Go ahead, ask anybody who knows from authentic Cuban sandwiches the secret to the perfect Cuban, and you’ll get the same answer, without fail:
It’s all about the bread.
The ingredients between the two slices can vary slightly between sandwich makers — there seems to be a fairly even split between Swiss and white American, for example — but, if you’re not starting out with the perfect Cubano bread, you might as well put your pork and ham — no matter how tender and well-roasted — on Wonder Bread and go hang your head in shame.
So, it’s no surprise that, once you find that holy grail of grain, you hold on to that baker’s name as if it were a state secret.
Havana Restaurant on Buford Highway has been using the same nameless Georgia baker for decades. Lazaro’s Cuban Cuisine in Roswell and Mojitos: A Cuban Bistro in Norcross both fly shipments of bread in from bakeries in Florida, such is their dedication to authenticity.
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“It’s gotta be crispy, but soft on the inside,” said Lazaro Tenreiro, who has owned Lazaro’s since 2012. “It has to have a nice crust — it’s hard for us to get that bread here in Georgia.”
Tenreiro, who emigrated to the Miami area from Cuba when he was 10, learned how to cook at the feet of his grandmother, who taught him how to whip up classic Cuban fare.
There are slight differences in the classic, based on region — for instance, Tampa-style Cuban sandwiches use a yellowish bread different in taste and texture from the white crunchy bread of Miami. But a true Cuban typically comes with roasted pork, ham, cheese, yellow mustard and dill pickle slices, all grilled together on a sandwich press, known as a plancha.
And, if you’re looking for a truly authentic sandwich, steer clear of tomatoes, lettuce and mayonnaise, which are considered American additions at which Cuban purists turn up their noses, Tenreiro said.
With the recent easing of the long-standing travel ban between Cuba and the U.S., the appetite for Cuban sandwiches and other Cuban food should grow. Here are some of our favorite metro Atlanta spots to get a classic Cubano — or a Cubano with a twist.
Cubano, Havana Restaurant
If you’re on the hunt for old-school authenticity, look no further than this pair of spots on Buford Highway. Debbie Benedit and her husband, Cuba native Eddie Benedit Sr., opened Havana in 1976 at the corner of North Druid Hills Road and Buford Highway, and used French bread at first, because traditional Cuban bread wasn’t accessible in Atlanta in those days.
The restaurant has suffered some devastating setbacks over the years — Eddie passed away in 2001 and Havana burned to the ground in 2008. But a second location down the street from the original opened its doors in 2009, and Benedit and her son, Eddie Jr., reopened the original spot last year.
The key to the restaurant’s popular Cuban — in addition to the bread from that under-lock-and-key baker — is “keeping it simple,” Debbie Benedit said. That means sliced pork and ham, white American cheese (using Swiss takes away from the flavor of the meat, she explained), sliced dill pickles and yellow mustard. “We have customers who have been coming here for 40 years who have never gotten anything else,” she said.
3979 Buford Highway and 2905 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 404-633-7549, havanaatlanta.com.
Media noche, Mojitos: A Cuban Bistro
This Norcross spot offers plenty of Cuban favorites, including a traditional Cuban, but the media noche — served on a sweet, soft egg bread that manager Gus Fernandez likens to King’s Hawaiian — delivers something for fans of the sweet and savory flavor combination to tear into.
Other than the bread, the sandwich is classic all the way, with house-roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and ham, all grilled together on the sandwich press.
“It comes out a lot meltier and softer,” Fernandez said. “The bread alters the taste a little bit.”
35 S. Peachtree St., Norcross. 770-441-2599, mojitosbistro.squarespace.com.
Cuban, Lazaro’s Cuban Cuisine
Tenreiro’s Cuban is pretty traditional, though his pork is shredded rather than sliced, a nod to his South Cuba roots.
“We didn’t have slicers in South Cuba,” he said.
He also adds a touch of butter to his sandwich — but don’t ask him to add mayo: “I won’t do it.”
25 Woodstock Road, Roswell. 678-277-9661, lazaroscuisine.com.
Farm Cubano, El Super Pan
Why should carnivores have all the fun? Yes, technically a Cuban isn’t a Cuban without the meat, but chef Hector Santiago, who grew up eating Cubans in his native Puerto Rico, has crafted a Cuban-inspired sandwich so satisfying that you might just forget that the pork never made its way in.
“We wanted to offer vegetarian options on our menu, while incorporating big, bold flavors that could even please a meat-eater like me,” Santiago said. “We thought a pressed, vegetarian Cuban could make for a great dish, and it’s been (a hit).”
Mojo-pickled and adobo-roasted seasonal veggies (right now you’ll find cauliflower, carrots, eggplant and squash) join mustard and tomme cheese, all pressed on olive oil bread. If you still find yourself missing the meat, El Super Pan also offers a more traditional Cubano mixto and medio dia.
675 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-600-2465, elsuperpan.com.