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Summer School: How to make a Cubano

A stack of toasted sandwiches on a plate.
Santiago's, Courtesy
/
The story of the Cuban sandwich starts in Florida. When the cigar industry shifted to Tampa in the mid-1880s, Cuban and European immigrants flocked there to work in cigar factories. The sandwich is believed to have been a common lunch food for workers.

I walk along Main Street in downtown Burlington and head into a red brick building, where I meet Oscar Arencibia and his business partner Luis Calderin. They're standing in the newly-renovated kitchen of Santiago’s — the soon-to-be new home of authentic Cuban cuisine in downtown Burlington. One of their featured dishes is the Cuban sandwich.

"It was invented by Cubans in Tampa, but it definitely brings together a lot of cultures," Arencibia says.

Find our full Summer School series here.

The story of the Cuban sandwich starts in Florida. When the cigar industry shifted to Tampa in the mid-1880s, Cuban and European immigrants flocked there to work in cigar factories. The sandwich is believed to have been a common lunch food for workers.

“The tobacco farm workers and cigar rollers that were from the cigar factory, there were Germans, there were Spaniards, there were Cubans, and a little piece of each of those cultures made its way into the sandwich," Arencibia says. "The pickles and the Swiss cheese from the Germans. The ham from the Spaniards, obviously the roasted pork from the Cubans.”

Two men standing around a kitchen.
Marlon Hyde
/
Vermont Public
Oscar Arencibia, left, his business partner Luis Calderin are standing in the newly renovated kitchen of Santiago’s, the soon-to-be new home of authentic Cuban cuisine in downtown Burlington.

The sandwich can be found anywhere there is a community of Cuban people. When Arencibia was a kid in New York, his grandmother would order sandwiches from a local Cuban spot after work.

“Taking the first bite of a crest, the crispy outer layer of the Cuban bread, crunchy, savory and then hitting the mustard and the pickle and pulling apart, pulling out the melty Swiss cheese, the string of Swiss cheese that comes out,” Arencibia says.

This is not your average ham and cheese sandwich.

He adds: “And then what really hits you at the end, after all those layers, is the pork and this guy's homemade mojo that he drenched the pork in, that it's sour. It's savory. It's garlicky. It cuts through the grease of the pork. And yeah, man, how do you not fall in love with that?”

“And then what really hits you at the end after all those layers is the pork, and this guy's homemade mojo that he drenched the pork in, that it's sour. It's savory. It's garlicky. It cuts through the grease of the pork. And yeah, man, how do you not fall in love with that?”
Oscar Arencibia, co-owner of Santiago's

Arencibia and Calderin met through a network of BIPOC professionals in Vermont around 2015, shortly after Arencibia arrived here after taking a job in solar energy.

Calderin came here as a teenager from Miami in the '80s. Growing up, he recognized a lack of Hispanic and Latino culture in Vermont, so he was delighted to meet a fellow Cuban-American. They quickly became best friends.

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After working in the restaurant industry for some time, Arencibia and Calderin decided it was time to open their own space. Their restaurant, Santiago’s, is named after the city in Cuba where they both share heritage.

“You're not gonna get a more authentic Cuban sandwich," Calderin says. "Two Cubans. One from Miami, one from West New York… Now making Cubans with our family recipes and using the most official bread."

“You're not gonna get a more authentic Cuban sandwich. Two Cubans. One from Miami, one from West New York… Now making Cubans with our family recipes and using the most official bread.”
Luis Calderin, co-owner of Santiago's

A true Cubano needs Cuban bread and mojo sauce. Here at Santiago’s, they make their own mojo. Unfortunately, I cannot give out their secret recipe.

“But I can only tell you that every family has a different way of making it," Arencibia says. "Different recipe, but it's all basically very similar. Garlic, some kind of acid, either lime juice or sour orange juice, and oil. Olive oil in this case."

He starts his mojo sauce by adding some fresh garlic to a pot of olive oil. As he turns the heat on under the pot, the kitchen quickly filled with a deep and rich aroma.

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“That's the sound of garlic poaching, crying a little bit," Arencibia says. "And what that is doing, that is getting that garlic flavor into that oil. It's also softening up our garlic and toasting it just a little bit that's gonna give it a unique flavor to the sauce."

After adding cilantro and some citrus, he blends everything together.

Now that the sauce is ready, it’s time to build the sandwich. Arencibia slices the bread horizontally and opens it up. He lightly pours mojo sauce on each side before he adds a layer of ham and swiss cheese on one side, and mustard and pickles on the other.

“Here is very important to us, at Santiago's especially, is at the mustard edge to edge on the monster norm,” he says.

A man in a black shirt wiping down a toasting press.
Marlon Hyde
/
Vermont Public
Oscar Arencibia begins greasing up the planchar, a toasting press used to flatten Cubano sandwiches to their delicious dimensions.

Arencibia closes up the sandwich and begins greasing up the planchar — a toasting press used to flatten the sandwich to its delicious dimensions.

Arencibia and Calderin understand how important it is to represent their culture. They have no plans of altering their Cuban sandwich to pander to people.

“My main motivation now is to bring it super official, super authentic, and do all these things the right way and not have to change at all one bit," Arencibia says. "You know, if I was opening a Cuban restaurant in my hometown in West New York, where there are 50, 70, or 100 other Cuban restaurants, I might have to think of, how can I do this differently? How can I switch this up? Not here."

Santiago’s is still under construction and will start dishing Cubanos and other food this fall.

A square illustrated logo with an apple of a school chair in some grass with headphones and a curled cord leading from them, with the words "summer school" below
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public

All summer long, Vermont Public reporters are learning how to do something. Have an idea? Send it to us here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Marlon Hyde @HydeMarlon.

Marlon Hyde is the Sunday Weekend Edition Host and Vermont Public’s first news fellow. He reports on Arts, Culture, and Community stories. He joined Vermont Public in the spring of 2021 after graduating from Saint Michael’s College with a degree in media studies, journalism, and digital arts with a minor in Philosophy. He has been honored with a National Murrow Award for reporting on the 9/11 Remembrance Project alongside Jane Lindholm and Melody Bodette.
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