That coffee shop -- indeed, that building -- has vanished. But not my memories of that roast pork, those sandwiches. I've eaten Cuban sandwiches, aka Cubanos or medianoches, everywhere I've found them, from the famous Versailles in Miami to Porto's Bakery in Glendale, with enjoyment, without ever quite rediscovering the sandwich of my dreams. (Some feel that the difference between a Cubano and a medianoche is the size -- a medianoche is smaller, and therefore appropriate to be eaten at midnight -- while others feel that the medianoche is served on lighter bread, either a sweet roll or challah-like egg bread, but not everyone agrees on these admittedly fine points.)
Recently my medianoche hunger was aroused when I heard about the opening of a new coffee bar, Cafe Lo Cubano, in the little Laurel Village shopping strip. But despite its generous hours (open every day from 6 a.m. to midnight) it took me a while to get over there, by which time the cafe had joined a list of several other Cuban sandwich purveyors put together by my friend Robert, who proposed a sandwich marathon one Saturday with his wife Gail. I requested that we start at Lo Cubano, which seemed like a good idea when we easily found parking in the lot just behind the restaurant and joined the long line at the counter in the big, bright corner space. I found the décor kinda upscale and un-Cuban (Danish modern furniture, among other midcentury tropes) for a place that tells you on its menu that "Lo Cubano" is a colloquialism meaning "quintessentially Cuban." But we were stunned to be told, when we tried to order a Cuban sandwich and a couple of coffees, that the place was out of roast pork -- at 11:30 on a Saturday morning! Robert was so pissed that he wanted to leave immediately, but my slower, as-yet-uncaffeinated reflexes kicked in and I ordered one of the two other pressed sandwiches on the menu (the sausage, rather than the grilled chicken), plus a cafecito for Gail and a café con leche for me.
While we waited, at least one other couple expressed annoyance that the sandwich they'd specifically come to try was unavailable. We took our coffee and sandwich to go; Gail's cafecito (sweetened espresso) was superb, and the sandwich, grilled linguiça with whole-grain mustard, was OK, though it could have used a couple more minutes in the press. (Cafe Lo Cubano has only one sandwich press, and it was overworked that morning.) As we drove to our second destination, Gail read aloud the description of the sandwich we couldn't get (what the cafe calls its "mediadia"), sparking Robert's disgust once he learned it contained jalapeño remoulade, and inspiring yet another installment of our continuing discussion regarding the difference between "authentic" and "good."
Los Flamingos, a Cuban-Mexican spot in a corner space that was most recently a Thai restaurant, looks like it's been there much longer than the year or so it has. We ordered, rashly, a couple of what the place calls the "original Cuban sandwich" (we were hungry after the relatively dainty Lo Cubano eats), along with a side of tostones and a couple of ham and cheese croquetas. I learned, as we nibbled on the big tostones (disks of flattened green plantains, fried) and the melty little fritters, that Gail's mother is Cuban, and that Robert and Gail considered Los Flamingos' tostones good, though not quite as good as Gail's. I loved the agua fresca on offer, a delicious fresh mint limeade. The sandwiches were huge -- one could easily feed two people, even if they weren't on a medianoche marathon -- and came, that afternoon, with fresh french fries. I would have been happier, again, if our sandwiches had spent more time in the press (or the skillet), to achieve the melding of ingredients and the thin, crisp crust that is the glory of the properly cooked Cuban sandwich, but I figured that on a return visit I'd take care of my needs by mentioning I like them well grilled. The pork was a tad dry. We were intrigued by a flier, slipped under the glass that topped our table, mentioning Wednesday-night "sample the menu" dinners. We would return.
We then headed over to Laurels Restaurant on Oak, only to discover that, though it lists Saturday lunch hours on both its Web site and (I found out later) its to-go menu, the place is apparently no longer open then. We were not deterred from our quest, however, and were sitting in the small, modest El Nuevo Frutilandia, purveyor of Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine, within a few minutes, waiting for two sandwiches, the classic medianoche and a straight pork number. These were more modest in size than Los Flamingos', the bread was softer and more authentic (or should that be "authentic"?) than Lo Cubano's, and the pork was juicier than either. Not nirvana, but close, especially at the bargain price of $5. Gail and Robert were on their way to an art opening, and dropped me at the Yerba Buena Center so I could attend a concert celebrating Marc Blitzstein's centenary. I had cannily saved a half sandwich from El Nuevo Frutilandia, which I was hungry for by intermission.
