop.
                          I'll go out of my way for more of that.

                          1. re: Big Daddy

                            Did any type of sauce accompany the tamale or was it served plain? Plain tamales are a little dry to me ... although I gues they do have hot sauce on the tables.

                            1. re: Big Daddy

                              Big Daddy, have you tried a pastelito there yet?

                              1. re: johnnystiletto

                                No. That's next on my list. I'm very glad they have expanded their menu.

                                1. re: Big Daddy

                                  A friend and I split a guava pastelito a few weeks ago. My half was so good that I had to order another one, all for myself. I've only been to Kool Korner twice, but the improvement in the food between the first and second time was remarkable. I'll definitely be back soon.

                                  1. re: bryantuga

                                    I've been there once and sadly was not impressed at all. That was about six months ago.

                                    I can't remember exactly what I ordered but I remember leaving wondering what all the fuss was about.

                                    I will say the gentleman that owns it was great fun to talk with. And he loves to talk politics.

                                    I'd like to give it another shot. Someone please tell me: what's the best? I'm adventurous, just want it to taste great.

                                    1. re: deepfriedkudzu

                                      Did you not have the traditional cuban? I love a good cuban and to me, they can be fairly sublime. But I know some others that think, meh, it's just a pressed sandwich/panini. They can be a little dry too which is why I always ask for a little mojo on the side. Maybe go with someone else and split a large traditional, bowl of black bean soup, have a tamale each (I have not tried them yet) and then finish off with a guava pastelito

                                      1. re: Dax

                                        DFK: I also had been underwhelmed in the past until my visit last week. The flavor and execution of the classic cuban had improved 10-fold. The additional items (I had both the soup and the tamale) were well-executed. You should give it another try.

                                        1. re: Dax

                                          @Dax: that's exactly what I'll do. Thanks.

                                          @Big Daddy: I will. Wonder what's with the (positive) change?

                                          1. re: deepfriedkudzu

                                            Tried the Cuban again a couple of weeks ago. Mirasol made the sandwich (she made it the first time I was there months ago too) while the lovely Cuban gentleman tried to figure out the cash register. I like them both a lot.

                                            Cuban was dry. Again. Forgot to ask for extra mojo on the side. Otherwise fine.

                                            Got a Cuban with meat and bread only for my husband (he's a purist) - the owner lit up! He said "your husband...he is from Cuba?" and I said that he wasn't, just that he likes certain things in their most basic form, and for him sandwiches consist of, well, bread and meat only. I wonder if in Cuba that the sandwiches aren't dressed like we have things here. Hmmm.

                                            I did have a guava and cream cheese pastelito and that was very nice.

                                            We also ordered the tamales. Now, when I think 'tamale' I think 'Delta tamale' which is dense, spicy, and has a very visible tunnel of protein through the center. Just have to plug, Hick's in Clarksdale = best ever Delta tamale.

                                            At Kool Korner, the masa is actually sweet which took some getting used to. And the meat seemed as though it was incorporated throughout the tamale, not just in the center, and the meat pieces themselves were very small. There were a few bites when I got that distinctive cracklin' taste (like in cracklin' cornbread), I imagine from the ratio of lean to fat that he uses. The tamales were a nice size and wrapped in cornhusks.

                                            In Birmingham, I think these are my new favorite tamales. They aren't 'Delta tamales' but distinctive and delicious. They also cost less at KK than VJ's and the tamale place in Hueytown.

                                            Have we already gone through the better tamale places in town (of any genre)? Kool Korner is getting my vote.

                                            1. re: deepfriedkudzu

                                              How would you rate the tamales at KK compared to the legendary, now defunct, Manchas?

                                              1. re: sheilal

                                                Sheilal, what year did Manchas close? This is the spot in 5 Points where there is a new restaurant every six months, right?

                                                I'm not a B'ham native and somehow never made it there so I can't compare.

                                                Where are your favorite tamales?

                                                1. re: deepfriedkudzu

                                                  Sorry, DFK, I thought you were native. You're correct about Manchas being in 5 Pts. It was legendary and had the BEST tamales around. Nothing I've had around here comes close, that's why I asked about the comparison to KK.

                                                  My favorite tamalas are sadly, in Chicago, in the Pilsen part of town.. But on the bright side, my daughter is coming down for the holidays and always brings me a couple of dozen. Pork & onion, spicy chicken, shredded beef with peppers, yum . . .

                                                  D's in Hueytown is passable. The mexican places around town fall far short, oddly. Too much masa, or too dry masa seems to be the prevailing diagnosis. I wonder if the taco truck has tamalas . . .

                      1. re: Jninda

                        It's in the Publix plaza on U.S. 31, just south of the Vestavia City Center. It's on the end of the row of stores that are at a 90-degree angle from the Publix.