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The Best Cuban Mix in Key West

Updated on December 6, 2016
A traditional Cuban sandwich
A traditional Cuban sandwich | Source

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.”

Perfect.

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.

Where can you find the best Cuban Mix sandwich?

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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.


Cuban sandwiches being pressed and grilled.
Cuban sandwiches being pressed and grilled. | Source

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
Five Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop | Source
Source

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.


Source
Sandy's Cafe, street-side
Sandy's Cafe, street-side | Source

Sandy's Cafe

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, tucked away on Catherine Street
El Siboney Restaurant, tucked away on Catherine Street | Source
El Siboney's "wall of fame"
El Siboney's "wall of fame" | Source

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

Restaurant
Menu Price
Notes
Five Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop
$6.50
Traditional version (no salami, lettuce, tomato or mayo) available for $5.95.
Sandy's Cafe
$7.99
Comes with fries. Tax included.
El Siboney Restaurant
$6.75
Comes with hot, buttered Cuban bread.

Where to find the best Cuban Mix in Key West

show route and directions
A markerEl Siboney Restaurant -
900 Catherine Street, Key West, FL 33040, USA
get directions

B markerFive Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop -
930 Southard Street, Key West, FL 33040, USA
get directions

C markerSandy's Cafe -
1026 White Street, Key West, FL 33040, USA
get directions


More Key West adventures



© 2014 Deborah Neyens

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well everyone needs a quest, right? :) They look and sound delicious, but somehow I don't think they would be nearly as good eating them in Olympia, Washington. If I ever get to Key West I will be sure to have one.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Bill. You are always among the first to comment on my hubs. I appreciate your support, my friend.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Yummm! I wish I could have a Cuban mix for lunch tomorrow. I guess I will have to settle for the store-bought chicken wraps I picked up this afternoon. ): I will try this later. Thanks!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Those sound good, too, Rebecca. I've never tried to make my own Cuban Mix. I don't know if it would be quite the same. : ) Thanks for stopping by.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I want a Cuban Mix now! Pronto! :) I love Cuban Bread...and all the other ingredients too. Great hub Deb!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Oh, wow, this reminded me of when my husband and I were first married and he was stationed in the Air Force in Tampa, Florida, and we just loved to go to the Cuban restaurants and have Cuban sub sandwiches, much like this one here.

      I wish I had one right at this minute!

      Up and more and sharing.

      Blessings,

      Faith Reaper

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Linda! Cuban bread is so good but it's a little hard to find here in Iowa. : ) I don't know why I don't just move to Key West for good!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Faith! Given your experience in Tampa, I'm sure you have some thoughts on the great Cuban sandwich rivalry between Tampa and Miami. Salami or no salami? Thanks for the comment and share.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Never thought that reading about sandwich and sandwich shops would be so interesting. A really good story! Thank you for sharing.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thank you, MsDora. I really appreciate that comment. Have a great day.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The Cuba mix looks a lovely treat. A simple sandwich with a unique taste.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, DDE. My Cuban Mix quest turned out to be an awesome way to spend the day - three of those delicious sandwiches all in one day!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 3 years ago from United States

      I would like to have one of those Cuban sandwiches right now. This is a very helpful hub for making a trip to Key West, and I haven't been down there in a long time. Very useful and interesting hub.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
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      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thank you, Pamela. I'd like to have one right now, too, and to be enjoying it in Key West! We have another 5 inches of snow in the forecast here in Iowa and I keep wondering why I ever came back. : )

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Deb, you really made this quest for a Cuban sandwich interesting. I've never had one with mayo or salami. Or lettuce and tomato, for that matter. I really enjoyed the photos you included in this article.

      Have you had your fill of Cubans yet? :-)

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Well, bravewarrior, it sounds like you need to get yourself down to Key West and try a Cubano Key West style! : ) Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      This was a great review article and made me want to go to Key West to try these for myself. I've been there once and very much enjoyed the experience, especially Hemingway's house. Congratulations on your half-marathon run around the island.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Flourish. I actually ran that half marathon twice. The second time I made my goal of finishing in under two hours. That's when I decided my half marathon days were over! I hope you make it back to Key West some day.

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 3 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      I loved visiting Key West - the one time I went. Guess it is about time to go back. That Cuban sandwich looks great. You have outlined some great places to try. Thanks a lot.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      This might just be dinner tonight! Boy do these sandwiches look great. I went to Key West for my honeymoon, but we never tried these. Wish we had! Pinned.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

      I was so excited to read about your interesting Cuba mix mission! Now I'm craving one. The history was interesting and I wish I could sink my teeth into one of those sandwiches right now! I've only had them in Miami but will definitely eat with greater appreciation next time.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, truthfornow, Glimmer Twin Fan, and vespawoolf. As Warren Zevon once said, enjoy every sandwich.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 3 years ago from America

      Last week I was watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Guy was in Key West and I thought I would like to go there on vacation. Enjoyed your hub. The sandwiches look great. Voted up.

