In my twenties, I had a thing for Cuban sandwiches. A lifetime or so later, I still do. The combination of garlicky fatty roast pork, salty ham, and Swiss cheese with pickles compressed into a slim crispy package is gloriously simple, but is not always easily achieved.
I still remember the first Cuban sandwich I had in Queens. It was in 1999 at a place in Woodside called Gilberto’s. The counterman placed a cinderblock wrapped in foil atop the sandwich press to aid in compressing the Cuban bread and its ingredients. In all likelihood memory has magnified the weight’s size, but not the sandwich’s taste. The result of the pressing was, to use the words of a certain TikTok famous sandwich maker, “OMG.” Crunchy burnished bread encased the ingredients and made Gilberto’s my neighborhood go-to for Cubanos.
A couple of years later Gilberto’s closed and I went in search of a replacement. To be sure Margon, the ancient and storied Cuban lunch counter near my job at Rockefeller Center, was always spot on, but great Cubanos were harder to find closer to home in Queens. El Sitio’s was pretty good, but didn’t approach the level of Gilberto’s. Like Gilberto’s, El Sitio closed, and so I turned to Rincon Criollo, a restaurant that has been around since 1976. I probably tried their Cubano about 10 years ago and was not impressed because it lacked the signature crunch.
On every subsequent visit to Rincon Criollo I’ve skipped the Cubano in favor of their excellent chicharron de pollo, but this past Sunday afternoon for some reason—maybe spring in the air maybe the gorgeous photo of a Cuban sandwich the size of my torso in the window—I gave it another try. Taking in the vibe—vintage salsa, red-checked tablecloths, and lacquered wooden plaques shaped like every Latin and Central American country emblazoned with their respective flags—I asked the waiter for a classic Dominican orange and condensed milk shake. “You have that drink? You know die dreaming,” I asked to a quizzical look. “Oh, morir sonando,” the hostess walking by chimed in.
Sipping on the cool, creamy and sweet morir sonando I smiled as I looked up to see what appeared to be a brick wrapped in duct tape atop the press.
Soon a Cuban sandwich scarcely thicker than a deck of cards accompanied by fried plantain chips appeared. It was crunchy, porky, and cheesy—everything that a good Cubano should be. It was a little lacking the garlic department, but that was easily fixed by adding some garlic. A dash of Dominican Pisqueya hot sauce kicked things up a bit, and made me grateful for the cool shake.
All in all—save for the latte art atop my cafe con leche—it was a decidedly old school experience that I can’t wait to repeat again. I’m glad that 23 years later, I finally have a go-to place in Queens for Cubanos!
Rincon Criollo, 40-09 Junction Blvd., Corona, (718) 458-0236