Aguila’s Sandwich Shop, Tampa, Fla.
What are the origins of the Cuban sandwich? What are the ingredients of the true Cuban sandwich? Actually, the answers to both questions are disputed to this day. While the Cuban we know today definitely began in Florida, Tampa Bay and South Florida have both claimed the creation of the Cuban, with both going their own ways over what actually goes on the sandwich.
In Tampa, where Italians were part of the culture as the city came to be, salami is generally included on the Cuban. In Miami, salami never goes on a real Cuban. In both cities, the sandwich always contains ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, with mayonnaise likely and lettuce and tomato added or excluded depending on the preference of the vendor.
So of course, the Cuban sandwich I discovered on my trip to Tampa, which has been praised by people across the nation…is a Miami-style Cuban. Aguila’s Sandwich Shop, owned by Cuban immigrant Mario Aguila and his family (their last name literally means eagle, which adorns their menus), serves up the sandwiches their way, the way they were eating and making them before moving from Cuba in 1966.
As a result, since the Aguila family didn’t have the influence of Italians that many longtime Tampa residents did, there is no salami anywhere on Aguila’s menu. Instead, Aguila’s holds true to the tastes of the Miami Cuban, putting the standard meats of ham and roast pork on the sandwich with the expected condiments on toasted Cuban bread.
The sandwich works perfectly. I’ve never been a huge fan of mustard (to the point where despite what my Chicago friends might think, I honestly believe ketchup is better on a hot dog than mustard is, although I do like the Chicago dog), but it works well on the Cuban. The ham and pork work with the tangy taste of the mustard, as do the dill pickles. Meanwhile, the mayo provides a different, creamy flavor that counteracts the tang. It’s a wonderful taste.
This was even with the lettuce and tomato on there, which I admit I had never seen on a Cuban before, and I didn’t actually order on my sandwich but got on it anyway. However, if it’s good enough for the Aguilas, it’s good enough for me. The lettuce and tomato added a new dimension to the Cuban, and it’s certainly a taste that works well. It’s actually an extra, not a standard ingredient, so I think the waitress just made a mistake. I’m not complaining.
Besides the standard Cuban, Aguila’s offers other sandwiches for those who just aren’t up to the real thing. Turkey, chicken, pork, beef, steak and meatball sandwiches are also available, as is the medianoche, a smaller version of the Cuban.
For a real taste of Tampa, though, you have to try the deviled crab. This delicacy started in the Tampa district of Ybor City, and it’s seen by some as Florida’s answer to the Maryland crab cake. There are two main differences between the two. The first is that deviled crab is breaded with Cuban bread and made to stay together when you eat it, while a crab cake will fall apart. That’s because deviled crab was designed to be able to eat on the go, and it’s usually eaten with one hand. The result is that there’s substantially more bread in the deviled crab than in the crab cake.
The second difference is the heat. Most crab cakes are seasoned, but the seasonings just add flavor, not spice. Not so with the deviled crab, which uses a Cuban sauce to impart heat as well as flavor. The additional heat and taste means that the crab actually works fantastically well with the addition of hot sauce, which Aguila’s provides at your table.
My wonderful girlfriend Amy McFann has said one of the things she’d miss about her hometown of Tampa if she left is the ability to get a real Cuban sandwich whenever she wants. Given the quality of the Cuban, however, I’d be glad to come back with her on a regular basis.
Time to go: Get here early. Aguila’s closes at 4 p.m., and on my visit here, my group was the last ones in the door. The good news is Aguila’s does open at 6 a.m. daily. It’s not open on Sundays.
Wait during my visit: Not great, not bad. Aguila’s has a small staff, so you might wait a while for your order. The wait is worth it.
Location: Aguila’s is at 3200 W Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, Fla.
Cost: Budget travelers, you’re in luck. Aguila’s is a poor man’s dream. Nothing on the menu costs more than $6, and those are the biggest sandwiches. No regular-sized sandwich costs more than $5. Even with a deviled crab and a drink, you won’t spend more than $10. From here on out, any ultimate budget spot is going in what will be known as the Aguila’s Budget Hall of Fame.
Parking: There’s not a lot, but there’s enough.
Seating arrangement: It’s standard chairs. Small space, but it works.
Signature items: Cuban sandwich, deviled crab