In the heavenly firmament of sandwiches, the Cubano – that crunchy, sticky, ooze-y, tangy structure of deliciousness – isn’t yet at supernova status.
But a soft-spoken, handsome Cuban chef might have a hand in changing that, from the heart of Belfast.
In the rest of the food-obsessed world, it feels like the Cubano is only just starting to have its moment. By the all-important metric of Instagram, it’s lagging behind other, more famous sandwiches: #cubansandwich has a mere 22,650 posts, while #clubsandwich has almost 81,000 posts. And the king of sandwiches, #burger has nearly 5 million.
In New York City, Ground Zero for foodies, food websites are describing the sandwich as an up-and-comer that’s been a long time coming.
For once Belfast is on pace with a trend, not a few years behind it. And that is thanks to a small operation that has been cranking out the crunchy delights to a growing horde of hungry customers. Juan Carlos Arguelles, the chef proprietor of Cuban Sandwich Factory, has been feeding the masses since 2012. First, from a stall at St. George’s Market, then from the back of Lecky’s Newsagents, a tiny shop on Church lane. And this week, he opens his own joint.
Juan Carlos Arguelles on the opening day of his new restaurant Cuban Sandwich Revolution in Queen’s Arcade, Belfast. Photo by Jenny Holland
Of course, in Cuba a Cuban sandwich is just… a sandwich. A pork, gherkin, swiss cheese, ham and mustard sandwich.
“It’s something you do just in the pan at home… it’s not commercial, it was in my lunchbox at school,” is how Juan Carlos tells it, a bit bemused at the devotion his Cuban sandwiches have inspired in his customers.
Though he recognizes that a sandwich is just a sandwich, that doesn’t mean you can approach the making of it in any old way. He is, he acknowledges, “a perfectionist.”
The layers are not haphazard. Every one is there for a reason. “It’s very important” to get the steps in the correct order, he said. “You have to be able to do it right so the balance is there,” he explained last week over coffee in a Belfast Café Nero. “You put the gherkin in the wrong place, or the mustard in the wrong place, it could be a disaster.”
Carlos – as everyone calls him – spent decades as a chef at a host of fine-dining restaurants and hotels. But his views on hospitality, service, cooking and, well, life in general, dovetail perfectly with his newest venture.
Located in Queen’s Arcade on Fountain Street in Belfast’s city centre, the new spot is a place where his many fans can come to sit and watch him and his staff prepare Cuban sandwiches and other specialties from the storied Caribbean island.
And he’s building a reputation among some of Belfast’s leading culinary figures. Jonny Phillips, executive chef at Thornyhill Restaurants – owners of Coppi and Il Pirata – took to Facebook in November to praise the sandwiches and pronounce himself “a new regular.” Speaking on the phone this week, Jonny said the sandwiches were making an impression in Belfast because they were simple, well-executed and unique. “It’s simple products put together really well, that comes through in the sandwiches,” Jonny said. “The texture, the cheese is in the right area, it’s really well put together.”
Carlos doing the all-important layering on a Cubano. “You put the gherkin in the wrong place, it could be a disaster.” Photo by Jenny Holland
Plus – unlike the ubiquitous burger – Cuban sandwiches are still relatively unknown here. “He’s gained a bit of reputation because its unique here,” Jonny said. “The Cuban sandwich thing is new to Belfast.”
It may be new to Belfast, but it looks like it’s here to stay, what with the stand-alone shop opening this week.
“My dream is a big kitchen, and you eat around the kitchen. Like at home. The kitchen is the centre of the home. Why not in the restaurant?” he asked. “In some of the restaurants I worked in, the kitchen was so small, and the restaurant so big, and the pressure was so hard.”
He always felt it was unfair that the kitchens were closed off, their staff hidden away like unwanted wretches. “Why is the kitchen closed and the bar is open? Why you can see a barman not a chef?”
“People take for granted chefs. I don’t like that.”
There are several endearing things about Cuban Sandwich Factory, other than its delicious products. One is the spirit in which Carlos and his staff approach their work: with the conviction that it is possible to treat everyone well, at the same time – staff and customers. For Carlos, the restaurant business is not a zero sum game.
While that might sound like a no-brainer, everyone who has ever eaten in restaurants, never mind worked in them, has stories of the fraught love triangle between kitchen, floor and customer. In the pressurised environment of a busy restaurant, these interactions often go awry. And when it does, according to Carlos, it’s because corners are being cut and lines of communication between the customer and kitchen are not open.
“Many food operators open restaurants without knowing what is food. The owner’s not a chef. That’s a big mistake,” he said. “It must be done right. I really hate going to restaurants, and you try the food and you know when the food is wrong because of laziness from the kitchen. I see that on the plate. I see food the way a pianist sees the keyboard.”
But Belfast restaurants have improved a lot, Carlos says, and that may in part be due to the discerning – if not hard-headed – Belfast customer, who is less susceptible to silly food fads than residents of bigger cities.
