A brick building in Ybor City with a chicken painted on it.

The Hunt For An Authentic Cuban Sandwich In Tampa

From Tampa to historic Ybor City, we were on the hunt for a real Cuban sandwich. Not only did we find a true Cubano, we ended up eating five.
By Eric Gibson | March 24, 2023

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I’ll never forget my first.  

Until then I had no idea what a real Cuban sandwich was but I was hooked after the first crunchy, crusty bite.  

It was so complex for such a simple thing.  Layer after savory layer of flavor from the infused pork and salty ham to the melted swiss cheese, a bite from the zesty pickle sliver and tangy yellow mustard meant every morsel was better than the last.  

That first Cubano was tucked away near the bottom of the menu at the restaurant I worked. Most of us never took a second glance at it.  I knew that the bread was delivered every week, six long loaves in clear bags with a leaf inside.  I remember that was a big deal.  The chef was so proud this bread was shipped in from “a place outside of Tampa”.  

The sandwich, pressed nearly flat, in a loaf of that special weird-leafed bread was exactly what I craved.  Every single time.  Crunchy and never dry, it was the perfect mix of flavors. I ordered it once a week while I worked there.  

I’ve probably eaten way too many Cubans for one lifetime.  I have no remorse.  

In the many years since I still order a Cuban now and then, hoping to replicate that loving feeling.  That satisfying crunch.  That mayo mustard mix.  Those pickles.  Sadly it never works, it never tastes quite right.

So as any halfway decent food blogger would, we went to that place outside of Tampa where that delicious bread is still being made today.  The same bread that was shipped in each week to that restaurant where I used to work, on a mission to find a real Cuban.  

What Makes A Cuban Sandwich A Cuban?

The “traditional” Cuban is a very simple thing that so many places get wrong.  

First, the bread must be Cuban bread.  This bread, with its crispy thin crust, can be found all over the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and of course, southern Florida. What we get is a light, slightly sweet narrow loaf that looks like a baguette but is absolutely not.  

A thin pressed cuban sandwich.
Authenticity is mouthwatering. | Vittles&Nosh

Next, the pork must be mojo style.  What is mojo pork? Glad you asked.  Mojo is pork shoulder marinated in citrus, garlic, cilantro, and oregano then slow-cooked until the meat falls apart.  My mouth is literally watering thinking about it. Think carnitas and sadly, you’d be wrong.  

What is the difference between mojo and carnitas? Mojo is cooked low and slow after marinating, like a stew or roast.  Carnitas is pork shoulder braised typically in lard or oil until tender.  

Every Cuban has ham, thinly sliced pickles (I was raised on Cubans with long slices versus chips), swiss cheese, and yellow mustard (or a mayo-mustard mix).  Tampa Cubans have genoa salami.  

Finally, the sandwich is pressed nearly flat to give it extra crunch, to melt the cheese, then cut diagonally and eaten voraciously.

Cuban bread finishing at La Segunda Bakery | La Segunda Bakery

What Makes Cuban Bread So Special?

The bread that was delivered to my old restaurant every week wasn’t easy to find once I stopped working there, cutting off my only source of good Cubans for years. 

Shaped like a long French baguette but with a slightly darker crust, the loaves we’d get had that weird skinny leaf in each bag, and had a slightly sweet flavor.  It was definitely not French bread, instead more akin to pan found in Latin tiendas like Puerto Rican bread.    

Cuban and Puerto Rican bread, both known as pan de agua or water bread, are made with very few ingredients.  Flour, salt, yeast, water, and lard are all it takes.  Mixed, left to rise, then baked over a pan of water.  Plus a leaf?  

That weird skinny leaf wasn’t a decoration, as I had thought, but a Florida palmetto leaf cut fresh and laid atop the dough to score it and during baking to hold in moisture. 

And the bakery outside of Tampa where the restaurant received fresh loaves each week?  None other than La Segunda Bakery, the very same bakery that has been working up Cuban loaves for the masses since 1915.   La Segunda still bakes the bread it has since then, four generations of bakers later, and has become a major focal point in our search for an authentic Cuban.  They say it takes eight hours to make their loaves, doing it the same way for over a hundred years.

La Segunda Bakery knows they have a good thing and even offer to overnight their bread straight to your door, but it doesn’t come cheap.

Why Is Ybor City So Important For Cuban Food?

It was dark when we finally pulled into Ybor City, but the city was very much still awake. 

The streets were crowded and live music pulsed through open doors and windows along 7th avenue, the main road through the heart of this Cuban epicenter.  Ybor had a vibe.  

