Maybe walking around Queens searching for the best Cuban sandwich during a heat wave wasn't the best idea I've ever had—but the hot, humid weather sure felt like we were in Florida (or what I assume Cuba to feel like), so it kind of made sense. Whoever invented this sandwich was a genius. In a well-made Cuban sandwich, all of the ingredients combine together perfectly in a thin, crisp, salty, cheesy, meaty slice of deliciousness. Buttered sweet bread is filled with thinly-sliced ham, chunks of roasted pork, Swiss cheese, a swipe of mustard, and a few pickles for crunch, then pressed together and toasted to a golden brown. For everyone who wants not just one but two types of pork on their sandwiches, there is just so much to love. Is it possible to find a great version of this classic sandwich in Queens?
Cabana Nuevo Latino
I thought it would be a good idea to get a sandwich at Cabana, if only because Cabana in Forest Hills is the original location of a Cuban-style chain that now has two locations in Manhattan, and two in Florida. And it wasn't a bad sandwich. It also turned out to be the only sandwich that came with any sort of side. But it was basically just an expensive toasted ham and cheese sandwich on thick bread, as that was all I could really taste. There was no mustard, the thinnest sliver of pickle, and the roasted pork was forgettable. The sandwich platter came with a side of plantain chips with garlic mojo, and a choice of soup or salad. I chose salad. The chips were good, and tasted very fresh, the mojo was very garlicky, and the salad was a plain garden salad, undressed—not much else to say about it.
Price: $10.00 plus tax
Highlights: Plantain chips.
107-10 70th Road, Forest Hills (map) (718) 263-3600
Mojitos is an interesting, if rather unwelcoming looking Cuban place on Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside. There is not much written about it, and the two times that I've been there, I was either alone, or there was only one other occupied table. But they have live music on the weekends, and the food is good; I don't understand the place, but I like it.
The Cuban was not quite traditional—it didn't have any ham or mustard on the sandwich, two key components. The sandwich was very thick, not quite pressed enough. But the pernil was delicious. Chunks of pork with crispy bits and fatty bits. The bread, though thick, was sweet and soft, and really tasty. And there was the most amount of pickles that I have ever seen on a Cuban sandwich. So while I can't say it had everything that it needed to have, it tasted great.
Highlights: Fresh and tasty bread, great pork, olive toothpicks.
52-20 Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside (map) (718) 672-3158
New Thompson's Diner
The one stop that wasn't a Cuban restaurant. New Thompson's is a Dominican diner, and the steam table selections look great—rice, beans, fried chicken chicharron, stews, etc. But they had a Cuban sandwich and I ordered it. I watched as the counter man assembled it, grabbing pernil from the steam table with tongs, putting the sandwich together on a large roll, and then pressing the whole thing on the flat top griddle with the weight that was previously used for bacon. Nothing wrong with that.
It was a good sandwich, not only from the extra bacon flavor on the outside, but because there was, along with ham and super-tender pork, pickles, and cheese, an added slice of salami. A little more pork never hurt. What was missing from the sandwich, besides mustard ( they added mayo between layers of meat) was the crispness and flatness that comes from a sandwich press, and the simultaneous grilling of both sides of the sandwich. But I can't complain about a huge, pork-y sandwich.
Highlights: Surprise salami, lots of pickles.
32-44 Queens Blvd, Long Island City (map) (718) 392-0692
Havana Express Bakery & Cafe
At the end of the N line in Astoria there is a cute little Cuban bakery and cafe that sells cakes by the slice, pastries, and hot sandwiches. The Cuban sandwich here was very good. There was nothing missing, the ingredients were fresh, the bread was crusty on the outside then soft, giving way to a nice layer of mustard, a few pickles, shredded soft pork, sweet, pink ham, and two slices of Swiss cheese. A well-made, high quality sandwich. Very good.
Highlights: Great ingredients, good flavor.
21-37 31st Street, Astoria (map) (718) 545-9344
Walking into the luncheonette at El Sitio is like stepping back in time. A time where luncheonettes with red vinyl covered stools were everywhere, and handwritten signs announced the daily specials. The technique of the Cuban at El Sitio is the most complex of all the sandwiches that I tasted on this trip.
They don't just take the sandwich and put it between the sandwich press. Oh no. The top layer of bread is pressed alone on both sides along with the half of the sandwich that is piled with the meats, cheese, mustard and pickles, and it is only put together in the final moments of pressing. They constantly baste it with butter. The sandwich receives lots of care. And it shows.
The bread is so flat and crisp at the end of the process that the ingredients really have a chance to shine. Very thin ham, a few slices of pickles, not quite enough mustard, great melt-y cheese, and thick slices of roasted pork. The only thing keeping this sandwich from the winning position was that the pork was on the dry side. Other than that, a great sandwich, made with the attention it deserves.
Highlights: Great thin bread, attention to detail.
68-28 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside (map) 718-424-2369
The winner. And another step back in time. While the cooking process was not as complex as at El Sitio, the end result was the same. Incredibly thin, crisp, great tasting bread, with simple but tasty ingredients piled in between. At Rincon, the roasted pork was moist, the ham was thick-cut and salty, and I could taste every ingredient. The mustard was there, a few pickle slices (not quite enough, although for me there are never enough pickles on a sandwich) and melted Swiss cheese surrounding the meat. There was nothing lacking, everything worked together—it had everything that I was looking for in a Cuban sandwich.
Highlights: Crisp, thin bread, moist pork.
40-09 Junction Blvd, Corona (map) (718) 639-8158
After trying Cuban sandwiches in all different types of establishments, it didn't really surprise me that my two favorites came from the old school restaurants. They've had the time to perfect their technique, and are frequented by regulars who wouldn't want to see anything change. And with so many restaurants opening and closing every few months in Queens, it's nice to see that places like El Sitio and Rincon Criollo have found a way to survive. Where else can one find the ideal Cuban sandwich in New York City?