Is This the Greatest Sandwich Feud of All Time?
Get to know Miami’s favorite–and most controversial–meal.
Cubans have been immigrating to Miami long before the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980 saw more than 100,000 people leave their home country for a new one. They’ve brought their hopes and dreams, along with their culture and cuisine. No aspect of the Cuban migration to America has been more widely embraced than the Cuban sandwich, a staple at countless sandwich shops and restaurants across the country. Ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, a few spices, and bread. That’s it. So how can something so simple generate so much debate? To press or not to press? Soft bread or crusty? What about turkey and salami? Cuban sandwich devotees duke it out over these details. The difference of opinion has even sparked a sandwich feud between the cities of Miami and Tampa Bay. While this article won’t put those hostilities to rest, it will guide you to the best Cuban sandwiches in Miami —according to Miami locals and Cuban sandwich experts—allowing you to decide for yourself which ‘wich is best.
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Sanguich De Miami
WHERE: Little Havana
Can a relative upstart have the best Cuban sandwich in Miami? Andrew Huse thinks so. He wrote the book on Cuban sandwiches. Literally. His book, The Cuban Sandwich: A History in Layers, scheduled to publish in September of 2022 and co-authored with Jeff Houck and Dr. Bárbara C. Cruz, recounts the sandwich’s arrival in South Florida, its evolution, and the debates over its peculiarities.
He admires how Sanguich “curates” its sandwiches rather than just buying ingredients and assembling them. Sanguich crafts all of its ingredients. Customers will taste the effort. What started in a converted shipping container in 2017 has evolved into a tidy permanent home with seating for 25. (Arrive early to avoid the lines.)
Daniel Figueredo and Rosa Romero’s traditional Cuban restaurant brines its ham for a week and marinates its lechon (pork) for 24 hours. The bread is brushed with rendered down lard applied before pressing until warm and crisp.
From the brass trimmings, floating tables, and Cuban tiles to the enticing aromas emanating from the kitchen and the delighted sounds of patrons devouring their sandwiches—Sanguich makes guests think they’re in Cuba.
La Carreta (The Oxcart)
WHERE: Multiple locations
The most widely agreed upon original Cuban sandwich recipe features ham and mojo roast pork marinated with citrus (sour orange and/or lime), garlic, and dry oregano served on “fluted” Cuban bread with Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. Cuban bread is also known as “water bread” or pan de agua and is made without lard or fat. Real Cuban bread is stale by the end of the day due to its lack of preservatives.
A mile and a half down SW 8th Street from Sanguich, La Carretta’s Calle Ocho origins in Little Havana date back to 1976, making it one of the city’s standard bearers of Cuban sandwiches. Its popularity has sprouted nine locations across town, including one at Miami International Airport’s Concourse D.
El Rey de las Fritas
WHERE: Multiple locations
Victoriano “Benito” Gonzalez and his wife Angelina “Gallega” Gonzalez share a story with millions of Cuban exiles. The couple fled the political turmoil in their home for greater opportunities in Miami, arriving in the 1970s. In 1976 they opened their business, a restaurant located on–you guessed it–Calle Ocho. Three other locations have been added to the original. While El Rey de Las Fritas (the king of frits) may be more famous for its Frita Cubana – Cuban hamburger (hamburgers topped with shoestring potatoes)–its Cuban sandwich has produced legions of devotees as well.
Mary’s Café and Coin Laundry
WHERE: Coconut Grove
Farris Bukhari spends most of his time fighting to protect Florida’s natural splendor as Director of Strategic Communications & Marketing for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. In a state increasingly overrun by development, that work builds up quite an appetite. Where does he find the strength to engage in the uphill battle to save Florida’s wildlife and wildlands?
“If you want a true local’s go-to, a hidden gem that does mouth-wateringly good Cuban sandwiches–and the best breakfast plates in Miami–is a joint called Mary’s Coin Laundry,” Bukhari advises. “Yes, it actually is a coin laundry as well as a Cuban café.” He would know. Mary’s is only a few blocks from his house. It gets even better. Mary’s sandwiches are huge, cheap, and served 24-hours a day !
Versailles Restaurant’s la Ventanita
WHERE: Little Havana
Raquel V. Reyes, author of Mango, Mambo and Murder, a Miami-based cozy mystery book, shares this secret about finding a Cuban sandwich in Miami.
“The best are always from a ventanita (little window) that uses an aluminum-covered brick on their plancha (press) to get the sandwich as thin as possible,” she says.
Located virtually across the street from La Carreta on SW 8th, Versailles serves authentic Cuban sandwiches out of its la ventanita. As to the press, that strikes at the greatest difference between Miami Cuban sandwiches and Tampa Cuban sandwiches. The bread used for Tampa sandwiches is craggy, crusty, uneven. It’s messy and crackly. You can see the difference. The bread used in Miami Cuban sandwiches is soft, with the press employed to make them crispy.
El Palacio de los Jugos
WHERE: Multiple locations
Another Miami original, El Palacio de Los Jugos (the palace of juices), opened its first location at NW 57th Avenue and West Flagler Street back in 1977. Their 10 locations around town are impossible to overlook thanks to their gold and red roofs.
