For those who worship their hoagies at the altar of the sandwich press, there may not be a more perfect creation than the Cuban sandwich.
A concoction of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard stuffed into crunchy, buttered bread, it's toasted in a sandwich press until its filling steams and its flavors fuse together, resulting in a warm, thin, crispy sandwich whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Cuban Foods Bakery & Restaurant on the city's west side makes a formidable Cuban sandwich. Larger than those you may have had elsewhere, the plate-size sandwich is juicy and a little garlicky, and the golden brown bread maintains its crispiness even as it soaks up the well-balanced mix of ingredients within. I maintain it's best consumed (like its relative, the Media Noche sandwich) with a cold, bracing glass of Malta, preferably mixed with condensed milk to gives the molasses-tasting soft drink a creamy texture and an aroma of corn flakes.
A Formidable Cuban Sandwich and More on Phoenix's West Side
Cuban Foods Bakery 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Tostones rellenos: $4.49
Sandwich Cubano: $6.95
Lechn asado: $8.49
Ropa vieja: $7.99
"I have a bakery make the bread for my Cuban sandwich," says Cuban Foods owner Manuel Hernandez. "It's modeled after the bread they use for Cuban sandwiches in Miami. And, of course, I make the pork here."
Hernandez, along with some of his family, came to Phoenix seven years ago, part of an exodus to the United States that Cubans have been making ever since their 1959 revolution. He opened his small, tidy restaurant with a handful of tables in a west-side strip mall in January 2012. The fact that there are two baked-goods cases in the space is no mistake. Although he's responsible for the restaurant's scratch-made cooked dishes, Hernandez considers himself a baker first. At 18, he started working at a bakery in his hometown of Havana, learning not just the art of Cuban desserts, but of French pastries as well.
"I can make a very good croissant," he says. "But here, I make sure everything is 100 percent Cuban."
Hernandez calls his food simple, but a better definition might be homestyle. Well-prepared and hearty, it's gratifying in a fried-and-meaty kind of way. The Cuban sandwich is almost a rite of passage here, but there are other good dishes, too: Slow-cooked meats redolent with garlic, onions, and cumin; stuffed, crumbly cups of fried plantains; and seasoned black beans and rice flecked with onions, peppers, and bits of pork. The Cuban-style desserts — flan, flaky pastries filled with tropical fruits, and bread pudding flavored with guava — that Hernandez makes each morning may be sweeter than what you're used to, but they make for a satisfying ending to the meal all the same.
For a very good snack or starter, you'll want the tostones rellenos. Featuring plantains that are gently fried, smashed, shaped into cups, then fried again, the crunchy golden vessels can be bulked up with puffy shrimp, ropa vieja, or luscious pieces of ham in a seasoned tomato sauce topped with a slice of Swiss cheese. And if you're after meat and potatoes in an easy-to-eat package, you'll want the papas rellenas. The size of baseballs, these two golden orbs of fried filled potatoes are crispy on the outside, creamy within, and contain a seasoned beef reminiscent of a sloppy joe.
If you've come for a more traditional Cuban meal, as many of the restaurant's Cuban, Colombian, and Puerto Rican patrons regularly do, there are several that will do the trick. Heaped upon plates, they're served alongside rice and beans and a simple lettuce and tomato salad drizzled with olive oil and vinegar and sprinkled with salt.
There is a massive pollo a la plancha, or grilled chicken breast, moist and thin with a delicate seasoning of garlic and lemon and a topping of grilled onions. Better is the popular Cuban pork dish lechón asado. Garlicky and a touch sweet, the slow-cooked meat is meltingly tender, and its thick sliced pieces harbor a luscious layer of fat under crispy skin. The ropa vieja, the Cuban specialty whose name (Spanish for "old clothes") comes from its stringy shreds of meat, peppers, and onions, is about as good as it gets. Featuring frayed strands of beef in a tomato-based sauce layered with garlic, onions, green peppers, cumin, and wine, bites of this meaty, well-seasoned stew get even better with black beans and rice on the fork.
In the area of seafood, the canciller, a large and lightly breaded fillet stuffed with ham and cheese and served with crispy plantains, could easily be a candidate for most interesting fish and chips. Sadly, the quality of the fish takes it out of contention.
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There are noteworthy specials, too. Listed as available only on the weekends, most need to be called in ahead of time, but (bonus) Hernandez will prepare them any day of the week with enough notice.
His version of arroz imperial, a comfort food dish of chicken, rice, ham, corn, garlic, onions, and red peppers, is basically a casserole by way of a Cuban kitchen. And thanks to its secret ingredient — mayonnaise — it becomes, as one of my dining partners so eloquently stated, "like crack for Midwesterners."
The centerpiece of the specials, however, is the pollo relleno, a true feast and one you'll need the help of a few hungry carnivores to consume. Hernandez stuffs a whole chicken with ham and cheese, seasons and paints it in butter, then roasts it, for something akin to the Cuban version of chicken cordon bleu. Finding the slices of buttery baked potatoes, hidden under the chicken's ringed garnish of lettuce and tomatoes, makes for additional mealtime entertainment.
With the exception of the occasional Cuban music coming out of speakers and a humming cooler filled with soft drinks like Malta, Materva, and Jupiña, Cuban Foods could be any restaurant. Inside the small wood-paneled room there are kitschy salt-and-pepper shakers on the tables and artwork of French bistros on the walls. Even the exterior sign still reads Bisteces, the name of the Mexican restaurant once occupying the space. But then there is the food and the friendly servers who not only take the time to guide you through the dishes but, like Hernandez, say hello and goodbye as well. They make what isn't Cuban about Cuban Foods hardly matter at all.