In Scout’s How to Cook Vancouver series, we will be striving to combine our addiction to dining out with our passion for cooking by challenging ourselves to make Vancouver’s best restaurant dishes in our own homes.
How did it take until the THIRTEENTH column in this series for a sandwich tribute? I blame only myself – or more specifically, my indecisiveness regarding which contender amongst my most favourite food group (the noble sandwich) merited the title of ‘First Sandwich’. Was it to be Finch’s perfectly balanced pear and prosciutto masterpiece? The sensory-topping experience that is the #4 banh mi from Au Petit Café? Or perhaps a torta from one of the many delicious variations scattered across the city?
No. The first (of many) sandwiches that steals my focus needed to be melty, gooey, and stacked with the most revered sandwich filling: pork, glorious pork. There was really no question – it needed to be a Cubano and it needed to come from Havana, one of my favourite can’t-decide-between-brunch-or-true-lunch spots that makes you realize how much fried plantains with garlicky aioli are missing from your standard Sunday afternoon experience. Havana makes their version of the Cubano with their own porchetta and a house-made bun, but home-oriented sandwich makers cannot possibly expect to have such time on their hands. See my ingredients note for the shortcut that pays tribute to Havana’s stomping grounds of Commercial Drive.
Incidentally, the reason the recipe makes six sandwiches but only serves four is that it is simply a consistent fact that one of these porky delights is never enough and a full two reaches painful new heights of overindulgence. Exactly one-and-a-half sandwiches seems to be the perfect amount of crunchy, melty pleasure to send you into a state of utter sandwich bliss. At Havana I only want these with a side of mariquitas (plantain chips with chimichurri aioli) but at home I will happily downgrade myself to plain kettle- cooked chips so long as a cold beer stays in the mix.
Ingredients note: Vancouver’s best Cubano is found on Commercial Drive, so the best way of replicating it is to pay a visit to the same neighbourhood for ingredients. The Italian sandwich shop and deli of your dreams, La Grotta del Formaggio, is the perfect place to find both the honey ham and porchetta for these Cubanos (go for the rosemary porchetta instead of the rolled porchetta – it’s more similar to roasted pork versus deli meat). Conveniently, Fratelli’s bakery next door also sells what is marketed as a panini bun and serves as the perfect store-bought version of the crusty-but-not-palate-shearing bun suitable for achieving the ideal ratio of griddled bread to melty, salty fillings (yes, I’ve now used the word ‘melty’ three times in this preamble – it’s called laying down a mood). Incidentally, Santa Barbara market a few blocks down from La Grotto cuts a mean (and beautifully thin) slice of cheese, with plenty of Swiss styles to pick from.
Havana-Style Cubanos | Serves 4
6 long crusty buns
6 tbsp yellow mustard, or more as desired
6 tbsp (¾ stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
24 thin slices Swiss cheese (roughly 225 gr)
24 thin slices honey ham (roughly 300 gr)
24 thin slices porchetta (roughly 300 gr; thinly sliced roast pork would also do)
Small jar of dill pickles, whole or sliced (if whole, cut up into long slices – you’ll want 3 slices per sandwich AT LEAST) + more to serve
Potato chips and cold beer, to serve (hardly optional)
Preheat your oven to the lowest setting and place a large baking sheet on the centre rack. Set out a large cutting board on your counter to assemble the sandwiches on (or a long strip of parchment paper). Split the buns evenly lengthwise. Spread butter over the outsides of the buns (right onto the crust – NOT the inside halves!), getting right into every nook and using about 1 tbsp butter per whole bun. Both the top and bottom half of each bun should be well-slathered in butter to ensure crunchy crispiness when griddling. Spread the inside of each bun half with mustard (about a ½ tbsp per half, more for the mustard-lovers). Place 2 slices of Swiss, slightly overlapping, on each bun half over the mustard. Pat the pickle slices dry and lay about 3+ slices diagonally across the BOTTOM bun halves. Lightly drape 4 slices of ham over the pickles. Repeat with the porchetta slices. To avoid forming a thick shingle of meat, drape the meat onto the buns so that it folds over itself instead of getting packed down. Carefully cover the meat with the top halves of the buns (each of which should have just mustard and cheese on it if you did things right).
Place a large skillet – preferably cast-iron for even heat distribution – over medium-high heat. Once the pan feels quite hot (but isn’t smoking), turn the heat down to medium – this keeps the sandwiches from blackening on the outside before things have melted on the inside. Place a sandwich or two in the pan, then place something heavy on top (I have a cast-iron press, which is a device made exactly for this purpose, but you can also use a smaller skillet or simply a heavy plate or dish that you can press down on with your hands). Slowly push down to put even pressure on the sandwich(es) so that they avoid coming out lopsided and instead get evenly crisped. Keep pressing down until the bottom of the bun is golden-brown and crispy, a few minutes, then flip the sandwich carefully and repeat the pressing down process until the second side is golden and the cheese is gooey and melted. Place the sandwiches on the prepared pan in the oven to stay warm while you repeat with the remaining batches. Wipe out the skillet between sandwiches (if needed) and repeat with remaining batches. If you notice the bread blackening or toasting too quickly (less then a minute or two, or if the cheese hasn’t had enough time to melt), turn the heat down a bit and remove the sandwich from the pan while the heat adjusts. Keep sandwiches warm in the low oven until all batches are complete.
Cut each sandwich in half diagonally to serve. Present on a platter if serving to a crowd so that people can help themselves to a few sandwich halves. Serve alongside extra pickles, potato chips, and tall glasses of beer.