Monday, September 28, 2015

CUBAN SANDWICHES

What are the chances that I would eat one of my favorite foods once in the last thirty-five years?

In my Las Vegas years, (1979-1984), my longtime running mate was "Ciro the Hero."  Although he eventually crashed, burned and turned into Ciro the Zero, he widened my range of experiences...most of which I rejected.  However, his mainframe of genius was...knowing where to eat.

The best place he took me to was Tommy B's Casino.  Tommy B's opened in 1968.  It was located in a four-store strip mall just north of the Circus Circus Casino.  By the time I got there with my feedbag on, Tommy's had evolved away from being a casino.  So their only claim to gaming fame was, two antique nickel slots machines.

What Tommy B's had become was a bodega, (an Hispanic grocery store). The long, left wall featured shelves of Goya food products.
I HAD NEVER HEARD OF GOYA BACK THEN BUT TODAY MY CUPBOARD IS STOCKED WITH MOJO, SOFRITO AND ADOBO...PLANTAIN CHIPS...NOT SO MUCH.

The right side of Tommy's oblong space was dominated by a bar.  In addition to rows of alcohol bottles, there was a grill.

It was after midnight when Ciro and I went in to this sleepy, mostly empty dump.  I immediately noticed that the cigar chomping bartender was wearing a white, sweaty and decrepit Cincinnati Reds baseball cap. His neutral expression broke into a broad smile as he caught eye contact with Ciro.

They leaned over the bar and gave each other a hearty welcome.  Ciro whispered something in pigeon Spanish that drew a serious nod from the man.  Soon there after, I was introduced to the proprietor, Javier Cuellar
YOU HAVE TO BE REALLY OLD LIKE ME OR A BASEBALL NUT TO REMEMBER CUBANS BEING BIG CINCINNATI REDS FANS.  THE REASON WAS,  (BEFORE THE 1959 REVOLUTION), THE REDS HAD THEIR AAA, INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE AFFILIATE IN HAVANA.  SO, IT WAS COOL TO ME, THAT CUELLAR HAD A WHITE CAP FROM THE 1950's AND 1960's.  (above) ONE OF MY ALL-TIME FAVORITES, HALL-OF-FAMER FRANK ROBINSON MODELS THE VINTAGE CAP. 

Cuellar turned to the greasy grill and flipped a pancake, fried eggs, a burger and home fries. Ciro grinned, "Everything tastes like a hamburger here."  I nodded, "And everything stinks like cheap stogies."  Ciro ignored me and called out, "Servicio amigo, dos Carta Blancas y dos mixtos."
A CUBAN SANDWICH...OR CUBAN MIX...OR A MIXTO, IS A VARIATION ON A HAM AND CHEESE SANDWICH.  IT ORIGINATED IN CUBAN CAFES THAT CATERED TO BLUE COLLAR WORKERS.  IMMIGRANTS BROUGHT DIFFERENT RECIPES TO THE USA WHICH GENERALLY INCLUDED;  HAM, ROASTED PORK, CHEESE, PICKLES AND MUSTARD ON CUBAN FLAT BREAD...WITH THE WHOLE ENCHILADA PRESSED DOWN ON A GRILL.

On a bar stool, I found a three-day old copy of El Nuevo Herald, (the Spanish counterpart of the Miami Herald).  I thumbed through it as I sucked down my first beer until Ciro nudged me to watch Cuellar prepare his version of our six-billion calorie snack.
I MAY NOT BE THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD BUT WHEN I DRINK BEER, I KNOW MOST LATIN AMERICAN CERVEZAS WILL BE A LET-DOWN.  HOWEVER IN THIS CASE, I WENT WITH THE FLOW.

My arteries were already stiffening as Cuellar slathered the grill with butter (no mustard) while the added ingredient of bacon sizzled. That Cuban sandwich wound-up being so incredible that I didn't feel cheated out of the Heinekens that I was looking forward to.