“Customers in Belfast, I like them because they don’t trust nothing,” he said. “A lot of people underestimate customers here. You go to London or New York, anything you open, people are going to buy it. There’s millions of people there. Here, they are very careful. I like them because they are fair. If it’s good, they come back.”
“I think many restaurants [in Belfast] underestimate the customer,” he said.
It’s refreshing to hear a chef and business owner talk about mutual respect, and who understands the dynamics between all the parts of the business. Nobody walks away from Cuban Sandwich Factory and thinks ‘I’ve been had.’
Another endearing thing about the Cuban Sandwich Factory phenomenon is that it came about as an afterthought.
It all started in a stall at St. George’s Market, a spot that he applied for on a whim and that took 4 years to get approval for. So long in fact, that he forgot he had applied. When he received notification from the city council that he’d been given a spot, “I said, ‘doing what? I didn’t even remember.”
The letter said the stall was for Cuban sandwiches. But after the four-year wait, his original idea had vanished.
“I had to Google Cuban sandwiches, after so many years cooking French, European cuisine and haven’t touched Cuban dishes since 1997, you know? I said, wow! I don’t remember how!”
A trip home with his wife and children helped jog his memory, and his St. George’s stall was met with success from day 1.
That was partly down to luck – something that has played no small part in Carlos’s life. His first day in the market, it happened to be full of American tourists. “The Americans know the Cuban sandwich. When they saw [the sandwiches] they stood in front of the stall …The queue started getting bigger and bigger. The Americans, this time, they saved me.”
The Americans may have helped him get his start, but it’s been the Belfastians who’ve kept him going, enthusiastically buying up his sandwiches and engaging with him on social media. A recent Facebook post about offering suspended sandwiches, where a customer can buy a sandwich for someone who can’t afford one, was shared over 100 times. (The same suspended sandwich scheme also got his business a favourable mention in the December 1st Belfast City Council meeting.)
The Facebook post read: “It’s finally December, and the season of goodwill to all. We would invite you to help those less fortunate than you this Yule time. I know what it’s like to be hungry and far from home.”
To Carlos, the traveler, the stranger, the foreigner is sacrosanct. Everyone is welcome at his table. Maybe that’s because of his own mixed heritage (one grandfather was Jewish, one grandmother African).
“If you are legal in this country, you have permission to work, but you don’t speak English, you should be given the chance.”
He’s not religious – he grew up under communist rule after all. “I’m not a believer, I’m an ex-communist, I’m a materialist, but the Bible says you should take care of the foreigners.”
Belfast feels and looks like a very white city. There are no large ethnic enclaves bustling with busy family restaurants and food shops. Chinese, African and Asian shops are dotted about the place, but not in any great concentration. However, look beneath the surface and communities of immigrants are there – their stories just haven’t been woven into the narrative fabric of the place. To this day, the ‘immigrant experience’ the Irish and Northern Irish talk about refers to our own people, leaving this island because of violence or lack of opportunity, not those from other places trying to escape the exact same problems in their homelands.
“When I came here there was only a few black people in Belfast. I remember I asked my wife, ‘why do people look at me? I remember walking on Great Victoria Street and people would slow down the car, looking at me. But it was not in a bad way. It was curiousity.” It didn’t make him uncomfortable. “On the contrary, it made me feel exotic,” he said.
Carlos understands both the perspective of the newcomer and the local. He understands and admires – even loves – the people of his adopted home, but he knows from first-hand experience the emotional and physical difficulties that come from immigration.
“When you go to another country, you get a lot of opportunities, good and bad. Separation is a bad friend, you know? It’s a bad companion. You are hungry, you are lonely.” He speaks candidly of the emotional toll it can take on a person – he’s seen friends drawn down the wrong path, and was offered that path himself. Unlike many others, he turned it down.
“If you feel that after three, four months you don’t have what you thought you’d have – a car, a big house with a swimming pool – and I come to you and say, ‘you put that drug over there, I’ll make you rich.’ You are away from home you are very vulnerable,” he says.
“But people always have a choice – if someone asks you to do something illegal, you can always say no. Temptation is so big. To say yes was easy, to say no was hard. But I said no.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba went from being poor to really poor literally overnight.
“When we got up in the morning, in 1991, there was nothing in the shop. Completely empty. They cleared everything at nighttime,” he said, explaining that it was to prevent panic-buying. Cuba was the last Communist country standing, with a powerful and hostile neighbor only a few miles away.
“The American embargo, no Soviets anymore, no Eastern European help. We were completely alone. To be honest it was the worst ever time. Before that we didn’t appreciate what we had... Then we lost everything and said, nah. We were rich.”
He decided he needed to escape to the US, which meant risking his life on a rickety boat. Under Castro’s law at the time, Cubans were not allowed to leave.