By the next Saturday I was ready to return to Cafe Lo Cubano, intending to show up after a double bill of documentaries about Cuban music showing at San Francisco State. But the morning's errands took way too long, and I missed the movies. It was midafternoon when I got to the cafe, which was much quieter than at my last visit. I ordered a roast pork sandwich, a whole pitcher (a colada) of cafecito, and a miniature angel food cake (which showed up on my receipt, charmingly, as a white angel), and settled in at a table with the newspapers. The sandwich was again just OK: The pork didn't have much flavor, nor did the jalapeño remoulade, and I missed both the crunch and the taste of the essential pickle chips that Cafe Lo Cubano's menu consultant, Johnny Alamilla of Alma, deemed unnecessary. But the cafecito was, I had to admit, divine.
Two days later I tried another so-called Cuban sandwich, available at the deli counter at the chic Bi-Rite food store, which Robert had already warned me, during another "authentic versus good" discussion, contained a layer of coleslaw. "Then," I said, "I can call it a Cuban Reuben," even though a Reuben features sauerkraut. What the hell. What I liked best about Bi-Rite's version -- which included good pork, no cheese, too-thick chunks of pickle, and way too much mustard, as well as the sharp slaw, on a resilient Acme roll -- was that I could consume it in Dolores Park on a sunny but cool day while watching many cute dogs frisk around. And that I could follow it with one of Bi-Rite's real triumphs, a perfect chocolate pot de crème.
The day after that the stars must have been in a lucky configuration, because I had my favorite San Francisco Cubano so far: at Laurels, sitting on a sunny banquette within earshot of a Cuban expatriate and two young guys peppering him with questions about Cuba before the revolution. The to-go menu mentioned turkey as an ingredient, but, happily, there wasn't any -- just the classic roast pork, salty and almost braised in texture, with cheese, ham, and thin pickle chips. The server sweetly acquiesced when I requested both tostones and plump, sweet maduros (sautéed ripe plantains) from the choose-one list of sides (which included French fries, salad, and fried yucca, as well). This was another oversized sandwich; I took half of it home, where I liked it even better reheated in the oven.
But it wasn't the sandwiches, the maduros, the limeade, or even the perfect cafecito that I liked best from my investigations. It was the surprising dinner Joyce, Phil, and I shared the next night at Los Flamingos, where "sample the menu" turned out to be a weekly changing five-course prix fixe dinner, including wine, priced at $35 for two. (The server added $17.50 to our bill, and we got way too much food. But I'd have felt funny, even so, ordering a prix fixe for two when there were three in our party.)
The meal started with a lovely, brothy vegetable soup, full of cauliflower, broccoli, and pale-green winter squash; and continued on to a big bowlful of tostones topped with masses of lightly sautéed onions and drenched in a garlicky butter sauce. Then came chiles en hogados, a chile relleno-like dish, the green peppers stuffed with cheese, drowned in a rich, thick, lightly tomatoed cream sauce, topped with diced vegetables, and served with a platter of white rice dotted with peas and refried beans covered in shredded cheese. At which point we were stunned by the sight of a vast casserole of arroz imperial, a homey dish of rice, corn, and shredded chicken topped with a thin layer of mayonnaise under a blanket of shredded cheese. Joyce, who's not much of a cheese girl, wilted a little at the cheesy casserole -- especially after the cheese-filled chilies and the cheese-topped refried beans -- so we added an order of ropa vieja, the shreds of long-stewed beef gleaming in a pool of rosy oil. Somehow we found room for dessert, wedges of warm caporitada, bread pudding strewn with raisins and pecans. While searching for a classic sandwich, we'd stumbled upon an inventive and bargain-priced meal. Next time the three of us will order a couple of a la carte dishes along with our prix fixe for two, and I'll bet we'll still be toting food home.