Sure, there are several local Mexican eateries who offer Cuban sandwiches, but Mexicans making Cuban sandwiches seems about as authentic as a pizza made by someone named Olaf. Luckily, there are a couple of options: Victor's 1959 Cafe in south Minneapolis and El Burrito Cubano in north Minneapolis. The Hot Dish decided to pit them against each other to see whose sandwich would be more likely to make Fidel tip his iconic hat.[jump]
VICTOR'S 1959 CAFE
Victor's 1959 Cafe presents an image and ambience that very closely adheres to an American's romanticized ideal of Soviet-era Cuba. The building looks and feels like something one would expect to find just a few steps from the beach. It's small and intentionally quaint: old-looking wood painted with vibrant colors. If it were pushing a little harder, people might mistake it for a garish theme restaurant.The sandwich Cubano ($9.50), is served on Cuban bread, a white bread with a thin, crispy crust. In the middle, we find ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. We opted for the addition of Spanish chorizo for an extra dollar.
The ham in this sandwich is underwhelming. It's not bad, it's just not what ham can be. This ham seems less like a slice off a whole ham than a pre-sliced, packaged ham with water added. It's a substantial slice, and it tastes all right for what it is, but it keeps the sandwich from really popping.
The shredded pork, on the other hand, is really quite good. It's lean, not greasy, and is neither excessively shredded nor unwieldly chunky. It may be some of the best shredded pork in town.
The Spanish chorizo is markedly different from the chorizo found at other restaurants. It's not swimming in a pool of brown grease like the Mexican chorizo served at the now defunct Sunnyside Up Cafe. And it doesn't appear to come in links like the Colombian chorizo served at Cocina Latina, just down 38th Street. It is very similar in both color and composition to pepperoni: thin, rigid slices of white-flecked, red-hued sausage.
The sum total of the sandwich is positive. The bread is light but adequately chewy. The pickles add a nice--and very necessary--crunch and a sweet counterbalance to the salt of the meats. And the mustard ties the whole affair together rather nicely. Add to the sandwich the scrumptious and crispy yuca frita with piquant mojo, and this plate makes for a very satisfactory meal. For those who say 'yuck' to yuca, substitute a salad or rice and beans.EL BURRITO CUBANO
El Burrito Cubano is a stark contrast to Victor's. In fact, it probably more closely adheres to the reality of Soviet-era Cuba--plain, stark, and characterless. There are no indoor seats at this sandwich counter, though there is an attached sit-down restaurant called Cilantro y Habanero. There are tables outside as well, with a lovely view of a trucking outfit. But we're not snobs. We recognize that some of the best food is found at some of the least aesthetically pleasing locations (see: The Wienery).Unfortunately, the food does not atone. The first sign of a problem was when the employee manning the counter came out from the back and sheepishly confessed that it would be five minutes or so as we waited for the still-frozen ciabatta to thaw in the oven. Seeing as this was 7 o'clock on a Saturday night, one must wonder exactly how many sandwiches this place even sells.
Surprisingly, the ciabatta wasn't awful considering it's recently icy state. It was chewy yet soft, though not something to get excited about.
We can't say the same for the shredded pork. It truly provided a glaring contrast to that of Victor's. This shredded pork was much darker, fattier and, of course, greasier. The flavor was decent but not outstanding in any way.
The ham was a few thinner slices, as opposed to the one thick slice at Victor's, but it was no more satisfying. The pickles were just fine, and the mustard incited no complaints.
WINNER: Victor's 1959 Cafe
In retrospect, this seemed like a wildly uneven mismatch. It almost feels unfair to compare these two dramatically different eateries. But when El Burrito Cubano charges $7 for this subpar Cuban, served unaccompanied by anything else, compared to Victor's at $10.50 for a larger, better sandwich with the addition of the tasty side dish, they invite the comparison.
Quite simply, there is no choice. For a Cuban sandwich served at a Cuban restaurant, drive halfway across town, if you have to, to enjoy Victor's offering.