Welcome to the inaugural edition of “Review the Search”, where I review “Cuban Food Tampa” through the lens of Cuban Sandwiches. I had the idea back in 2016 when I started this blog. Enter having to move unexpectedly, some health issues and general life happening around me and 3 years have passed since I did my initial research.
So what I have here is a bit of an odd duck. I have the search that I did in 2016, but I just got around to visiting those restaurants today in 2019! On the plus side for everybody, the search result on Google is different now and I can use those for a separate, more contemporary post!
- I did a Google Search for “Cuban Food Tampa” in the evening on October 25, 2016.
- I visited all of those locations today, June 23, 2019.
- I ordered the same thing from all of them: a large “Classic” Cuban Sandwich.
- I brought them all home and ate them!
- Now here’s my report for you!
But first, a few words about Cuban Sandwiches
As a life-long resident of Tampa, I feel like I was born with a Cuban sandwich in my mouth. I’ve had them from most of the classic Cuban places in town on both sides of the bay. I definitely have my favorites, some unfortunately not included in this search, but I’ll get to them another day.
To me, a Cuban sandwich is: ham, pork, salami, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard on buttered Cuban bread pressed in a sandwich press, wrapped in wax paper. That’s it. No lettuce or tomato or anything extra. Nowadays, they all include mayo, which I actually like, but isn’t a “strict” Cuban.
There are definitely different takes on them: Pastrami or different breads or different condiments. That’s fine and interesting, I definitely like variety, but today we’re talking “real” Cuban sandwiches.
Tampa, FL 33607
Price Range: $
We begin with a Tampa classic from one of my favorite all-time restaurants, the Large Cubano from La Teresita at $6.40. It weighed in at 12.5 oz and, from bottom to top, was composed of sliced ham, salami, pickle, sliced pork, and Swiss cheese with a spread of mayo and mustard all thinly pressed between buttered Cuban bread. Based on the stats, it’s both the lightest and the most expensive.
Arco Iris Cafe
Tampa, FL 33607
Price Range: $
Our next contender, weighing in at 15.6 oz, is the Cuban sandwich for $4.25 from Arco Iris Cafe and Restaurant. The least expensive sandwich on the list is comprised of deli ham, pickle, sliced pork, paper thin salami, swiss cheese, mustard and mayo.
For me, they’re the “newcomer” on the block. I’ve driven past them many times, but had never actually visited until they came up in the search. I’d honestly never heard anything, positive or negative about them. Fun fact, the location in the listing from 3 years ago is no longer open after having been open there for 25+ years. I got this sandwich from their newer location on Habana Ave.
West Tampa Sandwich Shop
Tampa, FL 33607
Price Range: $
Finally, from the legendary West Tampa Sandwich Shop, weighing in at a hefty 1lb. 2.6 oz, we have the Large Cuban Sandwich. At almost a quarter pound heavier than its closest contender, it’s the most imposing of the three. This behemoth has smoky ham, pieces of tender pork, salami, pickle, Swiss cheese, mayo and mustard pressed into a substantial piece of Cuban bread.
Another old favorite, I’ve been going to West Tampa Sandwich Shop for decades as well.
It’s lunch time on a Sunday and everyone has just gotten out of church and are going out to eat. Luckily for me, the three locations I’m visiting today are within a mile or so of each other.
My first stop is West Tampa Sandwich Shop and, as usual, parking is hard to find. It’s completely packed full with Latino neighborhood locals, folks dressed in their Sunday finest, and polished gentry from South Tampa making their way north of Kennedy. There’s a line at the counter and the staff is friendly and familiar: “What you order, Honey?”
They get my sandwich to me quickly and are on to the next person in the line behind me that now reaches to the door.
I drive a few blocks away to the new location for Arco Iris Cafe. It’s in middle of the Latin West Tampa neighborhood at the corner of Habana and Tampa Bay Blvd. The parking lot is mostly full and as I walk in the door, I’m struck by how cool the AC is and how clean and well put together the interior is. I feel a little shabby in my Floridian uniform of a tank top, shorts and sandals.
It’s mostly full and the entire clientele appears to be locals who just got out of church. I stick out like a sore thumb. It isn’t as busy as WTSS and my order is ready and waiting. The order is less than $5 and definitely less than the $7 minimum credit order, so I dip into my small store of cash. I’m in and out in less than 5 minutes.
