A couple of years ago, I got a lecture from an ex-Floridian who had just moved to town. The topic was Cuban sandwiches, and his sticking point was the bread. There was no place in town that sold real Cuban bread, he said, and therefore no place that sold real Cuban sandwiches. Fair enough, though I argued there were plenty of places that substituted Leidenheimer loaves or other French bread incarnations that were, in my opinion, perfectly fine. We agreed to disagree.
On a recent trip to the West Bank, I stopped at Holly's Po-Boys & Cuban Cuisine in Gretna. Though it didn't look like much from the outside, it turned out the tiny convenience store on the corner of Derbigny and 7th streets sold more than just tallboys and toilet paper.
Owner Jesse Garcia, who hails from Havana, took over the store earlier this year, adding a simple menu of pressed sandwiches and traditional Cuban fare, including weekly specials like chuleta empanizada (thinly pounded breaded pork chops), ropa vieja (Cuba's national dish of stewed, shredded beef with peppers) and congri, Cuba's answer to rice and beans.
The real draw is the Cuban sandwich, that Cuban-by-way-of-Florida creation. Though many variations on the sandwich exist, its main components, at least in the traditionalist sense, remain fixed: roasted pork, sliced smoked ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, pickles and, Garcia insists, butter.
The variable in most reinterpretations is the bread, since the elusive pan cubano, with its buttery heft and characteristic center seam, can be hard to find outside Florida. Though he refuses to divulge his source, Garcia's choice of dense white bread is as close a cousin as any, with a crusty exterior and a lightness that lends itself well to the grill. The result is a buttery 9-inch sandwich with layers of garlicky roasted pork and Swiss cheese that oozes from the corners while the edges of ham curl and crisp. The medianoche sandwich is nearly identical, but is cradled by spongy egg bread instead. The bright marigold-hued slices imbue their innate sweetness, which contrasts and compliments the smoky characteristics of the ham.
Cuban croquetas are similar to their Spanish cousin, combining a smoky mix of minced ham and bechamel, and arriving coated in golden breadcrumbs. Fried yuca rellena are crispy on the outside, filled with soft, fluffy mashed yuca wrapped around a mix of cumin-scented picadillo, or ground beef cooked until soft with onions, garlic and spices.
Because it's hard to run a lunch business in this town without appealing to the masses, there also are po-boys and fried seafood. Roast beef po-boys can be ordered New Orleans style: dressed to order with salty, gravy-soaked slices sidling lettuce, tomatoes and a healthy smear of mayonnaise, a characteristically delicious mess. There's also an option to give the sandwich a Cuban spin, where the tomatoes and lettuce are tossed and the thick slices of roast beef are instead coupled with mustard and pickles before getting pressed on the grill, yielding a streamlined version of the local staple that's much easier to eat.
A tiny mom-and-pop operation in every sense, Garcia and his wife Holly take turns running the cash register in the front, answering phones, taking orders and popping back to the kitchen. There's not much in the way of table space, so it's easiest to grab your butcher paper-swaddled sandwich — mystery bread and all — and take it to go.