I once had two hours at the outset of a road trip to hunt down the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa, Fla., so I did the obvious: I asked the Hertz man where to go. He first sent me to a Cuban bakery where the Cuban bread was dense and plush and the Cuban coffee bittersweet; the Cuban sandwiches, however, bore no roasted pork, which is like making a muffaletta without olive salad. I should have fled his second recommendation, an Italian bakery in a Cuban neighborhood, when I saw the cook sticking what looked to be a submarine sandwich in the microwave. Even the lamest Cuban sandwiches -- the ones without roasted pork and the ones made with Wonder bread -- are pressed flat as a fashion magazine as they're heated, usually in a dual-griddle sandwich press. I left Tampa feeling like a climber whose one chance to summit Everest had gotten snowed out.
That was, obviously, before I discovered the delights of Cuban sandwiches in New Orleans (I might have stayed home had I known). And it was long before an informant told me about Christy's, a low-profile Gretna restaurant where Christy Delgado's Cuban sandwiches could set the bar for Cuban sandwiches between here and Miami. The Cuban sandwiches at Christy's are served honestly, in parchment-lined, red plastic baskets that match the red checkered tablecloths, the red carpeting, the red-painted chairs and the red stripes on an American flag. They contain all the essential ingredients in mathematical proportions: ham sliced evenly between thick and thin, roasted pork fried crunchy around the edges, a few sour pickles, a dab of yellow mustard and white cheese of the super-creamy, highly processed variety that melts like a second skin into New Orleans-style French bread. As is proper, Christy's Cuban sandwiches are flattened, the meat and pickles warmed and the bread dry-toasted.
Nothing comes on the side because nothing is needed on the side, but I like a milky mango shake to coax it down. Adventuresome or young drinkers might prefer the trigo shake, which tastes like Cheerios blended with milk. The only sandwich better than the Cuban at Christy's is the media noche (midnight sandwich), which contains all the innards of a Cuban sandwich pressed between pieces of yolk-yellow bread that's sweet but not as dessert-like as Cuban bread can get.
Besides the sandwiches and the fried seafood platters, Christy's menu offers five entrees, all of them beef and all of them served with smashed, fried plantains, fluffed white rice and soupy black beans that have an off-putting, dusty flavor. Tangy bistec de Palomilla, otherwise known as Cuban steak, comes pounded thin, marinated in garlic and seasoned within an inch of Gretna's water supply; it's jaw-achingly chewy, but the work is well-rewarded -- there's not a speck of gristle. For another noble beef dish, ropa vieja (unappetizingly translated to "old clothes"), long strands of shredded beef come mixed with oil, sauteed onions and the suggestion of tomato. Cuba's people have loved tasajo, salt-dried and preserved beef, since Columbus introduced cows to the island country. While Christy's tasajo might touch the heartstrings of a homesick expat, the waitress, who appears genuinely frightened when an American orders anything other than a sandwich, was right to warn me about its intolerable salt content. I could handle only one strand of it per tablespoonful of rice.
I've noticed that oxtail sounds more palatable to many people than other underdog cuts of meat like, say, backbone or pig feet. If you're one of them, dig into Christy's wonderful rabo encendido on Fridays and Saturdays. An oily, tomato-stained sauce coats the inch-thick rounds of beef tail, and the deep-pink meat is wickedly tender, akin to long-cooked backbone or pig feet. I've heard that Christy's sometimes offers roasted chicken at lunch, but I've only seen entree specials featuring more beef.
Keep an eye out for the inconspicuous specials board hanging beside a rectangular porthole to the kitchen, or you'll miss out on appetizers such as the smoky, ham-filled croquettas that are Cuba's deep-fried answer to the hot dog, or the turmeric-colored empanadas filled with cumin-seasoned ground beef and cilantro. The board also advertises decent, entree-heavy tamals involving tender cubes of pork hidden within a soft knoll of cornmeal. Coffee isn't listed on any menu, probably because ordering it is second nature to Cubans. Christy's demitasses of coffee are more powerful than espresso, if that's possible, and sweetened in the kitchen with more sugar than most people dare to use on their own.
A mural on one wall of the 10-year-old restaurant depicts a ship sailing through the black of night between two shores; a figure waves good-bye from Havana's Morro Castle on one, while a second figure waves an American flag in welcome on the other. The dessert options at Christy's a few weeks ago -- boxes of Girl Scout cookies and a too-dense, eggy flan -- provided a parallel, edible representation of the Cuban-American relationship. I ordered both and counted my blessings for a successful reconnaissance mission.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Everything matches: CHRISTY'S POBOYS serves up its Cuban sandwiches in red baskets, atop red tablecloths, hovering over red carpeting, while you sit in red-painted chairs.