Running the “Philly Special” in our Search for the perfect Cuban sandwich



With apologies to W.C. Fields, it had to be Philadelphia.

Over the last several months, our search for the perfect Cubano saw me and Linds B make our way through a solidly righteous collection of foodie towns from Harrisburg and Reading to Lancaster and Elizabethtown. But when we decided it was high time to get back to it and finish this search, it had to be the biggest town in the commonwealth . . where football and food reign supreme.


If you’re not from the state, you just don’t understand how unfair it is that Philly has been subject to typecasting more often than Will Smith (Shout out to West Philadelphia on that one . .). The real deal truth is that cheesesteaks are nothing more than a starting point. Because this town can hold its own with any city under the flag it made famous when it comes to offering up a wide array of culinary choices.


Our first stop was Reading Terminal Market, where we ran into Joe Nicolosi, the head chef at DiNic’s Roast Pork. This city institution got some much deserved national cred when it was featured on an episode of Man vs. Food with Adam Richman, and shortly after that appearance it won the honor of “Best Sandwich in America”. (If you ain’t seen the MVF clip, you can find it here.) And so we had to go a few rounds with this heavyweight champion sammy: the roast pork with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe. After which I cursed the handsome devil who runs the kitchen for creating such a diabolically delicious piece of love that hurt so good and left us feeling as if maybe . . just maybe, our food run had peaked before the main event.


After a quick Google search, we set our coordinates for Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar. It was a twenty minute walk to Old Town, during which time Linds and me talked about everything but sports. We strolled past Independence Hall, drank in the city sounds and made small talk with a cute little pixie by the name of Iris who dealt up some serious 411 on the ASPCA.

Cuba Libre

Finally . . we found ourselves in the clutches of sweet Libertad, and when we walked inside the place, it felt as if we’d navigated ninety miles worth of ocean trespass and had landed in the heart of old Habana. We were seated next to a staircase whose ascent might have leaned into stars of a long lost time when an island nation was the resort of choice for many Americans. The interior was an argumentative cascade of modern and classical architecture dressed in vibrant island colors.

And then it struck me as to what this little mission of ours had stood for from the get. Our search had been a humbly romantic nod to a time when patience and roots held sway and songs bred revolutions and islands swam on earnest tides. And so we kept to the charter by ordering up a couple of classic mojitos and El Cubano.

The open air setting worked backup to the pulsing beat of Latin classics that bounded off the walls while wicker fans provided a wonderfully percussive remedy for a couple of B-side travelers with the finish line in their sights. And then our server broke it all down with a plateful of artful prowess. Peels of crunchy plantain done up as if by Dali, with our perfect Cuban sammy selection doing the straight up salsa right in our faces.

The Cuba Libre blueprint is an homage to where the Cubano first laid down roots in Ybor City, Florida: Sour orange marinated pork loin, Genoa salami, ham, provolone and Swiss with a yellow mustard-pickle relish. This rich and glorious past was brought to the present and pressed between a couple pieces of locally baked bread in such a way that the late, great Celia Cruz would’ve most certainly approved.

The Verdict

For the record? I’m pretty sad that our search has come to its conclusion because man . . . it was a time. Soooo, Imma take a moment before I give you the mostly predictable results.

Promised “Moment” . . .

Thank you for reading these installments. Really and truly . . thank you! We’ve made some great memories, had some great food and most of all we have enjoyed the feedback we have received on this via Facebook and WordPress, as well as our families and friends. And not to put one of those peeps on the spot, but Dale over at A Dalectable Life is gonna keep this tasty train going. You can check out her first installment here

I guess the only intrigue that remains is whether or not we gave Cuba Libre’s sammy a perfect score so here it is boys and girls . . .

The pork was succulent with tangy notes of decadence thrown in for good measure. The salami was a welcomed bit of spicy throwback to the original standard. The ham was sweet and savory, and the Swiss was a pelt of luscious melt with provolone rocking it in the new old fashioned way.  Even the yellow mustard-relish worked surprisingly well, helping to bring everything together. And when you press all these savory selections into a small boat of bread baked fresh in Philadelphia proper? It would seem a slam dunk certainty that we went all Bo Derek on this puppy.

Alas, we are notoriously tough graders and so we had to deduct for the provolone and the relish since they are newcomers, and thus . . . not original ingredients. But 9.5 out of 10 is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it makes the Cuba Libre version our Search winner.

And it really did have to be Philadelphia. Because there’s a dignity that runs in stride with the brawny scrum of this town that gives it its unique flavor. From the moment you crash its gates, you understand the complicated history that goes into making anything that’s worth it.

So here’s to life, liberty and delicious pursuits.