It felt comparable to other old southern coastal cities like Charleston or Savannah, but with a dangerous edge.  The good kind of danger. Where dark nights with steamy dancing and cigar smoke went into the wee hours.  

Good food, promiscuity, and chickens.  Wild chickens everywhere. 

A wild chicken sits near a restaurant patio in Ybor City
Wild chickens rule the roost in Ybor City. | Vittles&Nosh

The history of Ybor City is well documented elsewhere but can be summed up as an immigrant town that grew around the cigar trade.  And with these immigrants came the toothsome food that always accompanies immigrants.

Our abridged version is that Cuban and Spanish workers working in cigar factories needed a quick portable lunch that filled them up without weighing them down.  Hence the Cubano was born.  The truth behind this origin story is a hotly debated topic between the two American goliaths of Cuban heritage, Miami and Tampa.  There’s even a book about it.

Miami, which is the current reigning Cuban heavyweight, has the largest Cuban population and for many years even boasted the invention of the Cuban sandwich.  However, in 2012 Tampa officially secured its crown as the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich and the original “Little Havana”. 

These days Ybor City is a thriving tourist hotspot, still pumping out hand-rolled cigars right before your eyes, wild chickens in the streets, and hot Havana nights with nightclubs and bars that would rival just about anywhere.

Breathing in a bit of the Ybor vibe, I knew the hunt for a real Cuban sandwich would be rewarded.   

Who Really Has The Best Cuban In Tampa?

We spent an entire day eating our way around Tampa.  We tried Cubans from restaurants that sit at the top of those “most popular” lists, we tried restaurants that were rated well, and even tried one sandwich from a restaurant recommended from the bowels of Reddit.  

We ate five Cuban sandwiches in less than twenty-four hours.  I could have eaten more. Should have eaten more, but those we missed will have to wait for our next trip.  So, which one was the best?  

Below are our choices for the five best Cuban sandwiches in Tampa, ranked.  We based our criteria on the following three categories:  bread, composition, and taste.  Here’s how they stacked up. 

5. Columbia Restaurant

This restaurant needs no introduction.  The oldest restaurant in Florida.  The world’s largest Spanish restaurant.  Its massive white architecture takes up an entire city block.  

It’s almost as if people assume Ybor City and Columbia Restaurant are one and the same.  “Did you go?” we were asked. “You gotta go to Columbia.” we were educated.  

We did. 

Bread: Columbia gets their bread from La Segunda.  Authentic victory here, but could have been pressed just a smidge harder.  

Composition: The basics were there.  Lots of ham, a little pork, swiss cheese, and mustard.  

Flavor: Surprisingly unappetizing.  It was a textbook Cuban, with all the right stuff, but the overall flavor lacked color and punch.

Verdict:  Despite being the most popular restaurant in the region, we were unimpressed with the Cuban.  However, Columbia restaurant does have great food, an amazing story, and a fantastic location.  Go for the experience but save the Cuban for others on our list.

A cuban sandwich from Columbia restaurant.
Columbia Restaurant

4. Flan Factory

On the west end of Ybor City’s main strip, snug tight against its neighbor is a small white building with a picket fence and an adorable patio.  Inside is slightly hipster, with exposed beams and Edison lights hanging from the ceiling.  

Flan Factory not only came highly rated but oft-recommended so we tossed it on the list.  

Bread: Pressed, with good color but chewy and not very crunchy. 

Composition: Heavy on the ham, a good amount of pork, and solid pickles.  Unfortunately, the cheese wasn’t melted. 

Flavor:  Surprisingly juicy.  The pork was good and the amount of mustard was just right, but even despite the cheese not being completely melted something was a little off.  

Verdict:  Overall Flan Factory’s El Tampeño is a darn good sandwich, but don’t for just a Cuban.  Instead give the Pan Con Bistec a try, or the arroz frito with chicken.  We also hear they have, get this, flan.

Flan Factory Facebook

3. Arco Iris

We pulled up to Arco towards the end of that fuzzy period where brunch starts to become more of a lunch and were surprised to see the parking lot was packed full.  

From the outside, Arco Iris is a modest building with a simple sign on a corner lot.  The inside is a bright dining room with ample tables.  A restaurant not trying to sell itself too hard, or be something it wasn’t. 

They are known for killer Cuban and Spanish food but how does their Cubano stack up? 

Bread: Arco Iris kills it with super thin pressed, crunchy bread.  Authentic.

Composition: Lettuce and tomato threw us off with this one.  Pickles were skimpy chips. Also had the Tampa-style salami. 

