Cuban Sandwich Crisis: Taste of Cuba vs. Caribbean Cafe

Many people, when they consider Cuba, think of Fidel, Guantanamo Bay, the Bay of Pigs and cigars.

City of Ate thinks sandwiches.

Taking their cue from Caribbean, African and Spanish cuisine, Cubans have developed a flavor of their very own. Delicious are the many soups and stews, along with their own variety of tamales.

And did we mention the sandwiches? We really like the sandwiches.

Making a Cuban sandwich is a simple operation, but requires a specific bread to make it authentic. A true Cuban loaf looks something like a French baguette, but is flat with a hard, crusty exterior and flaky, delicate interior.

The sandwich itself includes layers of Serrano ham, cold roasted pork, Swiss cheese, sliced dill pickle and a slathering of bright yellow mustard. Variations include salami for a Tampa Cuban sandwich, or the use of an egg bread for a sandwich called the medianoche. The medianoche is typically eaten after midnight, as the name implies, after an evening in a nightclub.

Some may wish to include mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, but a sandwich purist would nix these items. But a proper Cuban always is buttered and pressed, not too unlike panini.

The sandwich migrated to the United States with Cubans fleeing Spanish rule in the 1800s. One of the first bakeries to make the unique bread used in the sandwich was established in 1896 and would distribute the special bread by slapping the loaf onto a nail at the front door of houses in Tampa. It was sold for a nickel.

Today the Cuban is enjoyed worldwide for its simple ingredients and complex flavors. Locally we can find variations of the Cuban across our city. The popular Italian grocer Jimmy's Foodstore has a version that is enjoyed by many, but the bread makes it less authentic -- though still delicious.

Today we look at a few options in Dallas for the popular sandwich. We found a really good version of the Cuban at the State Fair this week and wanted to compare the sandwich sold at the Taste of Cuba food booth to one of the popular established Cuban restaurants in the Dallas area. When asking around for a good comparison, the name of a Frisco restaurant popped up in many times. The Caribbean Cafe has a strong Cuban following and made perfect sense to help with our comparison today in what we will call the Toque to Toque Cuban Sandwich Crisis: Taste of Cuba vs. Caribbean Cafe.

We started our adventure in Caribbean dining at the State Fair of Texas of all places. It was during a blissful moment of discovery of the much touted fried S'Mores Pop Tart that one in our group shouted "Cuban sandwiches!" There sat a tray of non-fried morsels that had been pressed in a Sandwich-O-Matic proudly displayed on a back counter of the booth. It was one of those B-movie moments replete with a stringed symphony. On this day of fried revelry was a meal that wouldn't trigger a diabetic seizure.

For the mere cost of 12 tickets, the cash equivalent of $7.20, we snagged the Cuban and wrestled it to a nearby table so we could snap a photo of the curiosity and divide it up equally to the eager mouths awaiting a bite.

The sandwich was hot, fresh and fantastic. The bread was firm but not too chewy. The smoldering cheese had a Cuban fresh-pressed ooze, and the meats were quality. You could taste the mojo that the pork was roasted in, and the ham was definitely not an Oscar Meyer product. It was a very good sandwich and the perfect follow-up to a deep fried Pop Tart.

The next day we ventured out to Frisco just north of Highway 121 on Preston Road to find the Caribbean Cafe. It was noon and the tiny Cuban restaurant was bustling with Cuban-looking patrons enjoying an array of specialties. I spotted a dish of ropa vieja, slow simmered beef in a rich tomato sauce, and other dishes with sides of black beans and rice. The smells coming from the kitchen turned on the water works, and we started to drool.

With a few time constraints we decided to perform a little dash-top dining and placed an order for the Cuban to go. It took 10 minutes for the order, and we were out the door. The first bite of the sandwich, which cost us $9 but included fries, was pretty incredible. The bread was chewier than I might have enjoyed and then there was the mayo. One of my few objections in the culinary world is the presence of warm mayonnaise on basically anything. The sandwich was sound, but I would order it without condiments next time.

Perhaps there is some jading due to the presence of beer and clowns, but the Taste of Cuba had the more quality product and I will no doubt try yet another this weekend during my next visit to the fairgrounds. For its adherence to the traditional recipe, the incredible bread and insanely good meats we award this weeks Toque prize to Taste of Cuba at the State Fair.

Taste of Cuba State Fair of Texas

Caribbean Cafe 3401 Preston Road 972-688-9734