“I was in a small boat with 9 people, caught in a very bad storm,” he said. One of his friends had a four-year-old child. She started crying. “Normally what happens was they’d throw you overboard, if you’d panic or whatever. But we were all friends, so we rowed back in the storm.” They let off the passenger with the child. “Then we decided to keep going. It was very scary. Big waves. All black.”
In a twist of fate that Belfast’s sandwich lovers can be thankful for, the Cuban authorities picked them up and, even though they were in American waters, forced them back to Cuba at gunpoint.
He returned to his hometown of Colón Matanzas and was facing 10 years in prison when fate intervened for a second time. After an international incident involving an escaped accused murderer who the Americans refused to extradite back to Cuba, Castro unilaterally declared it legal to leave Cuba bound for the US – hoping to flood American shores with Cubans desperate to escape the regime.
“It was not illegal anymore,” he said of his escape attempt, shaking his head at the memory. “Castro saved my life.”
The harrowing experience gives him a lot of insight today into the plight of the men, women and children fleeing Syria and other conflict-ridden lands to our east.
“I was in the raft, like the guys now crossing the Mediterranean. Exactly the same.”
And when he sees the images of this recent wave of refugees, he says, “it brings back memories, and a sadness. These people don’t know what they are going to find here.”
If you’re not in the mood for a sandwich, go for the intensely flavourful bowl of rice and beans, pictured here with a sublime roast pork and grilled plantain topping. Photo by Jenny Holland
Carlos readily acknowledges that good fortune has played a big part in his life – and he pays that good fortune back.
“I love it here. I’m very, very lucky,” he said. “I like Belfast, I really like this place. I’ve been at the right place at the right time.”
His innate fairness must come from his mother, who raised 7 children more or less on her own.
In Cuba “we serve all the food at once. You have your bread, your salad, your soup, every single thing at once. Family style”
He laughs recalling the family fights over portions for the seven kids. “My mother had to put the exact same for everybody, and I’d complain because I’m the eldest boy,” he said. “Why do I have the same size as this little boy here? My brother was maybe three years old and I was already 7. What did my mother say? ‘Everybody eats the same.”
The ‘same’ was their staple meal of rice, one piece of chicken and some beans. It was in his mother’s kitchen that Carlos first learned to cook at the tender age of 5 or 6.
“My father was never at home, so my mother had to work. And my big sister was to look after the house. And she was supposed to cook, but she could not cook.” Carlos took over kitchen duty, and hasn’t looked back.
At the age of ten he went to a boarding school where, being in Castro’s Communist Cuba, he was less like an Eton boy and more a like farm hand. “Everything you ate in the school came from the school,” he said. The students were responsible for growing, raising and cooking everything, including the vegetables, pigs and rice. “Every single thing. You had to be self-sufficient.”
The students even picked tobacco in the tobacco fields and made cigars. “They provided us with education, and we had to work,” he said, adding “it was free in a way.”
He met his Northern Irish wife Kellie, who is originally from Carrickfergus, in Equador, where she was studying, in 1997. Shortly after that, he had his first foray into Irish cooking. When he went to get his visa for Ireland in the tiny embassy in Equador, the only official there gave him a helpful gift.
“He gave me book, Irish food, in Spanish,” featuring traditional Irish dishes like glazed ham, stew and breads. “My wife, she was pregnant with my daughter. She said I want to eat potato bread. It was in the book, I’d never seen potato bread before in my life. I followed the recipe. When she tried it, she almost cried.”
Once the couple settled back in Northern Ireland, Carlos got himself a job at a hotel in Donegal, and he taught himself to cook typical hotel restaurant fare by staying up all night reading a Delia Smith recipe book and cross-referencing it with the hotel’s menu.
“And that book is still with me at home,” he said.
Carlos and Kelly now have four children and a budding sandwich empire, built on hard work and the genuine goodwill Carlos has generated among his customers. At the recent Twilight Market at St. George’s, his sandwich press broke, and one of his employees, a guy named José, convinced Carlos they could power through doing each sandwich by hand. By the time the event was over, they had served about 400 people – some of them having waited almost an hour in the queue. Carlos shook his hand at the memory. “Three days – sore fingers.”
His devotion to both his customers and to his sandwiches is paying off. You could even say he’s becoming a Belfast landmark.
A few months ago, a Chinese tourist came to the market and showed him a tourist map with all the usual spots on it– the City Hall, the murals, the Titanic museum, all the way up to the Giant’s Causeway.
Also on the map was the Cuban sandwich stall at St George’s Market.
Judging by the steady flow of people into the new shop on Thursday – it’s first day operating as a standalone venture – Carlos and his crew will indeed leave an indelible mark on Belfast.
And the food? It’s more than just grilled sandwiches. I had an intensely flavourful bowl of rice and beans with a sublime roast pork and grilled plantain topping. It was fresh and lively, not a bit of grease to be had. And the best part? Sitting there, watching Belfast’s Christmas shoppers go by, listening to the sing-song Spanish being called out between the staff behind the counter.
Belfast just might be a diverse city after all.
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