There’s no shortage of Cuban sandwiches there; in fact, you’ll find signs at establishments all around the city flaunting the status of being the “birthplace of theCubano.” On my visits to Tampa over the years, I never took these claims very seriously, brushing them off the way I would any other ad that claims a superlative. But not too long ago, I made a long overdue visit to Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Cuban enclave that at the turn of the last century was the cigar manufacturing capital of the world. There, I was forced to reconsider my skepticism about Tampa’s Cuban sandwich. And I decided to eat a few, too.
It turns out that in the late 1880s, Tampa was the recipient of a huge influx of Cuban workers who brought with them their tradition of cigar-making. Ybor City, a municipality named for cigar factory owner Vicente Martinez Ybor, housed the factories, their workers, and the restaurants and food traditions that sprung up around them. While Ybor became a polyglot community of immigrants from around the world working side-by-side in the cigar factories, the flavor of the place remained distinctly Cuban.
Andy Huse, a librarian at the University of South Tampa and a self-proclaimed Cuban sandwich historian, explained to me that while eating establishments did feed workers, female factory employees were discouraged from visiting them, as they served alcohol and were generally considered houses of ill repute. The Cuban sandwich as we know it developed under these circumstances: The easily portable meal was one that men could easily carry with them from the restaurants back to the line, and that cafeteros, coffee carts that kept workers in cafe con leche and other refreshments, would shuttle to the female workers back at the factory.
The Cuban sandwich wasn’t always known as a Cuban sandwich: It most likely migrated to Tampa in the guise of the mixto, so-named for its variable combination of meats. (Pork and ham are mandatory; salami appears depending on where you live: It’s an essential part of a Tampa Cubano and sacrilege in Miami.) But as it evolved, its components became codified: “Cuban bread, mojo roast pork, ham, salami, swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, mayonnaise on request,” Huse recites. He says that by the 1920s and ’30s, the sandwich was everywhere in Tampa, the city’s contribution to the growing American repertoire of portable, working-class foods, like hamburgers and hot dogs.