The Lost Cuban, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Before I get to my latest restaurant review, I have to say how amazed I am to be writing my 100th post on Dan vs. Food. It’s truly amazing to me that people across the world actually want to read my restaurant reviews, and it’s been quite a fun ride that will only continue as Amy and I journey together and travel across the country.
This one was substantially closer to home, as Amy and I discovered a place that mirrors our story. After months of meeting up in each other’s home cities, with her coming to Iowa and me going to Tampa, Amy decided to join me in the north last year, bravely leaving the only life she had ever known to start all over and spend her life with me. It’s been nearly 11 months since she made the move, and while some parts have been difficult for her to adjust to (such as the ice storms, the lack of a Publix grocery store and living in a substantially smaller and more isolated location than Tampa), she’s done a great job and our relationship is amazing. We’ve spent two years together now, and I’m so lucky I have her.
Jess Streit knows exactly what that feels like, because a couple years ago, he decided to leave Florida when his girlfriend landed a job in Cedar Rapids, moving to the north to be with her. Much like Amy, he faced a cultural adjustment as the things that he had known for years in Florida were no longer available in Iowa. Some of those things he could handle, but the one that he could not was the complete lack of Cuban restaurants in the Hawkeye State.
As anyone from Florida can tell you, the Cuban sandwich is dominant in both Miami and Tampa, and you can find good Cubans pretty much anywhere in those two cities. The Miami Cuban includes pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mayonnaise, mustard and pickles on pressed Cuban bread, while the Tampa Cuban, because of Italian immigrants, includes salami. It’s one of Amy’s favorite things about the cuisine of her home city (along with Wright’s, which nothing in Iowa has ever come close to matching), and it’s a delicacy that I’ve also enjoyed on occasion. But it’s very much a Florida delicacy, because as Amy discovered when she moved here, you can’t find Cuban bread in Iowa, and without that, you can’t have a real Cuban, no matter what some places try to claim is a Cuban.
Well, after a few months in Cedar Rapids, Jess Streit discovered the exact same thing for himself, and it wasn’t long before he decided that enough was enough. As much as he loved his girlfriend, there were certain things he needed to have in order to be comfortable in his new state, and one of those was Cuban food. Without the comforts of home, he felt lost in Iowa, and from that feeling came a restaurant idea. Armed with his grandparents’ recipes, Streit decided to put his feelings out there for all in the City of Five Seasons to see, opening The Lost Cuban in October of 2012.
As its name implies, The Lost Cuban brings the flavors of Cuba and Florida to the Midwest, which is actually something that has never before been done in the entire state of Iowa. The Hawkeye State is good at a lot of things food-wise, but southern and Caribbean cuisine aren’t among those areas of strength. The approach of farm-to-table works well with corn and beef, but not so much with guava and mangoes.
But when you know what you’re doing, you can make any cuisine succeed anywhere, even in an area that has never seen it before. The main way that’s done is authenticity, and that is where The Lost Cuban really shines. From the moment you step into the restaurant and spot the Cuban imagery covering the small walls, it’s clear that this is about as close as you can get to a real Cuban meal without actually making the trip to Florida or Havana.
What that means is a good mixture of beans, rice and Cuban bread, which is by far the most essential part of the experience, as Amy has said many times. Cuban bread is plentiful in the southeast and is available not only at restaurants, but in most grocery stores as well. But in the north, Cuban bread just isn’t found, which is why Amy has been so skeptical whenever she’s seen a Cuban sandwich on a restaurant’s menu here. If it isn’t on Cuban bread, it just isn’t a Cuban, a point that Amy has made many times.
This time, however, she was excited to make the trip and taste the sandwich for herself, because The Lost Cuban knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to the bread. The bread has to be baked a certain way to come out properly, which leads to a perfectly pressed Cuban sandwich when done correctly. At The Lost Cuban, it’s a Miami-style Cuban, which leaves out the salami, and it’s simply outstanding. When I looked at Amy, I saw a look on her face that said that she’d finally been reunited with something she’d been missing for too long. It’s a look that I know quite well, having seen it from her at places in Tampa and having displayed it myself when I find myself with the chance to enjoy things such as Five Guys or Kopp’s.
Along with the authenticity and the quality of ingredients, the other thing that makes the Cubans here work so well is the sauce that is offered along with it. The Lost Cuban offers three main sauces along with the sandwich, with my favorite being a sweet and smoky sauce that offers “a little bit of sweet and a little bit of heat”, with the heat actually coming from some habaneros and the sweetness coming from both the habaneros and other sources such as mangoes and guava. It really works well with the ham, pork and Swiss, and I ended up dunking most of my sandwich in it.
Amy opted for the second sauce, which is more of a heated, smoky flavor without the sweetness. As we’ve established many times before, her spice tolerance is a heck of a lot higher than mine, and the smokiness worked perfectly for her. I found it a little bit too hot, although the taste still worked quite well. The third sauce is labeled the Cuban Missile Crisis, which includes the infamous ghost chile. Needless to say, Amy and I are nowhere near that crazy, and when it was mentioned to us, both of us just laughed.
Along with the Cubans come rice and beans, which mix perfectly together. The black beans are mixed in with vegetables and were another part of the Florida diet that Amy had really been missing. The juices give the rice the flavor it needs to go from solid to outstanding, and it’s a perfect complement to the Cuban. The Lost Cuban offers the sandwich with rice, beans and a drink as its special on a regular basis, and it’s definitely the way to go if you want the real Cuban experience for a reasonable price.
The real experience is always what means the most, and that’s where The Lost Cuban really shines, because it brings something to Iowa that didn’t exist before and it does it the right way. It’s not going to be quite as good as a Cuban in Florida, simply because of the distance the ingredients have to travel to get to the north from the southeast. But it is going to be a delicious and authentic recreation of the sandwich and sides that Tampa and Miami have perfected over the past century, and that’s all you can really ask for.
There’s a reason that the City of Five Seasons has named this place its top restaurant after just over one year. It’s because when you have something unique and you do it well, people will embrace it. As a result, The Lost Cuban has found a home, and an authentic Cuban is no longer something that requires an Iowan to get on a plane. I know that’s something that Amy and any other Florida natives up here definitely appreciate.
Time to go: Don’t go on Sunday, because it’s closed on Sundays. It’ll be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays and stays open until 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday and 9 p.m. on Fridays. On Saturday, it opens at 1 p.m. and closes at 8 p.m.
Wait during my visit: None. We came right when it opened and were the first ones served.
Location: The Lost Cuban is at 209 3rd Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Cost: Not bad, but not quite Aguila’s. A Cuban special will cost you $8, which is perfectly reasonable. You’ll be hard-pressed to top $15 a person, and that’s if you don’t get a special.
Parking: This can be a problem. Cedar Rapids doesn’t have a lot of it, and there is no parking lot here. Your best bet is to hope to get lucky with street parking, or find a garage. The good news is that the meters on the street are free on Saturdays. They’re free on Sunday too, but that doesn’t help you because The Lost Cuban is closed on Sunday.
Seating arrangement: This can be an issue, as the thin stools can be wobbly and are also not made to support bigger bodies. Amy and I were OK with the size of the stools, although her stool was one of the unbalanced ones and had to be swapped out before we were able to eat. If you’re a bigger person, though, you might be in for a bit of an uncomfortable experience sitting down for too long.
Website: None as of yet, but they are working on one. They are on Facebook, and they do offer specials via Facebook.
Specialty items: Cuban sandwiches