It’s already well documented that Fidel Castro spent a brief year of exile roaming the streets of swingin’ Mexico City before earning his place as one of the 20th century’s most historically significant political figures. It may not have been long, but it was enough time for the rabble-rousing Cuban lawyer to land some film roles, link up with his future bff Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and invent one of Mexico’s most iconic “torta” sandwiches: the cubana.
At least, so the legend goes. In truth, the folklore surrounding the torta cubana is as colorful and varied as any murky origin story, with numerous locales taking credit for inventing the monstrous pile of processed meats and cheeses. But if we had to choose a favorite based on sheer entertainment value, the oral history floating around the Centro Histórico’s 116-year-old Casa del Pavo would certainly take the prize.
According to employees at the humble torta shop, it all started back in the 1950s, when a tall, robust Cuban man began observing the cook’s handy work with a look of haughty disdain. Fed up with the gestures of disapproval, the cook finally dared to ask the overbearing antillano what bothered him so, and he replied by suggesting that he could make a better torta if only given the chance. Rising to the challenge, the cook acquiesced and allowed the presumptuous critic and would-be revolutionary to have a crack at the comal – and so the torta cubana was born.
In truth, it doesn’t take a culinary genius to throw two pieces of bread around literally every available foodstuff – turkey, ham, sausage, lomo, milanesa, three cheeses, and even more condiments – and call it a sandwich, but according to legend, the staff at La Casa del Pavo was sufficiently impressed with Castro’s creation that it became a mainstay on the menu.
Of course, we should point out that Café La Habana – a well-documented Castro haunt across town from la Casa del Pavo – also makes a similar claim, while others claim “cubana” is merely a reference to Mexican men’s fondness for Cuban women – full-bodied and boisterous, with a little of everything. Whatever the true origins of this street food staple, one thing is for sure – if you ask for a torta cubana in Cuba, you won’t get much more than a blank stare.