35 thoughts on “Running the “Philly Special” in our Search for the perfect Cuban sandwich

  1. B,

    I gotta say… I dunno what is more tantalizing… your luscious descriptions of where you were or what you ate… I just wanted to be WITH you two to share in the experience. Tell you what.

    Yes, I will do another “tasting and rating” soon but man… this is one hard act to follow.

    Lotsa love, sharing and going the distance


    Liked by 1 person

    • Q,

      To each of us a different way of telling the same story, am I right? I must wax poetically since I have none of the charisma you exude. It takes all kinds of flavors . . .

      And yes, what a time it would have been eh? I even went and ordered a mojito, and I never do rum as you know. But man . . it was one of those “When In Rome” things . . to which I stuck to a single round and plenty of water, lol.
      I’m sure your tasting party is going to rock the hell out of the north side, and I very much look forward to it so that this search doesn’t end any time soon. Remember to nudge Frank when you conclude so we can keep it going!

      Peace, love and Q-bans . . .

      Liked by 1 person

      • OK, OK… you’re right. We each have our own style… You mean flavours, right?

        Mojito? I was wondering about that…knowing you are not a fan of the rum. At least you tried it.

        Well, I shall do my utmost to rock my tasting party, you can count on me. And yes, I will definitely nudge Frank!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Q-ban searcher . . .
          Umm . . and ugha . . and uber. They all have “U” in the word. And they aren’t alone . . they have plenty of “U” friends out there. So what’s with tucking (another U word) the letter into poor unwitting victims like flavor?
          The mojito was done up perfectly!
          A rocking tasting party? I love the sound of that!!!!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Alright, alright, alright… I’ll stop. Drop the “U” where you Yanks have dropped it, I’ll keep the “U” as a Canadian and it will be our thing.
            Glad to hear the mojito was done up perfectly – I am not a fan as the mint gets all nasty up in the teeth… no bueno – specially if your peeps are bitches and don’t tell ya…
            I hope to deliver! On the rocking tasting party…

            Liked by 1 person

          • Well like I told you . . I AM a fan of the University of Miami football team and they are nicknamed “The U” . . AND I even have a shirt! That HAS to stand for something, no?
            Linds would tell me if I had mint stuck in my teeth, but you’re right . . it’s definitely a drink to which you are mindful of the company you keep.
            Rock the tasty!

            Liked by 1 person

          • 😀
            Of course Linds would – as would I… I had a friend – bugger – we were having lunch, discussing the fact that friends would tell friends if they “Costanza” in their teeth… I get to my car. What do I see? GREEN ‘tween my teefs… so not cool.
            Rock the tasty for shizzle!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations on the end of your search. And I bet you thank your lucky stars it didn’t take as long as the long walk of those Lord of the Rings films… …. …. (They’re still walking, right?)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m all teary-eyed like I just finished an excellent book knowing there won’t be another. This was the quest of quests and it is only right that Philadelphia harbor the winner. Lucky you. Fine job, Marc.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never been to Philly so I’ve never had a truly authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but I’ve had enough of them to know what I think it should be. Beef sliced as thing as possible (I’m thinking like how they slice the raw meat you get at a Mongolian BBQ), then cooked on the grill until some of it is just a little bit crispy — enough to fill a quality hoagie roll, covered with grilled onions and peppers, and smothered in cheesy gelatinous goo. But not the really cheap plastic kind you get on nachos at the ballpark. Cheesy gelatinous goo with a bit of character. And that’s it. And it’s ridiculously amazing how difficult it is to find that. I’m almost to the point of not ordering the thing anymore because I rarely get that.

    As for your cubano … the picture tells the story for me. All too frequently, when I order a cubano I get something that has a slab of pork, instead of the thinly sliced pork and other meats your sandwich had. The one you had looks perfect, up to and including the little cheese drool coming out of the corner. That’s the kind of sandwich I would absolutely love to have right about now.

    Liked by 2 people

    • King,

      I used to be a Pat’s Steaks guy. The battle, they say . . has always been between those two even though you can find outrageous renditions all over town and even in the surrounding areas. I used to get one from a place in Delaware County (forget the name) that was every bit as good.
      It’s rib eye, sliced thing. Skirt steak can also be used.
      For my Pat’s I asked for it with provolone, sweet and green peppers and onions. No condiments. Always amazing.
      And you’re right about certain dishes such as this. I remember being in Chicago and not being able to find a decent bagel in that town! And it’s a great food town.
      But Imma tell you right now, that pork sammy at Dinic’s is maybe the best I’ve ever had.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This here homegirl vegetarian might have to take a breather from the lifestyle just based on that review! W.O.W. And what a spectacular venue. Nothing like creating some great ambience to go along with great food, great company and great libations. Bravo and buen trabajo!

    Liked by 1 person

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