    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 3 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      Yum yum, it's almost dinner time here and I'm busy looking at your Cuban sandwiches with hunger. I wonder what it would be like to taste them and I'm already a big fan of Vietnamese pork rolls, so I imagine these would be just as tasty! Voted beautiful for the great photos.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      Do you remember where guy was in Key West, moonlake? I'll have to look for that episode. I did run into Anthony Bourdain there one time, so it's definitely on the foodies' radar screen. I hope you make it there sometime. Thanks for the comment.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 3 years ago from Iowa

      I was just reading something about the Vietnamese pork rolls (forget what they are called) and it did sound pretty similar.Thanks for reading and commenting, Suzanne.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Man, I've to take a trip to Cuba and get me a sandwich! Delicious and informative!!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 years ago from California

      Well, being a vegetarian, I have to say these still sound good!!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Great Hub. :) And they are great sandwiches. :)

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Midget, Audrey and phdast7.

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 2 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      I wish I could try one! I enjoyed reading your story about your day. :-)

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Vicki. It was a fun day, even though I was stuffed full by the end of it!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      We lived in Key West when I was in elementary school and Junior High. For lunch, you could buy a Cuban mix (to go with your lunch) for 35 cents. They were made with that wonderful Cuban bread that had a piping down the middle of the top crust. Yum.

      After reading this, I'm ready to take a vacation in the Florida Keys.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      I love your intro and idea of the quest. I live so close to Key West and must make a trip soon to try this sandwich. Interesting history behind this sandwich.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Peg and Dianna. I hope you both get to Key West sometime soon! I've been there twice already this year and I'm already wanting to plan my next trip!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      These sandwiches look tempting!

      I like the way you provided the history of these delicious sandwiches, very interesting!

      Thanks!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Chitrangada. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about the history.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What an interesting quest and what fun you must have had comparing those Cuban Mix sandwiches. If I ever visit Key West I will now know where to go thanks to your gustatory research. :)

      I did not realize that such a large cigar manufacturing industry was down there at one time nor that Tampa was known for its production of cigars. I always think of Cuban cigars.

      Happy to share this!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Hi Peggy. The historic district of Tampa known as Ybor City (which I believe is just east of downtown Tampa) is where the cigar industry was centered. The area is now pretty much an entertainment district with lots of great restaurants, shops, night clubs, etc. It is a fun place to visit if you are ever in Tampa. Thanks for commenting and sharing!

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 2 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Deborah, this is an excellent article. Nothing like Cuban food - this from a Cubano's perspective, or course! In my opinion, only Chinese comes close, but even they're below par next to our food. The Media Noche aka Midnight sandwich" is similar to the Cuban mix, but with a sweetbread version of our French bread.

      Take care. Voted up and away

      John

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      OMGosh ! am I ever hungry now. Deborah, I must try this sandwich as soon as possible -- you make it sound so good. We can buy an excellent loaf of bread at our local grocery. It seems to be very similar to the Cuban bread, crispy outside, soft inside and delicious. I doubt if I will ever get to Key West, but, I can make my own version here at home with my sandwich press. Awesome hub with loads of information and history. I so enjoyed reading it. Voted up, UAI and sharing.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, John. I do like Cuban food. will have to try the Media Noche!

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      Thanks, Phyllis! Let me know how your version turns out. I bet it will be just fine substituting your local bread.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      This is similar to malaysia roti john

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      I've never heard of roti john, peachpurple. But it seems like many cuisines have their own version of this sandwich. Thanks for the comment.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 2 years ago from Minnesota

      I have heard rave reviews about these Cuban Sandwiches in the Key West. Maybe someday I will get down there and get to enjoy one too.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
      Author

      Deborah Neyens 2 years ago from Iowa

      I kind of got hooked on them while researching this hub, so I'm always on the lookout for a good Cuban. And I do prefer the Key West style to the Miami style. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • profile image

      TheBizWhiz 2 years ago

      OMG! This made me soooo hungry! lol I have traveled and lived all over and had a lot of Cuban sandwiches; my wife is even Cuban, but the best one I have ever had was from Latin restaurant in a food court behind my job in Long Island City. Every ingredient from the bread to the pork shoulder was high quality, yet the sandwich was relatively cheap. I think it was because the competition was so stiff.

      Well, I have to get something to eat now. Thanks! Voted up

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 22 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Deborah, great hub about finding the perfect Cubano sandwich down in Key West. Voted up!

    • profile image

      Dr. Geno 20 months ago

      Been eating Cuban Mix in KW for 29 years, both Traditional & ?Modern? It's unfortunate that you missed The Paradise Cafe which closed several years ago after the Chicago owners retired after making tons of money. Their take on the Cuban Mix was called the Monster Mix and was HUGE. Ate Bkfst (Cheese Toast & Con Leche) and for lunch a mix Sin Lechuga & a diet coke mostly 4 days a week for 12 years Met a Cousin from Budapest working there that I never knew existed. was sorry to see it go but I had already retired and didn't get down to KW much. Thanx for the opportunity to reminisce.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image
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      Deborah Neyens 20 months ago from Iowa

      Dr. Geno, glad I could bring back some memories for you! Thanks for sharing them.

      TheBigWhiz and Kristen, thanks for reading and commenting.

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