The Best Cuban Mix in Key West
On a mission
Vacation is all about the quest – whether you’re seeking a thrill or simply looking for the best spot to lounge on the beach with a good book. And there’s no better place for a quest than Key West, where Ponce de Leon once looked for the fountain of youth and Mel Fischer sought the sunken treasure of the Atocha.
So for my recent trip to Key West, I decided I needed a quest.
Mind you, I have been going to Key West for 20 years. I’ve found the best spot to see the sunset, crawled my way through the pubs lining Duval Street, and run all the way around the island (in the Key West Half Marathon, which I finished in under two hours). And I know that most of the best Key West experiences aren’t sought out; they just sort of happen. (Like the time my husband and I got a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Mel Fischer Maritime Museum from some guy we chatted up at the Green Parrot, or the time the sex toy magnate of Key West gave us a ride to the cigar bar in his armored Mercedes Benz SUV that had been built for the Shah of Iran. But I digress.)
I was ready to discover something new about my favorite vacation destination.
On my quest for a quest, I picked up a copy of “The Key West Bucket List” in the lobby of Eden House Hotel one morning and opened the book at random to entry #75. It said, “find the best cuban mix on the island.”
To really know a place is to know its sandwich, to experience the local take on what goes between two pieces of bread. I realized that although I had been to Key West many times and thought I knew the island inside and out, I had never bothered to get to know its quintessential sandwich, the Cuban Mix.
I was on a mission.
History of the Cuban Mix
The Cuban Mix (also known as the Cubano or Mixto) is a hot, pressed pork, ham and cheese sandwich traditionally eaten by the Cuban working class. The sandwich dates to the 1500s, when the Spaniards brought ham and cheese with them to the New World. The sandwich served as a lunchtime meal for workers at Cuba’s cigar factories and sugar mills.
During the late nineteenth century, the Cubano made the 90-mile journey across the Straits of Florida to Key West with Cubans who came to work in the Key West cigar factories. By the 1870s, there were 29 factories in Key West employing 2,100 workers producing more than 170,000 cigars a day. In 1886, one of the largest factories, El Principe de Gales, burned to the ground. The owner, Vincente Martinez Ybor, decided not to rebuild in Key West but to relocate his operation to Tampa, to what is now the historic Ybor City neighborhood. Although Ybor’s move essentially brought an end to the Key West cigar industry, the Cuban influence had a lasting impact on Key West’s culture and cuisine.
The rise of the cigar industry in Tampa brought that city’s own version of the Cuban Mix. In 2012, the Tampa City Council voted to designate the Cuban Mix as the signature sandwich of Tampa.
The Cuban Mix also became popular in Miami, particularly after Cuban ex-pats began settling there in the wake of the Communist revolution. With only subtle differences between the Tampa version and the Miami version, each sandwich has its fans and detractors.
So what exactly is a Cuban Mix?
The basic components of a Cuban Mix are ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, yellow mustard and Cuban bread. The ingredient that distinguishes the Cuban Mix from just any old sandwich is Cuban bread, a long, crusty loaf of bread made with lard to give it a super soft interior. The bread is sliced lengthwise and buttered on both sides. The other essential ingredient is pork that is marinated in mojo, slow roasted, and shredded. The ingredients are layered between the sliced bread and the sandwich is grilled in a press called a plancha, which compresses it to about a third of its original thickness.
The Tampa version of the Cuban Mix includes Genoa salami. This variant arose due to the large number of working class Italians in the Tampa area.
Just like most things on the island, Key West’s version of the Cuban Mix diverges from convention. In addition to nontraditional salami, the sandwich also known as a Key West Mix is made with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Three sandwiches in a day
Having accepted my mission, I asked the locals at Half Shell Raw Bar one night where to find the best Cuban Mix in Key West. Joe the bartender told me to try El Siboney Restaurant and Sandy’s Café, and the others around the bar concurred. Since Five Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop was just around the corner from where we were staying at Eden House, I put it on the list, too.
Five Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop
The quest began with breakfast the next morning. While I did some work by the pool, my husband walked over to Five Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop on the corner of Southard and Grinnell Streets to pick up Cuban Mix sandwiches and café con leches (Cuban coffee with milk) for our breakfast. Five Brothers is a quaint corner grocery that has been a part of Old Town Key West for 26 years, attracting both locals and tourists with authentic Cuban food and coffee sold from a takeaway food counter in the back.
The pressed sandwich was large enough for the two of us to share for breakfast with toasted bread that was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The sandwich came loaded with meat and melted cheese and had just the right amount of mustard and mayonnaise. It was a delicious way to start the day.
At lunch time, we hopped on our bikes and headed over to Sandy’s Café on White Street. “Café” may be a generous term for what is basically a kiosk attached to a laundromat with limited outdoor seating, but a long line at a location off the beaten tourist path was a testament to how good the food is.
Our sandwich was piled high with tender pork and ham and was hot all the way through. I was pleased to find a tomato that was red and juicy like it had just been picked from my garden, not one of those mealy pink discs that so often are passed off as an edible vegetable. One sandwich was the perfect size for two people to share, especially since it came with crispy seasoned fries. The verdict? Although it was a close call, the flavorful pork gave Sandy’s the slight edge.
El Siboney Restaurant
After riding around on our bikes for a while to work up an appetite, we cruised over to Catherine Street to El Siboney, a casual Cuban restaurant tucked away in a residential neighborhood. At 3:00 in the afternoon, an off-time for dining, the place was plenty busy, with several booths full of Cuban families out for a late lunch. A wall of framed accolades just inside the door told us why; the restaurant consistently has been recognized as Key West’s best Cuban restaurant for many years running.
We sat at the counter and ordered a pitcher of sangria and a Cuban Mix to share. While we were enjoying our sangria and waiting for the sandwich to arrive, the waitress brought over a complimentary basket of hot buttered Cuban bread, which I ate in spite of myself. And maybe my full belly was why the Cuban Mix itself didn’t quite measure up to the others I had earlier in the day. Or it could have been the sandwich's cool interior. But, all in all, not a bad way to complete my Cuban Mix quest.
Cost of a Cuban Mix in Key West
Five Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop
Traditional version (no salami, lettuce, tomato or mayo) available for $5.95.
Comes with fries. Tax included.
El Siboney Restaurant
Comes with hot, buttered Cuban bread.
Where to find the best Cuban Mix in Key West
More Key West adventures
- Rent a bike and ride to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park to experience the best beach in Key West.
- Travel 70 miles by air or by sea to Dry Tortugas National Park and explore historic Fort Jefferson.
- Step back in time with a visit to Audubon House and Tropical Gardens.
- Learn about Key West's shipwrecking heritage at the Key West Shipwreck Museum.
- Only one day to explore? Find out how to spend a perfect day in Key West.
- On a budget? Discover five things to do in Key West for under $5.
© 2014 Deborah Neyens
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