On two other occasions I went back to Tommy's with Ciro and loved it...but never went on my own. During a private conversation,Ciro implied that he did *business with Cuellar.  Later, that tidbit reinforced my concern over the questionable goings on, (primarily by the low-lifes), hanging out in the storage room out back.

* The term "business" suggested marijuana.  If that was true, Ciro never made clear who was supplying who.

 Ciro convinced me that the seedy men on the other side of the beaded curtain were a part of a social club and that nothing truly sinister was going on.  But on my way to the restroom that first time, I glimpsed through and saw a beat-up wooden table.  Dominoes, beer cans and bottles were strewn about and four grisly Latinos, in their native tongue, were intensely arguing.  I knew Ciro wasn't the most wholesome character and assumed that his idea of savory and mine was different.
EATING AT TOMMY B's WOULD HAVE BEEN A GREAT PLACE TO TURN OTHER FRIENDS ON TO, BUT I NEVER DID.  I DIDN'T SEE GUNS OR KNIVES IN THAT BACK ROOM BUT I WAS WILLING TO MISS-OUT ON A TASTY TREAT IN THE NAME OF SAFETY.

I was in Tommy B's three times and drove by it without giving it much thought countless other times. But its memory, specifically the Cuban sandwiches are indelibly etched in my mind. So, in 2009 during our family Las Vegas and Grand Canyon vacation, I went out of my way to have a drive-by. But twenty-three years is a long time...Tommy B's as well as the whole mini-mall were long gone.

If you were in Vegas in the 1980's, you probably thought the town was mega. Since then, this adult playground has taken steroids and has exploded into super-mega popularity. The quaint little casinos and vacant desert lots that took up the space between giant gaming halls along the fabulous Las Vegas strip have vanished.  The once plentiful, seemingly unwanted land has become so valuable that it's no exaggeration to say that you can't squeeze a credit card between today's expanded properties. So with Tommy B's nearly removed from my memory what are the chances that it would come to mind in Dullsville...a.k.a., Rehoboth Delaware.

Throughout the 1990's and into the 2000's, my family enjoyed long weekends and many vacations in Ocean City Maryland. To get there from South Jersey, the only realistic way to go was the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.  From Lewes Delaware, through Rehoboth, it was a forty-five minute scenic jaunt along the shoreline to Ocean City.
THE CAPE MAY - LEWES FERRY HAS BEEN SHUTTLING ACROSS DELAWARE BAY SINCE JULY 1, 1964.  CURRENTLY, THE DAILY SERVICE RUNS 16-HOURS, EVERY DAY.  FOR THE 80-MINUTE VOYAGE, SHIPS ACCOMMODATE UP TO 100 VEHICLES. DEPENDING ON THE SEASON, A REGULAR CARLOAD COST: $27.00, $37.00, $42.00 OR $45.00.

On the way home, we got into the habit of taking the last ferry and stopping first at the outlet shops in Rehoboth, (the town next to Lewes). Shopping was exciting to my wife Sue and less thrilling for my son Andrew and I. Eventually, I devised a plan to drop mom off for an hour or two which allowed us the uninhibited testosterone rush of exploring and having our own adventures.

When Andrew was nine, (2003), on the way to dropping Sue off, a traffic accident blocked our approach to Rehoboth.  While the other side of the two-lane roadway was at a complete standstill, we inched forward in Dewey Beach, (the adjacent town).  The snail's pace allowed me to noticed a deli's big sign advertising Cuban sandwiches.  My mouth watered as I pined for my long-lost treat and looked forward to bonding with Andrew over this culinary delight...and maybe a sarsaparilla or two.

Unfortunately, the last couple of miles took forever.  I dropped Sue off at the outlet center with a lot less time than we had anticipated. I began to retrace my steps to the deli. Up ahead, I could see the traffic hadn't eased up  There might have been an alternate route but I didn't know the lay of the land.
THE TRAFFIC JAM WAS WHERE THE LAND BOTTLENECKS, AT THE TOP OF THIS NORTHERLY, AERIAL PHOTO OF DEWEY BEACH.

