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The Cuban Sandwich at Versailles in Miami's Little Havana

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Welcome to Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy dishes.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

The Versailles Cubano is a study in classic preparation. Freshly baked Cuban bread is piled high with sweet ham, slow roasted pork, Swiss cheese, plus a helping of pickles and yellow mustard. It's then grilled on a sandwich press with plenty of butter. Cubanos are a popular order at the restaurant and its walk-up window La Ventanita, and Valls says they easily sell at least 200 a day.

Eater Miami has named the dish one of the city's most iconic, and the sandwich had a star turn inspiring Jon Favreau's character in the new film Chef to make Cubanos of his own. Even José Andrés has paid his respects to the Versailles Cubano, adding a "'Cubano' In Honor Of Café Versailles" to the menu at The Bazaar in South Beach. Eater Miami editor Ana Heretoiu puts the legendary sandwich in context:

"Versailles' menu is unmistakably traditional and their Cuban sandwich is no exception. It's not fussy or modern. It doesn't have a 'twist.' It's just a classic, simple sandwich, but you eat it on a paper placemat under a row of huge chandeliers and chase it with a cortadito at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. It's odd to others, but the whole scenario perfectly embodies Miami."

Below, the elements of the Cuban sandwich at Versailles:

1. The Bread

One of the distinguishing features of the Versailles Cubano is the fresh-baked Cuban bread. Versailles is lucky enough to be adjacent to its own wholesale bakery operation. This means that Versailles gets deliveries of fresh baked bread daily. Valls describes Cuban bread as a "very simply white bread," similar to a Pan de Agua, but made with a small amount of lard. The lard adds a unique flavor and scent to the bread which complements the other porky ingredients. The actual baking process — the kneading, the proofing, the baking — is similar to that of any other white bread, says Valls. As is traditional, the bread is baked in long loaves.

It's not just tradition that makes Cuban bread an ideal match for a Cuban sandwich, however. Valls explains that the light Cuban bread gets "toasts up great and gets very crispy" on the double grill. Because it's so airy, the bread also "grills flat and becomes dense." Valls says that an inch of bread might compress to ⅜ of an inch after grilling.

2. The Ham

The bolo ham on the Versailles Cuban sandwich is more than meets the eye. Says Valls: "We use the whole ham, and then we go through the work of getting them, having them, breaking them down, glazing them, and cooking them off." The glaze is particularly important, because the ham in a Cubano is traditionally sweet. Valls coats the ham in brown sugar, pineapple juice, and cloves before baking it off. Proportionally, the ham is the star ingredient, with a sandwich boasting about four ounces of ham to three of pork and three of cheese.

3. The Cheese

Valls says that the imported Swiss cheese may well be the most important element of his Cubano. Valls says that while a lot of restaurants will use softer cheeses like American or Havarti, using thick-sliced Swiss is an important element of an authentic Cubano. There's as much cheese as there is pork in the Versailles sandwich, so Valls does not want to sacrifice any flavor.

4. The Roast Pork

As with the ham, Valls does not take any shortcuts when it comes to the roast pork for the Cuban sandwich. Whole, bone-in pork legs soak in a marinade made with garlic, lemon, lime, sour orange, oregeno, and cumin. It is then roasted low and slow in a 300 degree oven for about three hours or until the pork is cooked through. "The freshness of the pork is important," says Valls about what makes the Versailles Cuban sandwich a stand out in town. "It's not getting dry sitting in a cooler. We have the volume to bake off the pork daily." Valls credits the pork with giving the sandwich an "exotic flavor."

5. The Toppings

As tradition mandates, the Versailles Cuban sandwich comes standard with pickle chips and yellow mustard. With both these components, Valls emphasizes that it's just about keeping it simple. "We use good, deli-style sliced pickle chips. Nothing too complicated … It's kind of like the mustard. Just use the basics." When it comes to mustard, Valls admits that he adheres to tradition with the Cuban sandwich, even though he actually prefers a grainier mustard than the yellow mustard that's typically used.

6. The Assembly

The sandwich is assembled at the restaurant's lunch counter, also used for salad prep. The loncheros, counter workers, build the sandwich on the entire loaf of bread. The sandwich is built cold.

After the bread is sliced, "just a little line" of yellow mustard is added to the bottom half.

Cooking whole cuts adds a complication: The loncheros must slice the ham and the pork very cleanly. Sometimes they'll trim the "flap" to make sure no meat hangs over the edge of the bread.

The ham is layered on the top half of the sandwich. The roast pork is placed on the mustard-ribboned bottom half. Pickles and a double layer of swiss are added next and then the sandwich is closed. During service, the loncheros will cut sandwich portions from this assembled loaf.

One the most recognizable features of any Cuban sandwich is that it's pressed. Versailles uses a double-sided Star sandwich grill that has a flat bottom and flat lid. Before the sandwich touches the grill, butter is added. The loncheros split the sandwich open so that there is ham on both pieces of bread. The halves are then placed ham-side up and the lid is closed lightly to warm the meat and sear the ham a little bit. ("The more you grill the ham the tastier it gets.") Valls points out that they never put the roast pork directly onto the grill because it "throws off the flavor."

The loncheros put the top half back on the sandwich, and brush it with butter before closing the lid of the grill. "Grilling it fresh and correctly is half the trick," Vallis says. "You have to do the right amount, you can't squeeze too much. And you have to do the timing right."

When the cheese starts melting and the bread is golden brown, the sandwich is taken off the grill. It's sliced down the middle on a 45 degree angle, plated, and served.

· Versailles [Official Site]
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