Havana’s Cuisine calls itself “the home of the Cuban sandwich in St. Louis.” The claim isn’t bold so much as self-evident. Our region is no hotbed of Cuban cuisine in general, let alone of restaurants that focus on a specific dish. Still, I think chef and owner Tamara Landeiro might actually be underselling the appeal of her downtown storefront.
For one, if you walk into Havana’s with a fixed idea of the Cuban sandwich — mustard, roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles pressed between the halves of crusty Cuban bread — the menu will promptly correct you. It lists both a Cuban sandwich and a Tampa Cuban, a nod to the claims different Cuban American communities have made on the sandwich’s development. The Tampa version adds salami.
The sandwich has evolved both through time and across national borders. At Havana’s, you can also order a Cuban with croquettes added to the standard array of ingredients (minus the salami). The croquettes’ filling of ham-enriched béchamel stamps an exclamation point on the roasted pork’s succulence. If you want to underline and bold that succulence, a small cup of garlic mayonnaise is served on the side.
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The Media Noche layers the Cuban’s fillings (again, sans salami) between the softer, sweeter bread that gives the sandwich its name. In an interview, Landeiro compared the texture of medianoche bread to that of a hot-dog bun, an apt description. It makes for a (relatively) lighter sandwich.
So, yes, Havana’s is a Cuban sandwich shop — the Cuban sandwich shop in St. Louis, if you like — but it is also the latest example of an independent chef using the popularity and convenience of the fast-casual format to introduce her cooking to what deserves to be a broad audience.
You might lack the time (or, in these still COVID-wracked days, the willingness) to sit in Havana’s dining room for a plate of Landeiro’s ropa vieja with black beans and rice. So she serves the pleasantly chewy shredded beef with its accents of garlic, bell pepper, onion and tomato in the Cuban bread she sources from the Tampa, Florida, institution La Segunda Central Bakery. I won’t claim this ropa vieja sandwich is better than a traditional serving, but it’s a very good sandwich, as is the sandwich made with ropa vieja’s close, crisp cousin, vaca frita.
Landeiro was born in Havana and raised in Cojímar, the nearby fishing village and Ernest Hemingway haunt. In 2014, she and her family left Cuba. They flew to Mexico and then traveled over land to the United States, where they requested and were granted political asylum.
St. Louis’ internationally ascendant chess scene brought the family to America. Landeiro’s daughter, Thalia Cervantes Landeiro, is a chess prodigy. Now 18, she holds the title of Woman Grandmaster from the International Chess Federation.
After working in St. Louis as a planning manager for five years, she first sold her food in 2019 through catering and then a stand in Soulard Farmers Market. The following year, she launched the Havana’s Cuisine food truck. This is where I first encountered her Cuban sandwiches, ropa vieja and other dishes, and if not for the pandemic, I might have already written a version of this review back then.
A restaurant was Landeiro’s ultimate goal, and she opened the Havana’s Cuisine storefront in September by the intersection of Washington Avenue and North Tucker Boulevard. (She has sold the truck.) The space is small and its layout conventionally fast-casual, but Landeiro has imbued it with character. The dining room includes a stand stocked with Goya-brand sazón and other pantry staples, a little bookcase with children’s books and a wall decorated with large dominos.
Behind the long counter with the register and the hot bar you will see Havana’s most important equipment, the sandwich presses. The second most important piece of equipment is the pan in which Landeiro roasts the restaurant’s pork. With a falling-apart tenderness that puts most barbecue joints’ pulled pork to shame and the note from its marinade of garlic and bitter Seville orange, this pork is the obvious anchor of the Cuban sandwiches (with or without salami) and is the star of the pan con lechon.
You might also find it, as I did one afternoon, served as a plate with Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice that are, crucially, cooked together) and sweet plantains. Among the other reasons to visit Havana’s, you want to learn which specials Landeiro has pulled out of her repertoire that day, or if her empanadas are available. (I loved these when I ate them from the truck but didn’t see them on my restaurant visits.) Maybe, for a small dessert, there will be a light, flaky pastry filled with guava and cream cheese.
Guava and cream cheese also turn up inside the Elena Ruz sandwich, named for the young woman in Cuba who in 1927 or 1928 (according to a 2019 Miami Herald article) first requested turkey with cream cheese and strawberry preserves on medianoche bread. The guava and cream cheese are sweet and tangy accents without being too much of either. They vaguely call to mind how turkey and cranberry go well together.
I wish I could compare Landeiro’s version with guava as a substitute to the historical version of the Elena Ruz, but Havana’s is the first place I’ve encountered this sandwich. Calling this restaurant the home of the Cuban sandwich is definitive and deserved — and, depending on your personal experience with Cuban cuisine, merely a prologue.
We are currently not assigning star ratings to restaurants. This review is based on takeout.
Where Havana’s Cuisine, 1131 Washington Avenue • More info 314-449-6771; havanascuisine.com • Menu Cuban sandwiches and other Cuban fare • Hours 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday (closed Sunday)