Who makes the best Cuban sandwich in South Florida? It’s a seemingly simple question, with decades of history—and an equally long rivalry—behind it. It’s a lot of talk for just a few slices of ham, mojo pork, pickles, mustard and swiss cheese between Cuban bread.
There’s a new documentary exploring that question. The film, Mixto Cubano: The Origin of the Cuban Sandwich, is a semi-finalist in the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards. Tej Joshi is a rising senior at the University of Miami, and the lead producer of the film. Victor Padilla is a main character in the documentary and the brains behind the Cuban Sandwich Festival, which takes place every year. The two joined Sundial to talk about the sandwich's contentious history and the process of filming the documentary.
WLRN: Victor, are you saying that the Cubano was invented in Tampa?
Padilla: Well, the Cuban sandwich itself actually originated in Key West as a Mixto, which was a sandwich of meat, which normally was pork between two pieces of bread. But the Cuban sandwich, all the ingredients, is more than just the sandwich. It's a conglomeration of cultures—the Cuban culture, the Italian and the German Jews that were migrated to Ybor City.
So it has all those all those factors in it. In doing this documentary, what did you learn about the Cuban sandwich?
Joshi: I learned so much just exploring South Florida. I had never been to Tampa before I worked on this documentary. I've been to Key West once for vacation, but traveling across and meeting all different kinds of people, the reasons why they moved to these areas, those are really good experiences, and learning more about Cuban culture. I didn't really know why or how a lot of Cuban immigrants came to South Florida before I worked on this, and it’s a really interesting and very important story about Cubans themselves. Actually I learned this in Tampa. There's actually more, there's actually a larger Cuban population in Tampa than in Miami. I would have never believed that before I worked on this documentary. And honestly, I didn't know the ingredients of the Cuban sandwich.
What did you learn about that rivalry between these different regions over a sandwich?
Joshi: Well, when my team and I first started looking for a topic at school to find what we wanted do a documentary about, we actually found one of the events that Victor was putting on was the Cuban sandwich festival here in Miami, which he also has in Tampa. And when we first looked into that we thought, wow that's a really cool thing, maybe we’ll just do like a long story on this festival. I had no idea there was any sort of rivalry between anyone. And we started digging into it. You know, I'm looking at like online rankings of the best Cuban sandwich in Florida and I see all these people in the Keys like, 'oh we have the best sandwiches' and then look at people in Tampa. They passed legislation declaring the sandwich was theirs. And I just learned so much.
Victor, just wanted to get the sense of really how important is this sandwich to these communities?
Padilla: Councilwoman Yoli Capen and her husband Juan, back in 2012 actually got the Tampa City Council to pass a resolution to make the Cuban sandwich the signature sandwich of Tampa. And at the same time, my wife and I, we had created in October  the Cuban sandwich festival. Never had been done. So when we got in touch with Yolly -- she's a Tampa native I'm a Tampa native and you know she knew my family -- we knew each other. I knew her growing up and her husband Juan. And it just all fell together. So you know this sandwich is very iconic. And also it's part of history and the culture of Tampa. It's now part of Miami and a part of Key West. So it's very important. This sandwich is a very important sandwich.
Tej you know when you're when you came up with the idea for this for the documentary... Where did you start to put the story together?
Joshi: Just to get started with this documentary ... me and my team went out different places and try to find people who are passionate about the sandwich. When you listen to that beginning clip that you just played, it's clear no matter where they think the sandwich is from, people are really passionate about it. And for us it was that passion we wanted to find. So just getting out finding people who would work with us but also have a good knowledge.
This story has been updated to correct Tej Joshi's name.