Cuban sandwiches aren’t anything new. Let’s face it, the origins of the sandwich are more than 100 years old, and its current incarnation made its debut in America (or at least Florida) in the late 1940s and 50s. A quick glance at food blogs makes me think the sandwich became a national sensation circa 2008. And now, all of a sudden, I’ve noticed Cuban sandwiches on a number of restaurant menus around Pittsburgh.
Maybe they’ve been there before and I just never saw them, or maybe Pittsburgh’s current food revolution has led to these little babies being featured at establishments that focus on Caribbean and Latin fare. At any rate, here’s a run-down of some Cuban sandwiches sampled around town recently. Special thanks to my husband for being such a fan of the sandwich and biting the bullet to taste test them with me.
In order to appropriately judge the sandwich against the standard, it helps to know what a Cuban sandwich is. The essential components are Cuban bread, shredded pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and whole grain mustard. The sandwich is pressed and grilled and served warm and toasty.
Kaya: The menu at Kaya encompasses “the Caribbean Islands, South America, the Pacific, and beyond,” so a Cuban sandwich is a perfect element for both the restaurant’s lunch ($10) and dinner ($12) menus. We tried Kaya’s lunch version, which is served with either spicy slaw, sweet potato fries, or a petite salad (we had the slaw). The sandwich was layered with all of the requirements except the pickles, which were served on the side to be added at your discretion. Also on the side was a chipotle aioli, a nontraditional but very good addition.
Biba: Biba’s menu is “Latin inspired,” also a perfectly appropriate place to feature a Cuban sandwich ($12). Their version is completely traditional with the exception of the addition of hot peppers. On the side is a black bean dip, served with tortilla chips. Although it had most of the same elements as Kaya’s version, we found Biba’s to be a more flavorful and satisfying Cuban sandwich.
Panera Bread: Yes, I threw this in here to be ironic, but Panera truly does have a Cuban sandwich. Not at all Latin or Caribbean, Panera throws tradition out the window and serves a Cuban chicken panini ($7.79), substituting shredded chicken for the pork and focaccia for the Cuban bread. I tried to get them to switch the bread to ciabatta, which I thought would be a little closer to Cuban bread, but alas, panini at Panera are premade, so no substitutions are possible. Charming. Also, I don’t understand—why pay $7.79 for a mediocre version when you can get an excellent version for $10 or $12? Convenience, perhaps, but not much else.
In our experience, Biba’s Cuban sandwich was the ideal specimen, although Kaya’s was a very close second. But everyone has different tastes, so I encourage you to try them for yourself. If you’ve had a great version around town, let me know here in the comments.