Last Tuesday, a sign appeared in the window of Potbelly Sandwich Shop at Lake and Marion: “New Cuban Sandwich. Born in Cuba, Hand-Made Here.”
Traditionally, the Cuban sandwich, or “Cubano,” is a simple thing: roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on a white roll. The white roll, ideally what’s known as “Cuban bread,” is squashed just a little in a panini press, so that the crust becomes crackly and crisp.
At Potbelly, the Cuban Sandwich is hand-made (I’m a witness to that!), but was it “born in Cuba”?
Having traveled in Cuba during the reign of Fidel Castro, I can’t say that I ever saw a sandwich served there that was like the Cubano served in the States; if I had, it would have been very surprising. In Castro’s command economy (fundamentally flawed and further weakened by American sanctions), grocery stores seemed strangely, simultaneously, under- and over-stocked. I went into one store and the aisles were barren, as though a natural disaster or impending apocalypse had inspired a run on any edible merchandise. This small grocery store in Havana, in the late twentieth century, was bare…except for the mustard section. This little store had something like eight brands of mustard. But there was no meat or bread, and the produce section was spare. In that era of Cuban history, it would have been challenging to collect all the ingredients for a Cuban sandwich.
There has long been a dispute over whether the Cuban sandwich was actually created in Cuba. Three American cities are contending for the honor of being the sandwich’s point of origin: Ybor City in Tampa, Key West and Miami, all home to many Cuban expatriates, all claiming that the sandwich was invented in their city.
My tendency is to believe the Cuban Sandwich was invented in the U.S. The Cubano is heavily loaded, and we Yanks tend to over-do things; cases in point: deep dish pizza is three times as big as a pizza in Italy, and the humble hot dog in Chicago is frequently overlaid with spill-out-the-bun portions of greenery and condiments – because more is better.
Potbelly uses reasonably good quality pork, bread and cheese. Like much Cuban food, Potbelly’s Cuban sandwich is not even remotely spicy (having been exposed to lots of Mexican food, we tend to think of food from Hispanic countries as being usually spicy hot, but that is not so).
Matthew Dean, my friend and fellow Oak Parker, had a Potbelly Cuban Sandwich and remarked, “Liked it. The mustard is surprisingly sharp and goes well with (non-canonical) hot peppers requested on the side.”
A side of hot peppers or giardiniera do add a welcome element of heat, though those condiments are, as noted, nontraditional. One traditional element missing from Potbelly’s version is the crunchy crust achieved when the fully assembled sandwich is toasted in the panini press. When the flavors are so simple, the texture of a crisp crust can help a lot.
If you’ve never had a Cuban Sandwich, Potbelly is your go-to option in Oak Park. We’re seeing this sandwich turn up on many hipper Chicago menus, as at Punch Bowl Social and Dropshot, so maybe it’s just a matter of time before more Oak Park locations start serving it. They should; it’s a good sandwich.