Flavor:  Very good.  The mustard and cheese were just enough and the pork had great flavor but what made it was that hard-pressed bread that crunched.  

Verdict: Arco Iris is an awesome off-the-radar spot for authentic Cuban food and a great but nontraditional Cuban sandwich.  While not quite the best in town, it is a solid sub sandwich lunch option.

Vittles&Nosh

2. Bread On The Bay

Tucked in the same building as a taco joint and a laundromat is this family-owned “sandwicheria”.  Bread On The Bay is a cool place with a very hipster vibe.  The patio begs to be hung out on and the inside is about as Instagram-worthy as they get with bright beautiful murals showcasing what it means to be part of Ybor City.  

Their menu specializes in sandwiches, breakfast, and coffee.  What more could you need? 

A Cuban.  A Cuban is what we could need.  Was it any good?

Bread: Beautifully, almost flat-pressed crunchy bread.  

Composition: Everything was here.  Pickles, cheese, mojo pork, and lots of ham.  No extras or frills to fight around. 

Flavor: The first bite was overpowering with cheese.  The second bite was bliss.  Everything came together in a combination that hit me with the Cuban-loving feels.  

Verdict: Despite almost too much cheese, once we took a bite with all the flavors it worked.  This is a great Cuban from a place that still isn’t on the radar.  But don’t just stop here for a Cuban, try it all.  They even have flatbread pizzas!

A cuban sandwich wrapped in foil.
Vittles&Nosh
A cuban, coffee, and bread from La Segunda Bakery
The most authentic Cuban sandwich in Tampa. | Vittles&Nosh

1. La Segunda Bakery

It should be no surprise that the best Cuban comes from the bakery that has been producing authentic, delicious Cuban bread since 1915.  

It was also, unfairly to the other contestants, the first stop on our tour de Cubano.  So very unfair. 

La Segunda is the definition of a bakery.  There are glass counters full of pastries and sweets, cookies, and cakes.  And there was bread.  Mountains of bread.  Folks were leaving with armfuls of leg-length loaves.  Some loaves still had the palmetto leaf inside the bag. 

This was it.  

“Large Cuban pressed, please. And an empanada.  And a cafe con leche.  Oh, and a loaf to go.” 

Bread: Perfect flavor, perfect press, perfect crunch.  Almost flaky. 

Composition: All the gang was here, and not one upstaging the other.  And thankfully, nothing extra.  Their “special sauce” is a slather of their mustard/mayo mix. 

Flavor:  This was the Cubano I was looking for.  Years had gone by, flavors I had forgotten, but biting into this masterpiece shot me back a decade to that restaurant I worked, where the bread was shipped in, and the chef was so particular.  This was the sandwich I ate nearly every week. For me, perfection.

Verdict: Hands down this was the best Cuban sandwich we tried.  While all the contestants were great solid sandwiches, nothing compared to the flavor and crunch that La Segunda packs into their perfect Cubano. 

Grab a cafe con leche, a couple of extra loaves, some empanadas, and find your way to a seat to savor perfection.

Cubans We Might Have Missed

The hunt for the great authentic Cuban sandwich was a success. More Cubans were consumed in the twenty-four hours we spent in Tampa than I had eaten in the last ten years.  

But we missed a few.

We missed West Tampa Sandwich Shop and Michelle Faedo’s, both rumored strongly to be better sandwiches than La Segunda.  We will be back for these, as well as the billion other food stops we were salivating to try.  We like burgers, noodles, and fried chicken and we know they’re there.   

But most importantly, we have yet to visit Miami.  Little Havana is calling, and there is more to eat.  

Is the best Cuban sandwich actually waiting for us in the Magic City?  The research has already begun.


Have you had a more authentic Cuban? Think our choices are absurd? Let the debate begin in the comments below! While you’re down there, let us know the best Cuban where you live. Especially Miami. We hear they’re good down there too.

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Harlow Bernard

We just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge all the hard work and effort you’ve been putting in lately. Keep up the amazing job, you’re doing great!

Mark

I’m beginning to see Cuban sandwiches as the marinara sauce of the sandwich world. Everyone makes them out of the same stuff, but none of them are the same. I think that’s cool.

Billy Watson

Great feature for among the best hot pressed sandwiches out there! I’m a Miami tradionalist but seeing the salami in the Tampa original is a unique twist. Looking forward to your thoughts on the Miami style in a future feature! Manolo and Renee Grill makes my favorite Cuban in Brickell Bay but there are so many good spots that it is hard to go wrong!

Last edited 1 year ago by Billy Watson