That crazy blizzard we had in late February seems like a far and distant memory….especially because I was in Miami when it happened! Unlike most everyone on the east coast, I don’t have any family in Florida nor have I been to Disney World. Hence, that was my very first trip to Florida and my pre-trip imagination was filled with images of palm trees, the Golden Girls, rollerbladers, and the Versace mansion. I pictured myself salsa dancing till dawn with Gloria Estefan and Dexter.
I also figured I would be eating a lot of Cubano sandwiches.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Cubano, let me explain: it’s ham, pickles, mustard, swiss cheese, and roasted pork (yes, pig times two!) on Cuban bread and then pressed so that the bread toasts and the cheese melts. Its origins are unclear as it may have actually been born in Florida in the mid-1800’s and then taken back to Cuba and re-exported. In either case, there are a lot of cheap imitators out there and I was ready to pounce on Little Havana and find a good one.
On Chowhound I read lots of unenthusiastic accounts of Cuban food in general. Miami Chowhounders don’t seem to like it all that much. I suppose I can understand as I am surrounded by Dominican food here in Washington Heights and it’s easy to tire of Caribbean cuisine which is often overly fried and heavy. But still, ham AND pork AND pickles?! Most accounts also said that Little Havana and its main drag called Calle Ocho are both disappointing. However, there was one little gem in West Miami that a few Chowhounders raved about, though they still didn’t show any great love for the Cubano sandwich. Several noted that that at lunch time, the parking lot was filled with trucks belonging to all the Cuban construction workers and landscapers who ate there on a daily basis, giving it the local seal of approval. The place is El Palacio de los Jugos and after driving around Little Havana and confirming the accounts I had read, I entered the address into the GPS and went west.
You can smell the roast pork before you see Palacio. It’s an odd mish-mash of outdoor seating, an indoor market and little stations each with their own staff and cash register. Inside, you can buy chicharones or dulce de leche or get any of the gorgeous fresh tropical fruits squeezed into juice. Outside near the seating is a steam table with plantains, rice, beans, roast chicken, and roast pork. Off to the side is a guy violently hacking into young coconuts with a machete…
…before he smiles, and puts a straw inside for you to enjoy fresh coconut water.
Finally, after circling the joint like a vulture, I found the sandwich station.
Obviously, I ordered the Cubano, but fortunately I was traveling with my beloved (you remember him) who insisted on ordering the Pan con Lechon as well. Although he doesn’t like to cook, he’s a fine foodie and has a knack for picking great stuff off the menu. Especially when it involves a roast pork and onion sandwich.
The verdict:the Cubano was just ok while the Lechon was out-of-this-world delicious.
Thanks Chowhounders. You were right on all accounts.
El Palacio de los Jugos 5721 West Flagler Street, Miami. 305-264-4557.