Exploring the Sandwiches of Florida's Central Gulf Coast

Mountains of prepped cubanos and a press full of them at West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
Photo by Jeff Balke
Mountains of prepped cubanos and a press full of them at West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
Tampa stakes a claim as the home of the cubano, the Cuban pressed pork sandwich that is an obsession for some (yours truly included). The origin story here is that the sandwiches were made to serve a growing population of Cuban immigrants, particularly low wage workers. There are those who dispute that claim, but there are certainly enough Cuban joints in the area to make the argument moot.

Additionally, the entire area around Tampa including resort spots like Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Sarasota serve some rather delicious sandwich fare, particularly those loaded with seafood like lobster rolls and the unique grouper sandwich. Grouper is plentiful and commercially fished in the area, so it's common to see things like the aforementioned sandwich and "grouper bites" — think fish nuggets — on area menus.

So, it made sense that a trek for some of these great sandwiches was on my agenda while visiting.

click to enlarge The "Obama" at West Tampa Sandwich Shop. - PHOTO BY JEFF BALKE
The "Obama" at West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
Photo by Jeff Balke
Honey Cuban Obama Sandwich and Picadillo Sandwich at West Tampa Sandwich Shop

In Tampa, tiny Cuban diners are plentiful, like food carts in New York or BBQ joints in Texas. It feels like there is one on every corner. Serving up classic fare like tostones, black beans, ropa vieja and, of course, cubanos. At West Tampa Sandwich Shop, there are dozens of pre-prepared sandwich rolls with cheese on them lining an area behind the counter and photos of Florida politicians covering the walls. The most prominent is a photo of former President Barack Obama, who visited the spot after a campaign rally in 2012.

Like most cubanos, the pressed Cuban bread contains ham, roast pork, pickles, Swiss cheese and mustard. Curiously, the Tampa version of the sandwich typically includes salami and some add mayo, an abomination for many purists, but delightful to me. All of the above comes with the Obama as well as a drizzle of honey, which, I gotta be honest, is absolutely brilliant. It's just the tiniest amount adding the slightest bit of sweetness to the already rich and savory hoagie. This immediately rocketed into contention for the best cubano I've ever eaten.

click to enlarge The picadillo sandwich at West Tampa Sandwich Shop. - PHOTO BY JEFF BALKE
The picadillo sandwich at West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
Photo by Jeff Balke
But, interestingly enough, my dining companion may have gotten the winner in her picadillo sandwich. Picadillo is a classic Latin American ground beef dish with tomato, onion, garlic and green olives. It's warm and gently seasoned, a Cuban comfort dish. On a sandwich, it was amazing, particularly served hamburguesas style. In Cuba (and other Latin American countries), hamburgers are often served with tostones (double deep fried, smashed plantains), french fries or, more commonly, fried potato sticks (like the kind from a can) on the burger.

At West Tampa, they added potato sticks to the picadillo sandwich for the perfect crunch. Imagine the best sloppy joe you've ever eaten with french fries piled on top of the mess of meat and tomato and you get the idea.

click to enlarge The lobster roll at Sarasota's Lobster Pot. - PHOTO BY JEFF BALKE
The lobster roll at Sarasota's Lobster Pot.
Photo by Jeff Balke
New England Sea Roll at The Lobster Pot

Sarasota is surprising. About an hour south of Tampa, the crystal clear water and unique white quartz sand that never gets hot in the summer consistently ranks these among the finest beaches in the world. February is high season in Sarasota when snow birds, mostly from the Midwest, show up in droves to putter around (extremely slowly) in the warmer weather. The wealthy, almost entirely elderly white crowd has helped to turn Sarasota into a quaint town with some first class arts organizations including a brand new modern art museum inside an old brick high school building and an absolutely gorgeous botanic garden along the bay.

We are in Siesta Key, one of the conglomeration of small islands that makes up the area. It contains, like most of the other little hamlets, an adorable little main street full of shops and restaurants just blocks from the beach. The Lobster Pot is my stop for lunch, a nautical hole in the wall with, as you might guess, a lot of lobster dishes including the classic northeastern lobster roll. Here it's a "sea roll" as you can choose from lobster, shrimp, scallops, ipswich or sweet clams. At the Lobster Pot, however, it's clearly lobster, "the best in the area" according to our server.

In a way, it's more like a lobster taco on bread. The lunch portion is small-ish (just over a quarter pound of lobster though mine felt like more), which turned out to be a good move because I was stuffed by the end. And the bulk of the portion is the sweet, tender flesh of Maine lobster. Huge chunks (one piece appeared to be an entire claw) are perched on top of a flattened and butter-toasted roll. It looks more like a lobster boat, but it is nevertheless delicious. There is a gentle tang of lemon juice and creamy mayo to balance out the sweetness of the lobster.

Grouper Sandwich at Dry Dock Waterfront Grill

Longboat Key is the rich part of an already obscenely wealthy area. The canals crisscrossing the island are filled with yachts of varying sizes and perfectly manicured golf courses abut the waters of the bay. Situated in the back of a U-shaped parking lot which rings the circumference of an actual dry dock storage facility is the aptly named Dry Dock Waterfront Grill. The upstairs dining room has giant picture windows on three sides looking out on the pristine waters surrounding it. It feels a bit like you are hanging out over the water in the dining room, but you can get closer on the patio below.

It's pretty fancy, which is why I'm here at lunch instead of dinner. Also, getting reservations at virtually any restaurant in Sarasota for dinner is a near impossibility unless you plan a few weeks ahead during this time of year. The snow birds dine out, man, and because the population swells and is loaded with retirees, almost every store has an automatic door and anything with two stories has an elevator, all of which means additional wait times nearly everywhere.

Good thing then we managed a table and I spied the grouper sandwich. Commercially fished red grouper are common in this part of the Gulf, so they are plentiful and fresh. This sandwich is radically simple, just fish, tomato and lettuce on a brioche bun. A side of remoulade accompanies it. The grouper comes either grilled, blackened with Cajun spices or fried, which seems to be the favorite, so that's what I angle for. Fried fish can be tricky. The wrong breading can make an otherwise great piece of fish practically inedible. Fortunately, this was deep fried, almost fried chicken style. The light breading clung, but was still delicate and the thick grouper (almost cod-like in consistency) spilled out beyond the confines of the bun.

Adding the sharp remoulade gave the sandwich added some moisture and a delightful kick of spice. It might be the best fish sandwich I've ever eaten (sorry Long John Silver) and wholly unique given the species of fish that isn't readily available in other places.