By Shelley Mann Photo by Jodi Miller
The traditional Cuban sandwich has six elements: ham, roasted pork, Swiss, pickles, mustard and bread. Sounds simple enough, but what that really means is there are six separate ways to mess it up.
And while Columbus has many tasty variations on the classic sandwich, none is exactly right. (None that I've found, at least. Please send your own nominees my way.)
Maybe the ham is sliced too thick, or the pork is shredded instead of sliced. Maybe it's served on a round French loaf rather than the flatter Cuban bread.
Or maybe they're not prepared in a sandwich press. Katalina's Cafe Corner, Brown Bag Deli and other sandwich shops serve perfectly delicious sandwiches inspired by the Cuban. They incorporate the basic flavors but aren't pressed -- the key to melding all those flavors together.
With that in mind, here's a look at the city's best Cubans.
Strictest Cuban: Plantain Cafe, 77 E. Gay St., Downtown
Cuban sandwiches got their start as a lunch food for factory workers, so it makes sense that in their basic sense, Cubans are more utilitarian than gourmet.
At Plantain Cafe, Cuban bread is stacked with roasted pork, ham, Swiss, pickles and homemade tangy mustard then pressed 'til it's nice and crispy.
The problem? There's not a lot to this sandwich, both in terms of heft and flavor. It's a no-frills version reflecting the Cuban's simple roots.
Best add-on: El Arepazo, 47 N. Pearl St., Downtown
The Venezuelan spot uses their standard stewy pulled pork in place of sliced meat, which knocks them out of contention for most authentic. But the yummy sandwich gets bonus points for its spicy cilantro dipping sauce, an unexpectedly great pairing.
Best traditional Cuban : Starliner Diner, 5240 Cemetery Rd., Hilliard
The fillings here are just right (perfectly sliced salty ham and adobo roasted pork, just a little cheese and pickles), and while the bread's slightly more like a hoagie roll than typical Cuban loaf, at least it's properly pressed. Plus: It's served with a side of fantastic caramelized plantains.
Best twist on a Cuban: Knead's Cuban-Oh, 505 N. High St., Short North
It's served on Texas toast, for one thing, and it's slathered in aioli rather than mustard. Then there's the meat: thick-sliced, prosciutto-like ham and slow-roasted pork shoulder from Zanesville's Sweet Meadows farm cooked in Buckeye Beer. Amish cheese and homemade pickles round things out.
Man, is it good. This Ohio-sourced sandwich is certainly not the most authentic in town, but it's not trying to be. It's the one I crave most consistently.