These were the pre-cell phone days.  So only a fool would've risked becoming a victim of circumstance with the potential for making Sue wait and worry.  The Cuban sandwich idea suddenly wasn't an option.  I couldn't chance the disaster of missing the last ferry and getting stranded or being forced to drive all through the night to get home.  I made a reluctant U-Turn.

During that next week at work, I struck up a conversation with a man who coincidentally lived in Dewey Beach.  I told him about my frustration about missing out on Cuban sandwiches.  Even crazier!!!  What's the chances...this man owned that deli!

Since then, I have had one Cuban sandwich at a restaurant called Babalu's.  They wanted to justify charging $13.00 so they called it a "gourmet" Cuban sandwich. But it wasn't special and tasted antiseptic.  I guess some foods by their nature require being greasy.  That meant to me that a gourmet Cuban sandwich was an oxymoron. Either way, my Andrew has still never had the pleasure.
(stock photo) BABALU'S HAD A LOCATION IN ATLANTIC CITY, (I'M UNCERTAIN WHETHER IT WAS ASSOCIATED WITH OTHER EATERIES OF THE SAME NAME).  IT WAS PRICEY AND NOTHING SPECTACULAR....IT CLOSED WITHIN TWO YEARS.

Until recently, I again hadn't thought about Cuban sandwiches for a long time.  So what's the chances of me seeing the exact spot where Tommy B's Casino had been located, in an old movie, (thus conjuring-up the great memories of Javier Cuellar's grill mastery).

The 1967 film, "IN COLD BLOOD," was based on the Truman Capote novel from the previous year.  The book was based on the 1959 killing of the Clutter family in Kansas and the ultimate hanging of the two assailants.
THE BOOK, "IN COLD BLOOD," WAS AN INSTANT SUCCESS.  IT RANKS  BEHIND VINCENT BUGLIOSI'S, 1974 CLASSIC, "HELTER SKELTER" AS THE SECOND BEST SELLING CRIME NOVEL IN PUBLISHING HISTORY. 

Last week, those Cuban sandwiches memories gushed out of head, three quarters of the way through the movie. That's when I noticed something interesting when the two murderers were so broke that they gathered deposit bottles.  Just before getting apprehended, they cashed them in for chump change in Las Vegas.  In the establishing shot, like an epiphany, I saw the supermarket was in the space where Tommy B's was, (before it was divided into the four-unit mini-strip mall that I was familiar with...ten plus years later).

Due to the movie, the idea of Cuban sandwiches was fresh in my mind last Sunday.  I was at work, dealing roulette when I struck up a conversation with a player.  He told me, he was from Dewey Beach.  I told him the same story I told that other man from Dewey Beach twelve years ago.  He said, "That was me!" What an amazing coincidence, it was the same guy. You tell me, what are the chances of that?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good Story. Meeting the same random guy twice and sharing your love of the Cuban. I tasted the Cuban a few times and don’t share your enthusiasm for it.

My weakness is the Rueben. It’s my go to sandwich. I’ve had them all over. Even had one in Tupelo, Mississippi a few years ago. The magic of the Rueben can’t be surpassed. --- SLW

Anonymous said...

The appellant, Anthony Benetti, operates a package liquor store, slot machines and cocktail lounge called "Tommy B's Casino" in a Las Vegas building which he leased in 1968 from Agnes Grist...
http://law.justia.com/cases/nevada/supreme-court/1977/8410-1.html

Tad Bullen said...

I too had a Cuban Sandwich many years ago at Tommy B's Casino. A friend who worked at the Stardust took me there after his shift one night. I still remember the sandwich. I also got a Tommy B's Casino hat that I have since lost. I've actually searched through the web, etc. for someone who might have one that I could purchase. Tommy B's was a piece of Las Vegas history that brings back great memories to me of that era. Thanks for your story.