Pressing Issues

A search for the best Cuban sandwich also turns up great coffee and a bargain prix fixe dinner

I first fell in love with Cuban sandwiches in New York. There was a great Cuban coffee shop in the Broadway building that then housed the Village Voice, with the typical enormous coffee shop menu, but its specialty was roast pork of a particular succulence (the kind of roast pork that turned Roald Dahl's Lexington, in Dahl's short story "Pig," from a lifelong vegetarian to a carnivore after one bite), which was showcased in a couple of lush sandwiches. Sometimes I wanted the plain one -- just dripping pork, inches thick, on a roll; sometimes I wanted the fancy one -- pork layered with Swiss cheese, ham, mustard, and pickles, on a crisp roll pressed in a grill until all its ingredients melded into a juicy whole somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

That coffee shop -- indeed, that building -- has vanished. But not my memories of that roast pork, those sandwiches. I've eaten Cuban sandwiches, aka Cubanos or medianoches, everywhere I've found them, from the famous Versailles in Miami to Porto's Bakery in Glendale, with enjoyment, without ever quite rediscovering the sandwich of my dreams. (Some feel that the difference between a Cubano and a medianoche is the size -- a medianoche is smaller, and therefore appropriate to be eaten at midnight -- while others feel that the medianoche is served on lighter bread, either a sweet roll or challah-like egg bread, but not everyone agrees on these admittedly fine points.)

Recently my medianoche hunger was aroused when I heard about the opening of a new coffee bar, Cafe Lo Cubano, in the little Laurel Village shopping strip. But despite its generous hours (open every day from 6 a.m. to midnight) it took me a while to get over there, by which time the cafe had joined a list of several other Cuban sandwich purveyors put together by my friend Robert, who proposed a sandwich marathon one Saturday with his wife Gail. I requested that we start at Lo Cubano, which seemed like a good idea when we easily found parking in the lot just behind the restaurant and joined the long line at the counter in the big, bright corner space. I found the décor kinda upscale and un-Cuban (Danish modern furniture, among other midcentury tropes) for a place that tells you on its menu that "Lo Cubano" is a colloquialism meaning "quintessentially Cuban." But we were stunned to be told, when we tried to order a Cuban sandwich and a couple of coffees, that the place was out of roast pork -- at 11:30 on a Saturday morning! Robert was so pissed that he wanted to leave immediately, but my slower, as-yet-uncaffeinated reflexes kicked in and I ordered one of the two other pressed sandwiches on the menu (the sausage, rather than the grilled chicken), plus a cafecito for Gail and a café con leche for me.

Bird of Paradise: The "sample the menu" dinner at Los 
Flamingos is a happy surprise.
Anthony Pidgeon
Bird of Paradise: The "sample the menu" dinner at Los Flamingos is a happy surprise.

Location Info

Map

Cafe Lo Cubano

3401 California
San Francisco, CA 94118

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Haight/ Fillmore

Details

Cafe Lo Cubano

Cafecito $1.50

Colada (four shots) $5

Los Flamingos

Cuban sandwich $8.75

El Nuevo Frutilandia

Sandwich de puerco $5

Cubano $5.25

Bi-Rite

Pot de crème $4.95

Laurels Restaurant

Cubano (lunch only) $9

Cafe Lo Cubano, 3401 California (at Laurel), 831-4672. Open daily from 6 a.m. to midnight. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: free lot. Muni: 1, 3, 4. Noise level: moderate.

Los Flamingos, 151 Noe (at Henry), 252-7450. Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday until 11 p.m.; and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 24, 37, F. Noise level: low to moderate.

El Nuevo Frutilandia, 3077 24th St. (at Folsom), 648-2958. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m.; and Saturday from noon to 10 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Muni: 12, 48, 67. Noise level: low to moderate.

Bi-Rite, 3639 18th St. (at Guerrero), 241-9760. Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 33. Noise level: low to moderate.

Laurels Restaurant, 205 Oak (at Gough), 934-1575. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday from 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 8 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 6, 7, 66, 71. Noise level: moderate.

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While we waited, at least one other couple expressed annoyance that the sandwich they'd specifically come to try was unavailable. We took our coffee and sandwich to go; Gail's cafecito (sweetened espresso) was superb, and the sandwich, grilled linguiça with whole-grain mustard, was OK, though it could have used a couple more minutes in the press. (Cafe Lo Cubano has only one sandwich press, and it was overworked that morning.) As we drove to our second destination, Gail read aloud the description of the sandwich we couldn't get (what the cafe calls its "mediadia"), sparking Robert's disgust once he learned it contained jalapeño remoulade, and inspiring yet another installment of our continuing discussion regarding the difference between "authentic" and "good."

Los Flamingos, a Cuban-Mexican spot in a corner space that was most recently a Thai restaurant, looks like it's been there much longer than the year or so it has. We ordered, rashly, a couple of what the place calls the "original Cuban sandwich" (we were hungry after the relatively dainty Lo Cubano eats), along with a side of tostones and a couple of ham and cheese croquetas. I learned, as we nibbled on the big tostones (disks of flattened green plantains, fried) and the melty little fritters, that Gail's mother is Cuban, and that Robert and Gail considered Los Flamingos' tostones good, though not quite as good as Gail's. I loved the agua fresca on offer, a delicious fresh mint limeade. The sandwiches were huge -- one could easily feed two people, even if they weren't on a medianoche marathon -- and came, that afternoon, with fresh french fries. I would have been happier, again, if our sandwiches had spent more time in the press (or the skillet), to achieve the melding of ingredients and the thin, crisp crust that is the glory of the properly cooked Cuban sandwich, but I figured that on a return visit I'd take care of my needs by mentioning I like them well grilled. The pork was a tad dry. We were intrigued by a flier, slipped under the glass that topped our table, mentioning Wednesday-night "sample the menu" dinners. We would return.

We then headed over to Laurels Restaurant on Oak, only to discover that, though it lists Saturday lunch hours on both its Web site and (I found out later) its to-go menu, the place is apparently no longer open then. We were not deterred from our quest, however, and were sitting in the small, modest El Nuevo Frutilandia, purveyor of Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine, within a few minutes, waiting for two sandwiches, the classic medianoche and a straight pork number. These were more modest in size than Los Flamingos', the bread was softer and more authentic (or should that be "authentic"?) than Lo Cubano's, and the pork was juicier than either. Not nirvana, but close, especially at the bargain price of $5. Gail and Robert were on their way to an art opening, and dropped me at the Yerba Buena Center so I could attend a concert celebrating Marc Blitzstein's centenary. I had cannily saved a half sandwich from El Nuevo Frutilandia, which I was hungry for by intermission.

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