On Tortas Cubanas
By Brigham Barnes
No matter how little Spanish you retained from junior high, you at least know this: nouns ending in “o” are masculine, while nouns ending in “a” are feminine. Esposo is “husband;” esposa means “wife” (or, if you had a bitterly divorced Spanish teacher, like I did, they may have pointed out that esposos are “spouses,” and esposas are “handcuffs”). But the changing of that last letter can have an even greater effect, one with consequences beyond gender swapping and identity changing—particularly if we’re talking about sandwiches. Case in point: a “Cubano” sandwich is likeable enough and familiar to many: roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles on crusty bread. One could definitely do a lot worse. But a “Cubana,” as in the Mexican torta Cubana, is a sandwich filled with a collection of meats that vary from tortaria to taqueria and from truck to stand, a savagely beautiful meat beast that the less artful or non-smitten might call a Mexican garbage plate on bread. It’s a feast for your fists born and raised on the streets of Mexico City, stacked high on the back of the collapsed Aztec Empire, and available elsewhere at the taco spots that keep it the most real.
The similarities between the names of the sandwiches leave the armchair sandwich researcher to assume a connection between the Cuban Cubano and Mexican Cubana. And the easiest conclusion to draw is that all signs point to the Cubano preceding the Cubana; after all, it’s hard to imagine Cubans being inspired to create a more restrained sandwich in tribute to a meat party from Mexico named after their country. It does not seem outrageous to infer that, just as the accordion and tuba found their way into Norteño music from German immigrants and the shawarma-like spit-roasting of pork for tacos al pastor were gifts of Lebanese and Iraqi immigrants, that some Cuban visitor’s lunch planted a seed in the Mexican culinary consciousness that would explode into an absolute colossus.
However, Chilango sandwich folklore takes the strong stance that there is no connection whatsoever between the two sandwiches. Instead, sometime in the ’50s, a cantina on Calle Republica de Cuba in Mexico City — just a few blocks away from the National Palace — began serving a torta with everything they had on it. The sandwich grew in popularity and spread through the city, and it kept the name for the street where it was invented. Adding to the legend of the Cubana, a friend in Mexico City told me, out of earshot of his wife, that the sandwich is so called because, like a Cuban woman, the Cubana has everything. Indeed: in the torta Cubana, Mexico City found the sandwich embodiment of its voluptuous ideal.
I first met the torta Cubana many years ago while living in Mexico City as a Mormon missionary (yes, like in the musical, or on your doorstep every few months: white short-sleeved dress shirt, black name tag, chronic part to my hair, the whole deal) at Taqueria Molinito in Naucalpan de Juarez, just outside of the city proper. I was just one or two months into my time in Mexico and Taqueria El Molinito already served as my taco al pastor heaven until the fateful day when my gaze wandered from the glistening, browned spit of pork outside the shop to the sizzling flattop inside. With dumbfounded fascination I watched as the cook assembled a mad beauty before my eyes: two hot dogs cut thin and set to sear, with a beaten egg poured over them, then a slice of ham, then a handful of melty, shredded queso Oaxaqueño and then—as if there weren’t already enough—a reddish crowning slice of pierna (from an uncured but lovingly marinated leg of pig). He deftly transferred the assemblage to a telera roll, the traditional bread for tortas of all varieties, where, seemingly out of thin air, a crisply fried beef milanesa had appeared to serve as the sandwich’s foundation. As if it were wanting for something, the counterman embellished the sandwich with the customary toppings of lettuce, tomato, jalapeños, avocado, onion, and mashed black beans.
I worried there was no way the telera could contain it all. But it did. And I knew I had to have one. And there, eating that first torta Cubana with my back to a bustling, chaotic street, I became the man that I am today. When I wiped my lips clean at the end of the meal, I took a moment to try to internalize the shifting of my realities. I had arrived in Mexico a boy who had loved burritos, having considered them the perfect handheld means to ingest as much Mexican food as possible at once. But I would leave Mexico City a man who had learned the True Way, the path of the Cubana. For the epiphany, I handed over a sum that translated to 75 cents American.
I’d soon learn that the torta Cubana at El Molinto was a paragon of restraint compared to other Cubanas found throughout the valley. When Missionaries gathered, they’d boast of the size and outrageousness of the preferred version from their neighborhood. Outside of subway stations I witnessed godless monstrosities measuring what appeared to be a foot in length and two feet in height (please excuse this sole instance of hyperbole, I promise that there is not a single other exaggeration to be found in this report). Awed by the meats stacked on these sandwiches—not just a milanesa de res but pollo tambien, a squib of each taco meat available, slices of bright yellow American cheese intermingling with the beautiful white queso Oaxaqueño—my mouth may have strayed, but my heart remained true to the Cubana of El Molinto. Where some cooks laid waste to decency, El Molinito’s was a torta of beautiful and balanced oblivion; much like a savage Viking warrior who swings his axe in devotion to Odin, this animal of a sandwich served something higher. Not just destruction, but elevation.