Finally, I make my way a few blocks to the La Teresita campus, now known as CapdeVila’s at La Teresita. As with the other locations, the parking lot is full and I have to search a little to find parking. I make my way to the side entrance for pick-up orders.
It’s off to the side and noticeable for the display of pastries next to the checkout. Glistening guava cheese pastries, eclairs, tres leches and more tempting me. Picking up all this food and not eating has made me hungry, so I add a guava cheese and eclair to this order.
Again, it’s busy and there’s a line to the door. The server is polite and friendly and she also quickly has me on my way.
I make my way home and, finally, its time to eat!
All three sandwiches came wrapped in the ubiquitous wax paper packed in a brown paper bag that signals “Cuban Sandwich” to any Tampa native.
From left to right we have sandwiches from La Tersita, Arco Iris Cafe and West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
I opened them up and was hit with the lovely aroma of meat pressed into buttered Cuban bread.
As you can see, the Cuban from La Teresita on the left is the thinnest, with the ingredients well pressed and merging into each other. I wedged it apart to look at the ingredients and it looks like the secret to the really flat press is that all the meats are cut really thin.
The middle sandwich from Arco Iris Cafe has really good press pattern on it, but the ingredients are more discrete. Upon opening it up, I can tell that the ham and the salami are simple deli cuts, but the pork is flaky and looks like it’s made in-house.
As mentioned above, the last sandwich from West Tampa Sandwich Shop weighs a lot more than the others and is thicker as well. The bread is much more substantial, despite the press and the deli meats look like they are higher quality cuts. The pork, of course, looks like it’s made in-house.
Winner: West Tampa Sandwich Shop
La Teresita’s sandwich is delightful to bite into. You get a crisp crunch from the crust and then you hit the warm interior. The press has merged the ingredients together into a pleasing texture. It’s thinness is a statement, like a pencil mustache that took a lot of work to look just right.
The Cuban from Arco Iris has more give and is less blended. The ingredients are more discrete and you can feel every layer as you bite through it. The pork is flaky and tender, but you can tell that the other meats are just normal deli meat.
The bite from West Tampa Sandwich Shop is bready once you get through the crunch from the press. That’s definitely a layer of bread and a layer of meat and the pickle is a pleasant snap in the middle of it all. As the thickest sandwich, you have to power your way through it.
Winner: La Teresita
The Cubano from La Teresita is a good blend of the pork and smoky ham with hints from the cheese and mayo/mustard. Every few bites you get some of that pickle. Over all, it’s a great well-executed sandwich.
Arco Iris’ sandwich tastes overwhelmingly of the excellent pork, which is flaky and tender. There are a lot of pickles, so you get that sour snap in almost every bite. However you can’t even tell that the paper-thin salami is there and the the ham doesn’t bring anything special to the party.
As with the other sandwiches, West Tampa Sandwich Shop delivers smoky home and house-made pork with a bite of pickle and a healthy smear of mayo/mustard. But they add that to that an excellent Cuban bread. In the other two sandwiches, the bread is a texture, in this one the bread brings texture and flavor. For me, that elevates it head and shoulders above the other two.
Winner: West Tampa Sandwich Shop
We’ve arrived to the end of the review and it’s time to choose a winner. By any measure, these are three excellent examples of the Cuban Sandwich. In this case, I’ve chosen a menu item with literally the same ingredients made with almost the same techniques.
I love the Cubano from La Teresita. That crackle as you bite in along with the perfect interior are hard to beat. They’re a classic Tampa restaurant for a reason and their Cuban sandwich is one of the reasons.
The Cuban sandwich from Arco Iris cafe is perfectly acceptable. I would never turn one down if it was placed in front of me, but I also wouldn’t seek it out. The only outstanding ingredient was that moist, smoky, flavorful pork. It was a real standout in a sandwich where everything else was just good.
West Tampa Sandwich Shop’s Cuban was thicker and definitely gave you more bang for your buck. The ingredients were just as good as any at the other restaurants. But that Cuban bread, the texture and the smell and the flavor puts it into the lead.
Overall Winner: West Tampa Sandwich Shop
Now that you’ve heard my opinion, I’m interested in what you have to say! Do you agree or disagree? What are your favorite Cuban sandwiches in your town? I’d love to discuss it with you, but please keep it polite!