Like all great sandwiches, the Cubano is a remarkable creation marrying flavorful proteins, satisfying condiments and crunchy textures. But unlike its Vietnamese cousin, the banh mi, or its Italian brethren – featuring slow-roasted beef slammed between sturdy loaves and draped in a bracing giardiniera – the Cuban sandwich has something the others don’t: griddled bread.
I’m a sucker for a good panini, even if it comes from an airport terminal. There’s something about barely-melted cheese and warm pork squeezed between hearty slices of bread (that have themselves been kissed with melted butter), scorched and seared in a sturdy griddle that just resonates with me. I think I’ve always loved a warm sandwich; probably the result of growing up on Davanni’s in Minneapolis. But the Cubano is something altogether different.
There is always roasted pork – and four of the five below roast their shoulders in-house – as well as the requisite slices of luncheon ham, yellow mustard, Swiss cheese and pickles. But the better joints will generously season their pork with a mojo featuring garlic and sour oranges; they’ll line one interior side of their bread with melted butter and will get their specially-made bread delivered everyday from the likes of Turano, Gonnella or D’amato’s, making sure each sandwich is pressed until the exterior is as crunchy and crisp as a mariquita, the fried plantain chips that often accompany a meal. Some, like Señor Pan (which won the Best Sandwich category at the Festival Cubano a few summers ago), use two slightly different types of ham, one of which is lightly smoked. Others, like Cafe Marianao in Logan Square, simply transport you to a Havana bodega, with noisy old-timers sipping their café Cubanos, arguing about their favorite baseball players and sharing stories from back home; the sandwiches’ legitimacy is never questioned.
There are certainly other places to get a good Cuban sandwich in Chicago, but when it comes to these five, as Carly Simon once sang, nobody does it better.
26 E. Congress Pkwy.; 312-922-2233
7 N. Wells St.; 312-263-4750
This cafe’s Cubano ($5.79, pictured, above) starts with pork shoulder marinated in a signature mojo for at least 24 hours. It’s then roasted at a low temperature for five to six hours until the outside is dark and crisp; marbling of fat through the pork shoulder makes it tender and flavorful. They use Virginia ham, and the saltiness pairs well with the savory pork shoulder. The sandwich is served on French bread with Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and yellow mustard (no spicy or Dijon). Smashed thin in a panini press until the bread is golden and toasted and the cheese is melted.
2. Cafeteria Marianao
2246 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-278-4533
Walk into this tiny sandwich joint in Logan Square at 7 a.m., and the Cuban ex-pats are already huddled over their strong Cafe Cubanos, talking baseball. At $4.25, their Cubano is a bargain (and a classic). Tender ham, roasted pork, Swiss, yellow mustard and pickles, all sandwiched between sturdy loaves that have been kissed with butter on the outside.
3. Señor Pan
4612 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-227-1020
2615 W. North Ave.; 773-227-9601
The Cubano at Señor Pan ($4.95) starts with pork shoulder marinated in a traditional mojo for 24 hours, then slow roasted. Their pork shoulder is made fresh daily. They use two types of ham, smoked and pit. The sandwich is served on house made Cuban bread with yellow mustard and garlicky butter, Swiss cheese, and dill pickles. Cooked in a panini press until the bread is crisp and the cheese melted, this makes a strong case for my top 3.
2540 W. Armitage St.; 773-227-2822
3101 N. Clybourn Ave.; 773-248-2822
In the summertime, you can see them roasting pigs in Caja China boxes out front at the Logan Square store, but throughout the year, the Cubano is a mainstay that scores points by starting with marinated pork shoulder roasted in house. They add slow-roasted ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and yellow mustard, then serve it on a crusty French baguette that gets smashed together in a panini press. At $11, it’s the priciest of the bunch, but you could probably split it with a friend.
5. El Cubanito
2555 N. Pulaski Rd.; 773-235-2555
I do love the fact that the Cubano is pretty much all they do here, in a kitchen the size of my closet, but they move down a notch this year, since their pork shoulder, unlike everyone else’s on this list, is not made in-house. There’s ham, of course, along with Swiss cheese, dill pickles and yellow mustard, all served on crusty, toasted French bread made more pliable with a bit of butter on the outside before grilling. At $6, I’m not going to worry too much about the fact they bring in the roasted pork; it still tastes great.