My mission was years ago, and while I’m not particularly obsessed with “authenticity”—under the right circumstances (in other words, “under extremely wrong circumstances”), I will go to town on some Taco Bell—I do find myself keeping a hungry eye out for dishes that approximate those I loved most in Mexico City. I’ll try tacos, tostadas, and sopes without number in hopes of having certain spots hit just right, but my memories of the Cubanas of Mexico City burn particularly bright. To have known them and come home to America is something like being a sailor out to sea with memories vivid but fading of a love left behind. In an effort to celebrate the memory of sandwiches best approached with hands quivering with end of the day hunger, eaten with speed and disappearing faster than their size suggests is possible, I have sought out the Cubanas of my current home, New York City. I present this report of what I found, for those of you closer to NYC than el DF, in hopes that you may meet a sandwich that means as much to you as the one at El Molinito meant to me.
Tacos El Bronco 4324 4th Avenue, Brooklyn
Contents: Hot dog (salchica), ham, scrambled egg and chorizo, beef milanesa, queso Oaxaqueño
Here at the sit-down sibling to the popular Sunset Park taco truck of the same name (found most nights outside the neighborhood’s charming Melody Lanes bowling alley) you can get yourself a very good, practically orthodox Cubana, featuring, among other things, egg scrambled with ruby chorizo, cheekily sneaking the taste of breakfast into your hearty worker’s lunch; bisected hot dog providing a salty, smoky snap your brain doesn’t think belongs on a sandwich but the heart can’t fault; as well as ham and a beef milanesa, common building blocks to this breed of sandwich. This is a Cubana. You have been introduced. And now, with the taste for blood in your mouth, it is time to go out into the world and hunt down others.
Taco Mix 234 East 116th Street
Contents: Melted white cheese, hot dog, beef milanesa, ham, head cheese (“queso de puerco”)
On a street full of Mexican restaurants, the trompo for tacos al pastor outside Taco Mix stands as a beacon for taco hunters who’ve traveled across the island on the recommendation of co-workers or bloggers. Inside the cramped taqueria, guests and regulars order at the counter between one another’s shoulders before turning around and jockeying for a spot to eat along the wall. Taco Mix excels at replicating the Mexico City street food experience and, as such, they’ll make you a devil of a Cubana. Between the bread, salchicha, and molten white cheese cohabitating shamelessly and delightfully atop the rest of the ingredients, it’s only a fried egg away from being a perfect imitator of the finest in Mexico City.
La Cabaña 2277 1st Ave
Contents: Al pastor pork, melted white cheese, fried egg, head cheese, ham, slice of American cheese, milanesa, slice of cecina, grilled chicken
Still referred to as La Casa de los Tacos by certain fans, a seemingly near fatal DOH’ing led to the establishment being reborn (and slightly remodeled) as La Cabaña. La Cabaña makes unimpeachably good tortas—ones I’m inclined to praise as easily the best in the city, but when pressed to explain this bold declaration, I struggle to find the words. The best (but terribly humble) answer I can come up with is it might be because La Cabaña puts mayonnaise on the inside of their sandwiches, adding a key touch of flavor, and butters the outside of its rolls before tossing them on the flat top for a minute, so the torta that arrives at your table is a little more golden and a little more crisp and, almost subliminally, a little more delicious than any of its friends throughout the city. They’re just two small moves pushing the tortas closer to sandwich perfection, but they’re signifiers of care and attention. This said, their Cubana is a grand example of thoughtful abandon. The use of American cheese and grilled chicken give the sandwich a distinctive personality, and the inclusion of the restaurant’s excellent seared al pastor pork in melted white cheese on top of everything is a crowning and generous touch.
El Paso Taco Truck 116th Street just west of Third Avenue
Contents: Milanesa, ham, fried egg, hot dog, sliced white cheese, another milanesa
Spend a little time in line here and you’ll realize it’s not just a truck strategically located on the way to or from the subway but a neighborhood institution. I do not know if the woman that takes the orders actually knows nearly all of her patrons, but she greets them in a fashion that suggests that she does and serves each customer with the care of a grandmother worried that you haven’t been eating enough. If you order their Cubana, she’ll definitely make sure that you’re eating plenty. Stacked tall and tasty, a smear of black refried beans, slices of bright red tomato, and a surprisingly potent collection of pickled jalepeños help distinguish this sandwich from the pack.
El Aguila Several locations above 80th Street, this sandwich was from their spot at 1634 Lexington
Contents: Melted white cheese, carnitas, fried egg, milanesa, ham
I stood at the counter in this dependable establishment, having downed many a tasty taco here before, and watched in enchantment as my Cubana formed before my eyes. I was particularly delighted when the cook placed a handful of shredded white cheese directly on the grill to melt down and crisp into into a thick patty of quesillo. I sat down and marveled at the gooey and meaty Cubana before me, and then commenced to eating. Almost immediately I found it to be nearly completely inedible, thanks to oily carnitas and a leathery milanesa that my teeth could neither cut nor chew. Negative results are still results, and I must sadly say: Do not get involved with the Torta Cubana from El Aguila. Have tacos or tamales instead.
