Leaving the subway at 137th St. and Broadway, just north of Harlem, one of the first things the intrepid adventurer notices is the food. Depending on the season and the time of day, the ragged little park around the subway steps is often packed with vendors: a man with a shopping cart and a huge Igloo cooler hawks bowls of soup for $2 apiece, an older woman ladles out creamy horchata by the glass, and a leather-lunged woman yells “Tamales, Tamales, TAMALES!” at the tired commuters.
For brave foodies, it’s a wonderland, packed with surprises like cow foot soup and grilled corn with mayonesa. But for those who can resist the delights of the unlicensed food vendors, there’s an even greater reward: this scrappy little Dominican neighborhood is also home to one of New York’s best Cuban sandwiches.
Cubanos are showing up in more and more restaurants. At high-end joints, the distinctive pressed sandwiches are being reinterpreted by ambitious young chefs bearing Berkshire pork and prosciutto, artisanal mortadella and small batch pickles.
On the other end of the spectrum, delis and 7-Elevens (!) are cranking them out on panini presses, offering them as yet one more option, the latest new classic, propped up beside the pesto chicken and the hot ham and cheese.
There are gourmet Cubanos and quickie Cubanos, artisanal Cubanos and schizophrenic Cubanos. But under all the reinterpretation and reconsideration, there’s the fundamental sandwich – a peasant food created in the late 1800s for blue-collar workers in Key West, Tampa and Miami. The trouble is, the real Cubano, the elemental Cubano, is a tough sell for today’s health-conscious eaters: at its heart, the iconic sandwich is a calorie bomb, loaded with enough carbs and fat to blow a hole in the unprepared belly. (Likewise the medianoche, or as we call it, the Cubano’s hot sister.)
While chefs argue over the best sliced ham or the tastiest cheese, purists know that the heart of the sandwich lies in its fluffy Cuban bread and supple roasted pork; the common element, of course, is that both of these ingredients are outstanding delivery systems for fat.
The pork – basically an unsmoked pork shoulder or ham cooked with its thick skin intact – is moist and slightly oily, loaded with fat and flavor. As for the fluffy white loaf, it’s a handy sponge to soak yet more butter or margarine and deliver it, crisply fried, to the hands of a hungry worker.
The best Cubanos, of course, are still found in South Florida, where the recipe has been maturing for more than a hundred years. But for those who live outside the Sunshine State, the best possibilities can be found in Hispanic neighborhoods, where culinary traditions still reign supreme and customers are more likely to take their calorie bombs seriously.
Which brings us back to 137th Street and Broadway, a Dominican neighborhood towards the far north end of Manhattan. There are a lot of Cuban sandwich joints in the area, but the undisputed leader is La Flor de Broadway, a little lunch counter that is known in the neighborhood as “El Rey de Sandwich Cubano” — King of the Cuban Sandwich.
This is the real thing, the place where Miami expats end up when they can’t resist the Cubano craving. There’s no mortadella here, no Berkshire pork. Just a $4 sandwich that is lovingly, if simply, prepared and served hot off the griddle.
The secret is two-fold: Flor de Broadway starts with Dominican pernil, a roasted pork shoulder that is redolent with the flavors of garlic and melted fat. While not quite the classic Cuban lechon asado, the pernil carries a familiar note of unctuous oiliness and a subtle flavor that balances the saltiness of the ham, the lactic tang of the Swiss cheese and the tart bite of the mustard and pickles.
Everything is held together with the Cuban bread. At Flor de Broadway, they cook it slowly on a flat press, pausing every few minutes to baste the sandwich with margarine. This isn’t fast food, and it isn’t a quickie Panini crushed on an oil-sprayed press: the Cuban takes time. When it’s done, though, the finished product is dense and rich, with a crunchy fried crust that gives way to a succulent interior.
There are dozens of Cubano recipes on the Internet, and many argue about the provenance of the pickles or the ham, the mustard or the Swiss. The ultimate secret, though, is time: a true Cubano starts with slow cooked pork and ends with slow-cooked bread. But, as with any classic, the Cubano’s taste is worth waiting for.
Flor de Broadway
3395 Broadway (between 137th St & 138th St)
New York, NY 10031
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