The United States and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations after 50-some years, you may have heard.
Maybe you’ve already booked a trip to Cuba, now that it’s easier to get there. The Post-Bulletin has a trip planned, if you’re interested.
But already the Cuban thaw is paying dividends for diners. For whatever reason, Cuban sandwiches are now on about a dozen menus around town, from Dooley’s Pub and Brothers Bar & Grill to the Canadian Honker.
This is in addition to the popularity of the mojito, the minty rum cocktail that originated in Havana. Now if you choose your dining room carefully, you can have a Cubano sandwich with a refreshing mojito and imagine you’re in a hot, tin-ceilinged cafe with fans spinning, looking out on the pastel-colored buildings of old Havana.
That’s enough to justify a column on the Four Stars of Cuban Food and Drink, your passport to the most excellent Cuban sandwiches and mojitos in the area.
It should be said, the Cuban sandwich as served in the Rochester area is to Cuba as Swiss steak is to Switzerland. The sandwich has a rich history in Florida, where Cuban immigrants, especially in Key West and Tampa, Fla., craved it more than a century ago.
What’s in it? Thin-sliced ham plus roasted pork, Swiss cheese, and peculiarly, pickles and mustard on a chewy, crusty bread. Ideally it’s flattened and grilled in a plancha, or George Foreman-like griddle. It’s the quality of the two pork cuts and the tang of the pickles and mustard that make it a hit, along with the grilling. Alas in our area, no one presses it.
But wait! Before my deadline for this week’s column, Jeff Kiger reported in his Heard on the Street column that a new Cuban cafe is about to open in the First Avenue Food Court, and among other Cuban specialties, they’ll have pressed grilled sandwiches.
If I was smart, I’d wait to finish this column, but 507 editor Jeff Pieters needs it for this week, and I like to give a new restaurant time to get its act together before reviewing it anyway, so I’ll circle back to Francisco’s Cuban Cafe later.
At Dooley’s Pub on First Avenue downtown, they package the Cubanos up as sliders, three of them on fresh, chewy rolls, holding a heaping portion of pulled pork, thin slices of ham topped with melted Swiss cheese, pickles and just a dash of mustard. With kettle chips, they’re a good deal for $9.99.
Crooked Pint Ale House, which used to be the Green Mill restaurant on West Circle Drive, fills their Cubano ($11) with chunks of pork and thin slices of ham, then grills the sourdough bread to a crispy finish. It’s a big lift of a sandwich — if the original Cuban sandwiches were to keep workers filled up during a long day of tough, physical labor, these accomplish the same mission.
Crooked Pint has made some adjustments in their menu and now has plenty of comfort food, including Tater Tot hotdish, which is on my list of Four Stars favorites for this fall. It also has the biggest meat and cheese board ($13) in town, presented on a plank as big as a Monopoly board. It’s loaded with quality charcouterie, including a smoked duck sausage, an array of cheeses, sweet chili sauce and a mound of glazed pecans.
Among the more gringo-esque Cuban sandwiches in the area, I’m fond of the version at Brothers Bar & Grill, the underappreciated restaurant on South Broadway across from Soldiers Field. Brothers has been around since 1991, has longer hours and a bigger menu than just about any place in town, and is an all-around fun place, more grill than bar.
True, their Cuban sandwich is on ciabatta bread and they use mayo rather than mustard, but the pork is distinctive and it’s pickle-forward, with long diagonal cuts, rather than petite pickle chips. With fries or salad, it’s $10.35.
Now, where to go for the most Cuban mojito? That’s a tough question, since I only get to choose one. I have many favorites, including a few at 300 First, Terza and the Loop, Cuba but today I’ll go with the classic version at Chester’s Kitchen & Bar ($8). They use white Captain Morgan’s and a touch of brown sugar for the simple syrup, but otherwise it’s a traditional recipe, refreshing and with a full lime and a garden full of mint in every glass.
Order it now — a lot of bars in town are running low on mint and moving on to other seasonal drinks.
FOUR STARS OF CUBAN FOOD AND DRINK
255 First Ave. SW, Rochester
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
2723 Commerce Drive NW, Rochester
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
Shops at University Square, 111 S. Broadway, Rochester
Lunch hours: 11 a.m. for 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
812 Broadway Ave. S., Rochester
Hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday