How Tampa Claimed the Cuban Sandwich

A Cuban sandwich cut in half on a cutting board, with pickle spears next to it.

Between pure fact and fiction, there's the curious intermingling of the two: stories born of a collective consciousness; regional myths and local legends that reinforce a culture's shared sense of what is valuable.

This is one of those stories, and it's about the Cuban sandwich.

In 2012, the Tampa City Council approved a resolution establishing the "Historic Cuban Sandwich" as the city's signature sandwich. The official recipe is highly specific: It starts with crispy white Cuban bread, scored by slipping narrow strips of palmetto fronds into the dough before it's baked. Then comes ham, sliced thin and lightly sweetened, followed by roast pork in a citrusy mojo sauce and a layer of salty Genoa salami. It's finished off with Swiss cheese; three dill pickle slices (no more, no fewer); and yellow mustard, before the whole thing is pressed until the bread is warm and the ingredients meld.

Screenshot from Tampa City Council resolutions, spring 2012

According to local sandwich lore, each of these layers evokes some element of Tampa's history, and particularly that of Ybor (pronounced EE-bore) City, a neighborhood located just northeast of downtown. Ybor City was once known as the "Cigar Capital of the World," home to the production of more quality hand-rolled cigars than rival operations in Havana. By the turn of the 20th century, thousands of workers from around the world had immigrated to the States to join Ybor's thriving cigar industry. It's these workers who are credited with the birth of, and demand for, the now-infamous sandwich. Each wave of foreign settlers made its mark on the city and, supposedly, the Cuban—a story that's told on page five of the menu at Ybor City's oldest dining institution, Columbia Restaurant.

"A Tampa treasure!" the menu proclaims. The Cuban, it continues, started as a snack for cigar workers in the 1890s. "The sandwiches underwent changes as immigrants from different countries came to Ybor City.... The Spanish brought the fine ham, the Sicilians the Genoa salami, the Cubans the mojo-marinated roast pork, the Germans and Jews the Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard."

But if your aim is to prove that the Cuban sandwich was without a doubt invented in Tampa, and that its ingredients evolved along with the city's demographics, it's hard to find verifiable facts among the pork and pickles.

Some, like Andy Huse, special-collections librarian at Tampa's University of South Florida and author of The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine, call this city-in-a-sandwich story straight fiction. "There was never a 'Kumbaya' moment when all the ethnicities sat down together and offered their contributions on the altar of the sandwich," says Huse. "The Jews bringing the pickles; that's just silly," he adds. "There were pickles here before that."

From a City, a Sandwich

Tampa cigar-makers at the turn of the century. Library of Congress

The history of Ybor City, and, for many, that of the Cuban sandwich, begins in the mid-1880s, when a team of cigar entrepreneurs from Key West and New York traveled to Tampa. A new railroad had just arrived in the then-tiny fishing village, and the area's port was expanding. Cigar magnates like Vicente Martinez-Ybor saw potential; in Tampa, they could easily import high-quality tobacco and distribute their cigars to stores around the country. Tampa's warm, humid climate was also perfect for cigar-making.

On a swampy plot roughly two miles east of the Hillsborough River, they built a thriving industry town where skilled artisans could earn a decent wage making quality cigars. Tampa's population grew from about 700 in 1880 to more than 5,000 in 1890, fueled largely by waves of immigrants seeking to build their fortunes on the city's cigars.

Cuban and Spanish workers manned the factories; German lithographers designed the cigar boxes, regarded as some of the best in the world; and Italians and Romanian Jews built groceries, restaurants, and hardware stores to serve the growing populace. It's safe to assume there was a lot of sliced ham, mojo roasted pork, and salami lying around.

"I do think the mix of ingredients is unique to Tampa," says Elizabeth McCoy, curator at the Ybor City Museum Society. But as far as she knows, there's no photographic evidence of the making of the first Cuban in Ybor City, nor any documentation of early menus listing the ingredients that would ultimately be included in the sandwich.

However, McCoy says, a popular account claims that the Cuban resulted from a competition hosted by Ybor City's cigar factory owners. The magnates supposedly offered a reward for the chef who could create a lunch filling enough to fuel workers through their afternoon shifts, but not so heavy that they'd fall asleep at their stations.

"It's a fantastic story and a great local legend," McCoy says. But she's never been able to verify it. If the sandwich was invented in Tampa, she imagines it happened under less dramatic conditions.

"I am sure it was some guy who owned a deli, mixed all these ingredients together because they were readily available, and everyone decided it was an awesome sandwich," she says. "It's like putting chicken breast on a waffle at KFC. You just pair things together and give it a shot."

Sandwich Wars

A platter with ham, swiss cheese, and pork, the ingredients for a Cuban sandwich.
The sandwich's key ingredients. J. Kenji López-Alt

When the city declared the Cuban its official sandwich, the resolution sparked a friendly food feud between Tampa and Miami, with some in South Florida claiming that Miami was the sandwich's true birthplace. But the standoff was eventually resolved: Tampa has history on its side.

Miami was still in its infancy in 1905, when Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. opened Ybor City's Columbia. The restaurant has supposedly had a Cuban on its menu since day one.

"It likely started as a mixto, which was a mixed-meat sandwich," says Rodney Kite-Powell, a curator at the Tampa Bay History Center. "It evolved into what we now know as the Cuban. But it definitely predates anything in Miami."

More than a century later, the Columbia is still serving Cuban sandwiches, and the Hernandez family is still at the helm. Ask the founder's great-great-granddaughter Andrea Gonzmart Williams about the sandwich, and she'll tell you she's always heard it was Hernandez who turned the mixto into what we now call a Cuban.

"I don't know if we played a role in the creation of the Cuban sandwich or if we just helped carry on the tradition," she says. Either way, the family has been making Cubans for so long that the recipe is practically a part of their DNA.

"My father can bite into a Cuban sandwich and instantly tell whether it's layered correctly," Williams says.

The Columbia is among the few businesses that remain from Ybor City's heyday. The neighborhood took a big hit during the Great Depression, when cigarettes, a much cheaper alternative to premium hand-rolled cigars, started catching on.

Then came the rise of the suburbs. After World War II, new-construction ranch houses were more popular than Ybor City's turn-of-the-century casitas, McCoy explains. Its wide sidewalks and narrow roads didn't serve the new car-hungry residents. Many of Ybor City's remaining factories, shops, and homes were eventually razed.

But not all was lost. The neighborhood was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974, says McCoy, and today, the remaining cigar factories and shops have been transformed into restaurants, bars, live-music venues, and tattoo parlors. A few shops still sell cigars, and, of course, you can still find Cubans.

Even if there's no definitive proof the sandwich was invented there, the Cuban is still a Tampa institution, says Manny Leto, the director of marketing at the Tampa Bay History Center. Whether it was carefully constructed to represent the city's past or thrown together by an inventive deli owner, the Cuban provides a tasty lens into history.

"It's a unique way to view Tampa's immigrant story," Leto says. "Today, more than cigars, it's the mix of Spanish, Italian, and Cuban cuisines—especially the Cuban sandwich—that is the real legacy of Tampa's early Latin community."