Chef, the movie, is the diner food of comfort comedy.
You may come out of the theatre questioning the lava-cake comprises of an artist’s life. You might even start making meta-life metaphors about director/writer/actor Jon Favreau’s return to his indie roots. Who wouldn’t want to fall back on a simply nourishing, dialogue-driven, food-truck travelogue after the roundly panned, humiliating defeat of Cowboys & Aliens?
Wherever your intellectual analysis of Scarlett Johansson as a seductive restaurant manager in boho bangs might take you, there’s no doubt that you and every other restaurant critic (be it a villainous media type, c’est moi, or the more benign couch-side variety) will go home craving the sweetly glazed tang of a cheesy Cuban sandwich.
But where in Vancouver can one find the tasty Florida specialty that is so hotly contested between Tampa and Miami for proprietary rights to the grilled blend of bitter-orange roasted pork, glazed ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and dill pickles?
I guess us baddies (so depicted in the film) are good for something after all. I searched high and low, and here is what I found.
Red Umbrella Café
1707 Davie St., Vancouver; 604-688-7818
This totally unassuming home-style diner best known for its all-day breakfast is currently serving a Cuban sandwich ($11.99) as a chalkboard special.
Bread: Two flat slices of ordinary sandwich bread (white, brown, multigrain or rye) are nicely toasted with a golden crust and soft centre.
Pork: Four folded slices of honey-cured ham on top match the thickness of chunky, slow-roasted pork on the bottom. The latter’s marinade is more sweet than sour. But its fork-tender texture is toothsome.
Cheese: Swiss, again piled on thickly in the middle and lightly melted
Toppings: Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, dill pickles
Overall: Aside from the bread, this is the most authentic Cubano of the bunch, with the house-roasted pork really setting it apart. Could be improved with tangy yellow mustard in place of the rich Dijonnaise.
Whole Foods Market
510 West 8th Ave., Vancouver. 778-370-4210. Wholefoodsmarket.com
The upscale grocery’s bustling café, which features impressive hot and cold salad bars, thin-crust pizza and freshly rolled tacos, offers a value-priced ($6) Cubano at its panini station.
Bread: A dense multigrain baguette, flatly pressed with grill marks.
Pork: Jamon Serrano and tender roasted pork in a properly tart lime, chili and rice-wine vinegar marinade.
Cheese: Provolone, not well melted
Toppings: Yellow mustard, dill pickles, lemony garlic oil and a creamy black-bean spread brightened with cumin, oregano, cilantro and green onion.
Overall: The sour elements rise to authentic attention, yet the pork flavours meld into an indistinguishable mush. Commendable effort.
3353 Cambie St., Vancouver; 604-569-1402. Lastortas.ca
This gourmet Mexican sandwich shop features the fairly common Cubana torta ($11.50) as part of its regular menu.
Bread: Fresh-baked daily, with a crispy crust and sweet airy middle, this comes closest to Cuban bread even if it’s not grilled.
Pork: As with most Mexican variations, it includes a variety of meats – sweet pulled pork, Black Forest ham and breaded, deep-fried Milanesa cutlets.
Cheese: Fresh, white, smooth panela made from pasteurized cow milk makes a refreshingly cold bite of contrast.
Toppings: Sliced tomato, jalapeno, frisée cabbage, pickled red onion, creamy refried black beans, guacamole, butter and mayonnaise.
Overall: A supremely tasty sandwich, easily the best, but not Cuban in the least.
1391 41st Ave., Vancouver. 604-325-5544
A long-time institution for food nerds and night owls, this eclectic diner that is open 24/7 serves everything from fried chicken, Chinese spring rolls, Salvadorian pupusas, Vietnamese bahn mi, Canadian bear claws and a wide variety of Mexican tortas, including a roasted-pork loma ($4.25) that kind of tastes likes a Cubano.
Bread: Duffin’s birote buns may be baked daily, but this Guadalajaran specialty is the light, spongy Wonderbread version of a French-style baguette. You’ll be hungry 20 minutes later.
Pork: Thinly sliced, fried pork cutlets. Avoid the sickly sweet teriyaki BBQ sauce.
Cheese: Cheddar slices for 50 cents extra.
Toppings: Lettuce, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise, hot banana peppers.
Overall: Not great, but good value and worth visiting at 3 a.m., if only to finish with a $1 buttermilk fritter.
1212 Commercial Dr., Vancouver. 604-253-9119. Havanarestaurant.ca
Vancouver’s only truly Cuban restaurant doesn’t grill up a genuine Cubano, but it offers the next best thing – medianoche ($14.95 with fries, coleslaw or salad), a sloppy close cousin typically consumed after a night of dancing.
Bread: A soft hamburger bun remotely resembles the original’s yellow egg bread, but challah would be much better.
Pork: Spicy, drippy roast pork so soft it feels pulled and Black Forest ham piled on thickly.
Cheese: Swiss, melted to cream.
Toppings: Hot, hot BBQ sauce, chipotle mayonnaise and dill pickles.
Overall: An awesome sandwich. Could use a bit more tang. But goes down real smooth on a sunny patio table with a minty mojito. Chef Favreau would undoubtedly approve.