Posted By Patricia Beninato
5/24/2009 11:18:00 PM
Much like cheesesteaks in Philadelphia and pepperoni rolls in West Virginia, you can find Cuban sandwiches in just about every Floridian sandwich shop and convenience store. Cuban Sandwich Central, however, is centered in Tampa (with an outpost in Miami). If you cross the bridge over Tampa Bay into Clearwater you will find one of the best sources for Cuban sandwich goodness that, in true Roadfood tradition, seems the unlikeliest of places.
Airport Variety Store is not pretty. Directly across from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport, it's a rather rundown brick building hugged by an auto repair place, an auto detailing place and an auto auction (sensing a theme?). The interior is yellowed and old-looking, almost a snapshot of an independently run convenience store circa 1974. But come around lunchtime and the place is packed with locals (and savvy tourists) ordering the Cuban sandwich that has been lauded in local media as being one of the best in the area and therefore the world.
A Cuban sandwich is, at first glance, simple--ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles in a roll spread with mustard on one side and mayo on the other. It's then buttered on the outside and cooked in a press until the bread is crusty and the interior warm. Like any good sandwich, though, it all depends on the bread, and AVS gets awesome Cuban bread--somewhat like Italian bread, tough-crusted on the outside and tender on the inside. AVS also adds the Tampa Cuban ingredient, salami, and the result is a delicious mutation of the Northeast favorite Italian sub. AVS offers lots of Cuban goodies--guava/cheese pastries? Empanadas? But if you need a side dish for your sandwich go for the black beans and rice, almost soup-looking but loaded with flavor.
There's no seating inside AVS, but grab a drink and head for one of the three rickety picnic tables outside and chow down while watching planes land or guys rinsing off mud guards. AVS is not a secret, but somehow it feels like one.
"A nice cross section of Cuban sandwich, sided with well-seasoned black beans and rice. Photo by MandalayVA."
Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle
"For your dining entertainment, you can either watch the planes take off and land at the St. Petersburg/Clearwater airport or check out the auto detailing place at the end of the parking lot."
"No, it's not shiny and sparkly, but Airport Variety Store has been a local favorite for Cuban sandwiches since the seventies."