5635 Memorial Hwy
My earliest food memory involves a Cuban sandwich.
I was out in the wood-chipped and (to my four year old eye) extremely large backyard at the Learning Tree Preschool, and for some reason, someone, somehow, had brought Cubanos. The Cuban is Tampa's most beloved native culinary treat, surpassing snackies like deviled crabs, Cuban bread and butter, and Hooters chicken wings, and they inevitably show up at any social event or gathering in the region, cut into triangles and laid out on the table. In any case, I vividly remember eating this thing, and I remember the flavor of it - new and unusual indeed to a person who has not yet been properly introduced to concepts like "mustard" and "pickles - and I was immediately charmed, devoted, pleased. Salami, cheese, roast pork, ham, pickles, mustard, and cuban bread, pressed and toasted until melty and delicious - this might indeed have been the very gnosis or beginning point of my life long food obsession, the point from which all else radiated. Maybe I should credit the sandwich itself as one of my very first mentors.
Okay, that could be going too far. Long story short. Them things taste good. Real good. I was in Tampa this June, visiting my grandparents (who live off Dale Mabry) and I had to get myself a Cuban. There was a second motivating factor: i had just survived a particularly aggressive bout of food poisoning, and I felt a powerful and near reptilian urge within myself to restore my fluids, to bump-up my electrolytes, to heal myself. What better food to do that then a ridiculously huge sandwich? Thought so.
Franciale is located in a Shell station. When you pull in, it doesn't look like a damn thing like a restaurant. In fact, it looks more like a front for a cunning yet down-trodden Cuban drug running operation. The front is a standard 7-11 type food shop with a bunch of dusty candy bars and a startling selection of pork rinds. The actual cafe counter is near the back and seems to be staffed exclusively by one Umberto, a highly energetic and extremely friendly Cuban-Italian guy, who has decorated his three table dining room with romantic 1970's posters of Pisa, Rome, and Sicily. There's a selection of Cuban dishes on the menu, but you should probably go for the Cuban.
Which is a fantastic Cuban, the best I've ever had. The pork is slow roasted in citrusy mojo sauce and falling-apart tender, and when combined with a giant hunk of buttered Cuban bread, nice quality ham, cheese, and salami, a boatload of mayo and mustards, and some crunchy lettuce and tomato - heaven on earth. Umberto makes the sandwich and presses it right in front of you so there's no doubt about the vintage of the ingredients. "You gonna eat that entire thing?" the high school football coaches (as I'd figured out by overhearing their conversation) asked me, when the puppy-sized monstrosity was handed to me.
"I can try," I said, vaguely. I figured I would eat half.
But I needed to restore my electrolytes and animal spirits, so I fell to the sandwich with an almost obscene vengeance. It was gone in about four minutes, the entire damn thing. The football coaches were sharing a single, and looked at me with something close to horror in their faces when I was done. "Good lord, you did finish it," the older one said. "That's incredible."
"I was very, very hungry," I said. This was probably obvious.
Umberto high-fived me on the way out.
I felt infinitely better, as if the dismal day of food poisoning had not actually happened but was in fact an unpleasant memory belonging to someone else. I drowsed the rest of the day, in the manner of a golf-course alligator that has just gorged itself upon a fat and complacent Labrador.
I love Cuban sandwiches.