Hot Trash: Munch is a weekly meditation on specific dishes served and consumed within the Greater Portland area. These are not “restaurant reviews,” but merely amalgamations of thoughts and musings highlighting the talent, drive and creativity characteristic of Portland’s vibrant food/drink communities. Use them to do only good, and see for yourself by supporting these people.
Let's talk about purists.
At its core, purist thought revolves around the notion that there is a right and a wrong way, regardless of subject matter. Look around, and you'll find folk music purists who scoff at the sheer existence of the electric guitar, writers who would never dream of stepping outside of APA or MLA guidelines and photographers that would sooner go on hunger strike than move away from analog gear. Keep looking, and you're bound to run into a food purist or two in your travels.
Purist views towards food and dining can come in a variety of different forms. There are plenty of successful chefs and home cooks alike who believe that fusing ingredients or cuisines which wouldn't normally co-exist in the wild is abominable practice. A growing portion of the population has shunned GMOs in favor of local, organic produce, seemingly making it a lifework to demonize processed foods of any nature. Coffee enthusiasts won't hand-grind beans roasted any further back than two weeks—IPA lovers stick to a similar mantra.
None of these things are inherently bad, and I admittedly count myself among those who might occasionally offer up a whiff of unintentional arrogance when the purist flag flies at full staff. I think most purists are good people with good intentions. To align so heavily with a particular viewpoint of how something should be done as to actually feel the need to defend it with vehemence is indicative of passion, and passionate people make things happen.
I do believe that staying within the rails on principle alone can be limiting, though, which brings me to the star of today's show—the mighty Cuban sandwich.
First, a bit about Katie Made Bakery on Munjoy Hill, which I count myself as fortunate to be within close walking proximity to. Opened in 2000 by NYC-trained baker Katie Capron, the Katie Made moved to its current home on Congress St. a few years ago after a long run in the Cumberland Ave. space now occupied by Union Bagel. Those who've lived in Portland for long enough will recognize the current location as the former Squid and Whale tattoo parlor, though you'd never guess it once you walk through the door.
Though Katie's pies, cookies and other sweets that line the countertops are worthy of their own endless gushing and fawning over, her sister Jenny Capron's tiny open kitchen is the subject of today's discussion.
A lot of people—even those who live on the hill—don't realize that Katie Made Bakery has a savory side (I wax poetic about their breakfast sandwich in the May issue of Dispatch Magazine). Jenny gets going early in the morning, offering up a handful of breakfast sandwiches and weekend brunch specials. During the week, she launches into lunch mode when 11am rolls around, and you want to be around when it happens.
Sandwiches come and go, but the Cuban is almost always on the menu.
The Cuban at Katie Made Bakery is one of the most delicious sandwiches I've ever had on the peninsula—it's also somewhat of a purist's nightmare. Before we discuss why, let's get into the basics of this quintessential homage to the pig and all its glory via a highly informative infographic, exclusive to Hot Trash: Munch.
What our clever educational piece doesn't cover is perhaps the most defining aspect of the traditional Cuban sandwich—pressing. Hop on a plane to Tampa, and you'll invariably find yourself surrounded by examples of the Cuban that look mostly like this:
Note the glistening exterior, primed with fat so as to contribute golden goodness and stave off unwanted char. Note the squashed interior, as if our fateful sandwich had somehow found itself on the receiving end of the Episode IV trash compactor. Note how different it looks from the Cuban at Katie Made.
Back to the purists.
The Cuban sandwich is near and dear to the hearts of many—especially those who've grown up with it. This has, on more than one occasion, caused the emergence of the evil eye when things "aren't the way they're supposed to be" upon ordering the sandwich at random establishments, and I'd venture to say that purists might at first turn their noses up at the Cuban at Katie Made. This is a shame (we'll get to that in a moment), but here's why:
- The bread is not traditional: All of the lunch sandwiches at Katie Made Bakery are served on the grinder-type sub roll that serves as the vessel for their Cuban. Through toasted to perfection, it's not what you might expect to end up with when ordering the classic 'wich.
- The mustard isn't, either: The dijon mustard on the Cuban at Katie Made is sharp, creamy and—in my mind—the perfect complement to the saltiness of the pork. It strays from the traditional yellow mustard that tends to be characteristic of the sandwich, though, which is bound to ruffle the feathers of a purist.
- The sandwich isn't pressed: This is the biggest differentiating factor between the Cuban at Katie Made Bakery and what most people think of when the sandwich comes to mind. For better or worse, this particular example of the Cuban doesn't spend any time in a press, lacking the buttery exterior and "pork and cheese as one" interior of the traditional offering.
None of these are problems. In fact, they contribute to making this sandwich what it is. If the purists take a moment to look past these differences and dig in, they'll instantly notice the things that make the Cuban at Katie Made so crave-worthy, such as:
- The mustard: Did I mention the mustard? It's dijon. It's also ridiculously good,, melting into the warm sponge of soft bread that frames it and opening up the sinuses with each brain-numbing bite.
- The roast pork: Jenny's roast pork is some of the juiciest, headiest swine I've ever tasted. Its presence alone is enough to make me order the Cuban, and when it bumps uglies with the smoky ham above it, a beautiful thing happens in the mouth.
- The "pickles under a blanket:" Imagine putting a slice of dill pickle to bed after a long day, tucking it in with a thick swiss cheese comforter and turning on the oven when it's not looking. Dark? You bet. Delicious? Have a look:
The whole thing comes together cleanly and ends up looking a little something like this:
So, what have we learned today?
- Purists often have a point but may be missing out at times as a result of self-imposed limitations.
- Dijon mustard is unstoppable.
- The Cuban sandwich at Katie Made Bakery is delicious and should be your lunch this afternoon.
There are more traditional examples of the sandwich in to be found around town (Sonny's and Hot Suppa both fit the bill), but we're talking about taste, here, and I've yet to find one that I enjoy more. At $7 and made to order by an exquisitely friendly woman with a golden spatula, the Cuban at Katie Made Bakery is one of the most satisfying lunches in Portland. Go git it.
Questions/Comments/Concerns? Let us know how we're driving below.