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The Cuban Press

Consider the Cuban sandwich. Perhaps the most popular of Cuban sandwiches is media noche, the midnight sandwich: garlicky roast pork stuffed into a plump roll. I have eaten “Cuban” grilled tuna sandwiches at street stands in Miami and Cubanesque smoked turkey sandwiches in a fancy restaurant on Melrose.

When referring to sandwiches, Mexicans sometimes use the term “Cuban” the way Americans do “Italian,” as a loose modifier signifying something like “massive” or “hugely overstuffed,” though the kind of Cuban sandwich you’d get in Guadalajara would probably bear no resemblance to the ones you’d find in Havana or Ybor City.

But what most people mean by a Cuban sandwich, the sandwich you’d get at a lunch counter if you asked for “a Cuban,” is one of the most astonishing on earth: a split length of buttered Cuban bread, stuffed with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and a pickle chip and grilled in a sandwich press until the filling has steamed, the pickle has warmed, the flavors have melded and the outermost crust of the bread has annealed into something crisp and shiny and thin as a dime.

A great Cuban sandwich is more than the sum of its ingredients. This much is universally accepted, but there are arguments as to just what makes a Cuban sandwich great. Some connoisseurs insist that the sandwich be made with a damp loaf, which may be the only bread capable of becoming crisp without drying out too much. Some people think the meat ought to be given a chance to be grilled a little bit; others countenance only soft meat crisped just at the edges. Some people enjoy mustard on the sandwich; the rest of us consider it an abomination.

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Last week, I ate a gaggle of Cuban sandwiches, hoping to arrive at an aesthetic of my own. It is possible to eat a good Cuban sandwich in a regular sit-down Cuban restaurant--though many of the places that list them on their menus are not actually prepared to serve you one. Like the burrito and the chili dog, a Cuban sandwich is ultimately fast food, mostly served at bakeries, better served in a red plastic basket than on China, best eaten straight from the griddle, washed down with a guanabana shake or the sticky Cuban soft drink called malta.

Of all the Cuban bakeries in Los Angeles, El Carmelo may be the one that feels the most like Spain, thick with the aromas of garlic and burnt oil and often populated with elderly tweed-wearing intellectuals holding forth for hours over thimbles of coffee. El Carmelo, though, may be less successful as a restaurant than it is as a place to hang out. The Cuban here seems to be something like the hoagie of the Cuban sandwich world, a broad, under-toasted loaf stuffed with Dagwoodian quantities of ham and roast pork that is a little dry in the Cuban fashion, a bit of Swiss cheese and a thick smear of yellow deli mustard: a sandwich without cohesion.

Porto’s, a giant Cuban bakery on Glendale’s main drag, is famous for its Cuban sandwiches, but the bread was dried out, the meat commercial-grade, the mayonnaise as overwhelming as the scene.

I’ve always been fond of Master Cake, a large, bright Cuban bakery on the eastern edge of Burbank, spotless as a computer clean room, furnished with the little marble tables you might associate with old-fashioned ice cream parlors. Master Cake’s long, glass counters practically burst with Cuban sweets, guava pastries, brazos del gitano, cream cakes and pale, soft pan de coco: sweet bread stuffed with coconut and cream cheese.

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The Cuban sandwiches here--thin bread, pressed and toasted almost to the consistency of crisp pie crust--are densely packed with meat. On one sandwich, I counted 15 layers of thinly cut deli ham. There was also juicy pork, edged with herbs like a superior Tuscan-style pork roast, deli mustard and soft, white cheese. This was the most generous of the sandwiches, and the ingredients were impeccable, but oddly, it was not among the best. A Cuban sandwich is supposed to be a rude insult to the system. Master Cake’s version is too genteel, the kind of Cuban sandwich you’d expect at a ladies’ tea.

Mr. Burrito, a strangely named Cuban drive-through in an industrial Glendale neighborhood, served a sandwich a little closer to the ideal: greasy, funky, over-mayoed, garnished with serrated hamburger dills--Mr. Burrito is, after all, a burger stand--but possessed of superb textural contrast and the sharp, garlic-saturated quality common to many of the best Cuban dishes.

It’d been years since I spent much time at Cafe Tropical, the famous Silver Lake Bohemian coffeehouse with the cheapest espresso in town. Tropical has never really felt the same since new owners remodeled the place into their version of a boho hang. Screenwriters and scenics largely replaced the old-time Cuban clientele; the music on the stereo modulated into the kind of stuff David Byrne might dig.

But when the right guy’s behind the counter, Tropical makes close to a perfect Cuban, pressed flat as a waffle, the bread tender, a little soft though cracklingly crisp, moistened with a squirt of a mysterious but garlicky substance from a squeeze bottle. The meat is griddled and browned, not just steamed by the warmth of the sandwich. The ham is sliced thin, intensely smoky; the fat pork dissolves into sweet juice.

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The cheese is more a faint presence than a dairy product . . . even experts are unable to agree whether the Swiss cheese should have an integrity of its own or should just melt and add an anonymous richness to the meat, like the American cheese on a cheeseburger.

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WHERE TO GO

Cafe Tropical, 2900 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 661-8391. Cuban sandwich, $3.75

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El Carmelo’s, 1800 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 484-9255. Cuban sandwich, $3.50.

Master Cake Bakery, 401 S. Glenoaks, Burbank, (818) 840-2760. Cuban sandwich, $3.

Mr. Burrito, 6424 San Fernando Road, Glendale, (818) 242-8895. Cuban sandwich, $3.65

Porto’s Bakery, 315 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 956-5996. Cuban sandwich, $2.75.

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WHAT TO GET

Cuban sandwich


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