Monday, March 29, 2010

Sandwiches on Boliche Boulevard

They say that Columbus Avenue in Tampa, Florida, is nicknamed "Boliche Boulevard," named for the concentration of Cuban restaurants, snack shops, and groceries that line it through the downtown area.

The boulevard's namesake dish is a beef eye round roast stuffed with chorizo, then braised with garlic, tomatoes, onions and peppers. It's a standard on the menu of the places along Columbus, along with arroz con pollo, lechon asado (roast pork) or ropa vieja.

On our very last day in Tampa, we went to find a place named Arco Iris that is famous for Cuban sandwiches. Arco Iris means "rainbow". It wasn't much to look at, just a low concrete block building in a strip mall. We got there around 10:40 a.m., hoping to grab a couple sandwiches before heading to the airport. The sign on the door said it opened at 11:00 a.m.

Disappointed, we walked back to the car, but then someone called from the door and beckoned us back. "C'mon in," he said, "we're open."

"Just wanted a couple of sandwiches to go," we said.

As we waited, the staff prepared for the 11:00 am opening, setting the tables and writing the day's specials on a white board hung on the wall. A young man sat at a table, tucking into a plate of something with rice and beans and onions - it smelled great. The menu offered full meals in a addition to the famous sandwiches, and also offered "Chinese style" fried rice dishes.

Everyone spoke Spanish - the waitresses, the cashier, the cooks and the young man with his lunch. Not fluent in Spanish myself, I have enough of a vocabulary so I can usually get the gist of the conversation, but that didn't work here. If you are used to hearing Spanish spoken by people of Mexican and Central American heritage, as in Los Angeles, you will be surprised at the sound of Cuban Spanish.

It is a very different sound. Both nasal and stacatto, the words slur into one another, and the percusive sound of consonants is smoothed and blunted so you can't tell where one word ends and the next begins. The animated conversations I overhear always make me want to go learn the language.

But then our Cuban sandwiches arrived, and I forgot about everything but food.

I'm not sure why something as simple as a meat and cheese sandwich becomes a thing of wonder in the hands of Cuban cooks. Some say it's the bread - crusty Cuban bread, baked fresh in long loaves with a palm frond laid on as it goes in the oven, to help make the crease open up in the top. Some say it's the moderate filling - not too much, but a combination of ham, roast pork and swiss cheese. Pickle slices, a bit of shredded lettuce, and mayonnaise and yellow mustard. Some say it's the technique of pressing the sandwich under heat to toast the bread, soften the cheese and meld the flavors.

The result is a perfect sandwich - wrapped in white paper and sliced characteristically on a sharp diagonal - warm, crusty, compacted so it's easy to take that first bite, which mingles delicious meat and cheese and tangy mustard and pickle.

Stories differ about the origin of the Cuban sandwich. Was it originally from Cuba, or Key West? Or did it spring up right here in Tampa, to feed the workers in the cigar factories of Ybor City? By 1910, it was commonly served in working-class cafes and coffee shops in Florida and Cuba.

In Tampa, unlike Miami, Cuban sandwiches also include Genoa salami. This is thought to be an indication of the turn-of-the-century closeness of the Italian and Cuban immigrant communities in Ybor City.

It's always amazing to me how something as simple as a sandwich can be interpreted in so many diverse ways by so many ethnic communities. A Cuban sandwich is perfection - yet so is a great Vietnamese banh mi. A different take on a meat sandwich, with tangy pork and head-cheese, pickled carrot and daikon, and it's own great bread - the special crunch here is due to the presence of rice flour in Vietnamese baquettes. And there's a tiny Persian lunch counter in Los Angeles that serves its own delicious version of a cold-cuts on a baguette - unmistakeably imbued with its own cultural stamp.

Sandwiches. Culture in portable form. What special sandwich from your own heritage do you crave?


Mary Bergfeld said...

Now I am truly hungry and am amazed hoe a single sandwich can be so differently interpreted.

materfamilias said...

sounds so delicious! Good thing it's lunchtime here. . .

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I support the genoa salami inclusion.


Blondie's Journal said...

This post made me very hungry!! And it made me think of the kindness of shop owners when they fling their door open to waiting customers, the way this restaurant did for you. Wonderful, gracious people!


cactus petunia said...

Meatball heroes are my heritage...But I love Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches even more!

Gilly said...

That Cuban bread looks really good - and rather different from ordinary toasted bread. Was it in the toasting, or is the bread really different?

But I don't think you can beat a bacon bap/buttie (depending on where you come from) Sometimes with a fried egg in too. And sauce.

giorno26 ¸¸.•*¨*•. said...

Yummmmm, a vedere le foto questi " sandwiches " devono proprio essere deliziosi !!!
Dall'aspetto assomigliano a come noi italiani facciamo i " tramezzini ".
Buon appetito !!!

Beverly said...

I grew up eating Cuban sandwiches, and I've hardly ever had a version I didn't like.

I started on the Ybor City ones, but spent more time in Miami as an adult. The typical Cuban sandwich in Miami didn't have lettuce or mayonnaise.

My entire family loves them, and we prepare them frequently.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Hot capocollo (it has to be the dark brick red stuff that you could use to drive nails with, cut thin enough to see through) and provolone with roasted red peppers, dressed with a hint of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in which garlic has been macerating.