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.
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.
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.