The Great Cuban Sandwich Debate: Tampa vs. Miami—a Battle of Delicious Proportions
By Sharon Kurtz
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
The origin of the Cuban sandwich is messy and open for debate. Florida cities Tampa and Miami both claim to be the birthplace of this iconic sandwich, and each has its unique take on the creation.
Tampa Bay officially declared itself as the home of the Cuban sandwich in 2012, while Miami also claims to be its rightful home.
No, the Cuban sandwich did not originate in Cuba but was created by Cuban immigrants in the United States.
Tampa’s Claim to Cuba’s History
Tampa’s claim to the Cuban sandwich is based on its historical connection to Cuban immigrants and its tradition of making and consuming Cuban sandwiches.
The Tampa-style Cuban sandwich typically includes roast pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on Cuban Bread—the addition of Genoa salami distinguishes it from the Miami-style version.
Steeped in history and representing a unique blend of cultures, its origins can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Cuban immigrants settled in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa when many Cubans settled in the area to work in the cigar industry. As a result, Tampa’s culinary scene was heavily influenced by Cuban cuisine.
Little Havana’s Best Cuban Sandwich at Sanguich de Miami
In the heart of Little Havana, Sanguich de Miami proudly stands as a culinary gem, revered by sandwich aficionados for crafting one of the finest Cuban Miami-style sandwiches in the city.
Sanguich de Miami’s dedication to their craft is palpable, and it is this commitment that has earned them the title of the Best Cuban Miami-style sandwich in Little Havana. Their sandwiches are not just a meal; they are a culinary journey, a celebration of Miami’s vibrant Cuban culture, and a testament to the artistry that lies within the humble sandwich.
The ambiance exudes vibrant energy, with lively conversations and the clatter of knives and pans echoing throughout the cozy space. If you find yourself in Little Havana seeking an unforgettable culinary experience, venture into Sanguich de Miami. The magic of their Cuban Miami-style sandwich transport you to the streets of Havana, where the flavors are bold, the hospitality is warm, and the sandwich is nothing short of extraordinary.
Tampa Bay’s Ybor City
Ybor City is Tampa Bay’s storied oldest neighborhood, with lively nightlife and fantastic restaurants lining the brick streets. The historic district once housed the Cuban and Spanish cigar-factory workers at the turn of the 20th century and is the cultural heart of Tampa. Designated as a National Historic Landmark district, a walk down Ybor’s 7th Avenue engages all the senses.
Tampa also annually hosts the International Cuban Sandwich Festival in Ybor City. The festival celebrates the cultural heritage and culinary tradition of the Cuban Sandwich, featuring sandwich-making competitions, live music, dance performances, and cultural exhibits.
The Columbia Restaurant
The historic district has the Columbia Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.
The Tampa landmark has served the same delicious Spanish and Cuban cuisine for 118 years. It is said to have served the first authentic Cuban Sandwich.
In 1905, a young Cuban immigrant named Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. opened a small 60-seat corner cafe in Ybor City that has grown and expanded and can now seat over 1,700 people in 15 different dining
The Cuban is a pressed sandwich at the Columbia Restaurant with bright, tangy flavors gloriously melting into each other.
The Columbia Restaurant’s menu, as it was known initially, was created in the 1890s for cigar workers as they walked to and from their jobs. The sandwich changed as immigrants from different countries came to Ybor City.
While in Tampa for a media trip with a small group of travel writers last fall, one of our highlights was having lunch at the flagship Columbia Restaurant.
Visiting Ybor City
I was looking forward to learning about Ybor City and its gritty origins. Still, I was unprepared for the grandeur of entering the doors of this storied restaurant.
Walking through multiple dining rooms, we slid into a corner banquet close to the kitchen.
We all ordered different classics on the menu, and I chose the famous traditional Cuban Sandwich. My favorite experience from that lunch was the incomparable table-side tossing of the signature 1905 salad. Still, I am not writing about that today, so I’ll save that for another time.
Calling in the Experts
Lucky for us, Jeff Houck, Vice President of Marketing for the Columbia Restaurant Group, met us at the table.
He previously worked in journalism for 25 years, including as the food writer for the Tampa Tribune. While we devoured our delicious feast, Jeff shared the history of the Columbia Restaurant.
We were later joined by Andrea Gonzmart Williams, 5th generation owner of Columbia Restaurant Group. She told us stories of what it was like to grow up in the famous company in her family for more than 100 years.
Jeff is also one of the authors of The Cuban Sandwich, A History in Layers which takes readers on a journey through the rich history of the Cuban Sandwich. In his book, he delves into the sandwich’s origins, exploring its various layers and flavors that satisfy each bite.
Houck’s book offers readers a chance to savor not only the taste of the Cuban Sandwich but also the stories and traditions behind it. By unraveling the history of this iconic sandwich, Houck connects readers to the cultural influences and culinary traditions that have shaped it
Jeff said, “The sandwich has always sat at the intersection of several cultures.It is a meeting of Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish cuisines. They all lived here and worked in the cigar factories together, married each other and intermingled, and had their own social clubs.
But it was a blended neighborhood, and they all brought elements to the Sandwich as we know it today.” The Cuban sandwich became a popular lunch choice among the cigar workers and gained prominence in the local community.
Over time, it became a symbol of Tampa’s multicultural heritage, representing the fusion of Cuban, Spanish, and Italian flavors. He shared, “Today, the Tampa Cuban Sandwich is a beloved and iconic dish in the region for its delicious taste and historical significance, celebrating the diverse cultures that have shaped the city’s identity.”
The Bread Makes the Difference
Tampa’s Cuban sandwich is known for its distinct bread, often called “Cuban bread.” A critical component of the sandwich, it plays a significant role in its taste and texture.
Made with flour, water, yeast, and lard, it produces a light, crusty loaf with a soft fluffy interior. La Segunda Central Bakery in Tampa is crucial in creating the Cuban Sandwich.
The oldest bakery in Tampa, it has been operating since 1915. The long, crusty bread is made using a special recipe with a Palmetto leaf placed on the dough during baking, giving it a unique flavor and texture.
It is considered by many to be the best for making an authentic Cuban sandwich.
Room for Cuban Sandwich Lovers Everywhere
Ultimately, the dispute between Tampa and Miami over the origin of the Cuban Sandwich is primarily a matter of local pride and culinary heritage.
Both cities have their own historical and cultural contexts that contribute to the development of this delicious Sandwich. Regardless of the origins, the Cuban Sandwich is enjoyed and celebrated as a shared culinary legacy of Cuban immigrants in Florida.
What is the most popular sandwich in America? Yep, you guessed it—the hamburger. But my vote goes to the Cuban sandwich—at the flagship Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
Sharon’s visit was hosted by Visit Tampa Bay, and all opinions are her own. For more information, go to Visit Tampa Bay.