Downtown Bakery 69 1st Ave
Contents: Queso Oaxaqueño, ham, chicken
On this torta journey I wondered if I would encounter any Cubanas that would stun me with a completely unexpected combination of contents—and at Downtown Bakery I confronted the torta that would puzzle me most. At this trusty neighborhood standby what I did not expect, but found, was out of control simplicity. Their Cubana is served on a sesame seed hero with giant leaves of iceberg lettuce sticking out of it. Beneath the lettuce: shredded roast chicken and ham and not a protein more. I looked at this sandwich through squinted, doubtful eyes at first. But along with those meats there was a friendly serving of avocado, melted yet firm queso Oaxaqueño, an ample and seductively flavorful schmear of mashed black beans, and a little gathering of pickled jalepeños faithful to their purpose. As puzzled as I was about the unorthodox paucity of this sandwich, it was delicious, and I headed home from the Bakery tremendously satisfied and very happy, but lost a night of sleep to existentially pondering what it is for a sandwich to be or not be a Cubana.
Two days later I decided: that was not a Cubana I ate but a nice chicken sandwich with ham on it.
Tortas a la Plancha Don Pepe at Puebla Mini-Mart 3908 5th Ave, Brooklyn
Contents: Beans, queso Oaxaqueño, salchicha, beef milanesa, ham, bacon, quesillo
Standing in stark contrast to Downtown Bakery, Tortas a la Plancha Don Pepe, which operates out of the back of a market full of Mexican candies and curios, serves multiple menu boards’ worth of tortas that could each pass for Cubanas at other establishments. Like at delis where every conceivable combination of ingredients is treated as a unique sandwich with its own individual name, at Don Pepe you do not order a chicken and salchicha torta, but the Mexicana, nor a ham and salchicha torta, but the Española. And while my eye is caught by their Ranchera, featuring carne asada, chorizo, ham, and two cheeses, this is a report on Cubanas, so I stick with the subject matter and am rewarded wonderfully for my fidelity. Don Pepe finishes their tortas off with a grilling in a panini press (this would be the “a la plancha” referred to in the name of the establishment), so the tortas you pick up at the counter are scored with George Foreman lines and the meats of your meal are compressed into unified excellence. I splurged and had my Cubana doble queso style, so for an extra dollar smoky bacon and a gooey slab of melty quesillo were added to my sandwich. The milanesa came dangerously hot but irresistible straight from the deep fryer, and the ham not wasn’t your typical thin deli slices but uncommonly thick cuts, stacked two deep. This Cubana was one of the meatiest I ate and an absolute delight. My only gripe would be there was no salsa handy to toss on for a little more heat or diversity of flavor.
Los Portales 25-08 Broadway, Queens
Contents: Sliced white cheese, ham, fried egg, chicken milanesa, sliced chorizo, carnitas
While it’s hard to come out to this Astoria establishment and not indulge in a few platters’ worth of tostadas de tinga with a plate of tacos between each helping, Los Portales serves up a distinctive and tasty Cubana: their use of carnitas was on-point, and the chorizo sausages sliced in half like hot dogs (not crumbled, as chorizo usually comes) was, to my experience, absolutely unique. But before you make the trip, be aware: this place opens at two or three in the afternoon. If you show up earlier for lunch on a Saturday, you’ll have to kill a couple of hours at the nearby Socrates Sculpture Park first.
Juan Bar 96-15 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens
Contents: See below
Searching for Corona’s famous Tortas Neza truck lead me to this dark and narrow bar, where word was that the people behind Tortas Neza sling their sandwiches during the off-months of torta truck season. The bar is filled with quiet men celebrating the end of a long workday with ABBA blaring from the jukebox and did not seem like the sort of place that sees many white dudes from Manhattan stop in on sandwich quests. The bartender confirmed that the menu’s “Torta Especial” was a Cubana and thought it odd that my dining companion and I were just going to split one. The torta that we received was a monster that exceeds every other sandwich in this report in both size and weight to an exponential degree—though no one else at the bar seemed to think there was anything out of the ordinary about it. Lesser establishments would offer to put your photo on the wall if you could finish such a thing, but at Juan Bar, this was just their sandwich. Eating it in the darkness, frequently wiping my face and fingers with fragile paper cocktail napkins, I am not positive as to what exactly I ate or if my hands were ever around the bread of the sandwich—an NBA-class handspan seems to be required to hold onto this sandwich and not just be grabbing meat sticking out from the bun. Between flash photos snapped in the darkness and dizzy memories of the night, this is what I think was on the sandwich: all the queso Oaxaqueño in the world, probably four or five egg’s worth of scrambled egg with chorizo, slices and slices and slices of ham and head cheese, and not so much a chicken milanesa but an entire breaded chicken breast. Still, this list seems short—there must have been more. I had a kitchen scale with me. The thing weighed well over two pounds.
Photos by Brigham Barnes