In addition to prepared dishes, El Palacio de Los Jugos features small bodegas inside their stores where fresh fruit and staples can be purchased. All locations are open-air, so be warned if you’re visiting in the summer or if it’s raining.
Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop
As a reporter for Miami’s WLRN, Danny Rivero’s job is to be informed about the city. His favorite Cuban sandwich can be found at Enriqueta’s.
“It’s a crowd favorite that has been there forever–well before it was a trendy place,” he says. Cramped inside with counter and table-top seating, Enriqueta’s has variously been described as a “hole-in-the-wall joint” and “funky dive.” Enriqueta’s also offers a walk-up ventanita for when the lunchtime crowds burst out of the dining room.
How good is the food here? The restaurant stays packed despite not having a website. Enriqueta’s is a throwback to the days when social media was word of mouth.
David’s Café Cafecito
WHERE: Miami Beach
Miami isn’t only worth visiting for its Cuban sandwiches. It has South Beach and Art Basel, and the Florida Everglades. Everglades National Park west of Miami offers 1.5 million acres of a unique and vanishing ecosystem. It’s the only place where alligators and crocodiles live side-by-side. Begoñe Cazalis is Director of Communications at The Everglades Foundation, which works to restore and protect the ecological wonderland.
“I remember that when I first arrived in Miami in 1998, the first thing my dad took me to do that same night after we landed was to go have a medianoche (midnight) Cuban sandwich at the old David’s Café on Washington Avenue around 1 AM.”
David’s 40-plus-year history has now taken it inside the swanky Shelborne Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, where you can enjoy your Cuban sandwich or café con leche (coffee with milk) while soaking up the sunshine poolside or oceanside.
Manolo & Rene Grill
About that medianoche .
The Cuban sandwich originated as a society meal. Cuban bread is not made at home–the climate is too hot for that–and the ingredients were expensive since they were imported. Its popularity boomed to the point of becoming a status symbol following Cuban independence (1898).
Carriage riders across Havana were seen late at night showing off their small white paper bags with red stripes containing a sandwich inside.
“You’re going out, and that’s your last stop of the night–getting a sandwich after you’ve been drinking rum and dancing,” Huse explains. “For many people, that became the life-saving morsel at the end of the night, so much so that they adapted the sandwich to the medianoche –which is a smaller sandwich, suitable for a lady after the theatre to eat by herself.”
Historically, it was served on softer egg bread. “You can eat that at 1:00 in the morning and not have indigestion at the end of the night,” Huse adds.
Today, there’s little difference between a classic Cuban sandwich and a medianoche , except for when it’s served. Manolo & Rene Grill offers both 24-hours a day for those wishing to partake of the old-school “midnight” Cuban sandwich tradition.
Tinta y Café
WHERE: Coral Gables and Miami Shores
For a modern twist on the classic Cuban, try Tinta y Café, which adds mortadella –GASP!– a pork sausage with fat cubes originating in Italy, to its Patria (homeland) sandwich. This, however, could be the most traditional Cuban sandwich of all.
While the Cuban sandwich was invented in Cuba, “It became the Cuban sandwich when it migrated to the United States,” Huse says. “In Cuba, it was just a mixed sandwich or a mixto –a lot of people just knew it as ‘the’ sandwich.”
As the mixto name implies, the Cuban sandwich began as an amorphous creation. Why not Italian pork today? After all, pigs are not native to Cuba; they were brought over by the Spanish. Tinta translates to “ink” in English, a nod to the café’s literary side.
Las Dos Palmas
Another family-owned neighborhood spot whose looks can be deceiving, Las Dos Palmas (the two palms), conveniently serves up traditional Cuban fare to visitors and residents on the south side of the city. Visiting Zoo Miami ? Make this your lunch stop. You can identify its classic Miami Cuban sandwich pedigree just by looking at it.
“(In) Miami, the top of the bread is smooth, pressed thin,” Huse explains. “(Miami) Bread (is) cooked on a pan instead of in a hearth.”
Miami popularized the electric press in the late 1950s/early 1960s, which is now standard. Previous to that, a tailor’s iron or hot skillet placed on top of sandwiches was used to smush them down. The press was needed in Miami to give the bread there its toastiness. Miami Cuban sandwiches are served hot as opposed to the Tampa variety, which can be served at room temperature and maintain its crispy crunchiness.
Las Olas Café
WHERE: Miami Beach
“If you want to understand modern Cuba, you have to look at the Cuban sandwich,” Huse says. “It’s far more complex, it’s far more modern, it’s portable, it’s much more expensive, it depends on lots of imported ingredients and a lot of industrial processing. It’s a much more complicated animal and–I think–a lot like Cuba, it’s very difficult to find a consensus about what exactly a Cuban sandwich is.”
Much of the same could be said about Miami, particularly its greater complexity, modernity, and expense, not to mention varying ideas about what the city represents, who it’s for, and what its future should be.
While the future is in question, few people are more expert on Miami’s past than Nicholas Griffin. The author recounts one tumultuous, complicated year in Miami’s history, which reads like an edge-of-your-seat thriller in his book The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami 1980. This pivotal year, after which the city would never be the same, included the Mariel Boat Lift.
Griffin’s favorite Cuban sandwich is served at Las Olas café on Miami Beach.