The Difference Between Potbelly’s Cubano Sandwich and a Real Cubano

Potbelly has added a Cubano to the menu. Can it pull off this deceptively simple sandwich?

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potbelly cubano sandwich in hand
Potbelly’s Cubano is simple but satisfying.
Photo: Dennis Lee

I am admittedly pretty lukewarm on Potbelly’s toasted sandwiches. The chain is a little dull, but it does hit the spot in a lunch pinch. My usual order is a Wreck (turkey, roast beef, salami, ham) with the works, including hot peppers, which is the house term for Chicago’s beloved oil-drenched spicy giardiniera.

The thing is, if I don’t eat a Potbelly sandwich within five minutes of receiving one, its life force slowly drains away as it cools to room temperature. Then it just turns into a soggy, drippy mess with congealed cheese on top, which is about as appealing as it sounds. That’s why I generally avoid the place unless I’m dining in, which isn’t often, though I do like it better than Subway.

When I learned that Potbelly is currently serving its own take on a Cubano, the classic Cuban sandwich, I wondered two things: whether or not it was a respectable take on its namesake and whether the thing would suffer as badly as my prior Potbelly sandwiches once they inevitably cool off. After all, a Cubano is meant to be eaten hot off a sandwich grill, like a panini.

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If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Potbelly has previously offered the Cubano as a limited-time-only option. A good friend of mine is a longtime Potbelly employee, and he confirmed that it was sold about four years ago and is now making its brief return. I had to see whether that was a good decision on Potbelly’s part.

What’s in a Cubano sandwich?

To recap, if you’ve never had one, a Cuban sandwich is a deceptively simple affair. It typically features roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, and pickles, all piled on bread that’s similar to a baguette but slightly thinner. Then the whole thing is grilled, either in a device similar to a panini press (called a plancha), or on a flat top with a weight applied to it. I didn’t taste one until well into my adulthood, and once I had my first bite, I was furious at myself for not trying one sooner.

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On paper they sound pretty straightforward, but the combination of rich roast pork with salty ham, a nutty and stretchy Swiss, tart mustard, and acidic tangy pickles is an absolute marvel—as long as you’re eating it right off the press. I used to think (erroneously) that sandwiches with a whole bunch of shit shoved inside them were the best, but a perfect Cuban sandwich puts me squarely in my place.

Is the Potbelly Cubano worth ordering?

The Potbelly version deviates a little in that that it contains roasted pork, deli-sliced ham, Provolone instead of Swiss, plus brown mustard and pickles. It’s also on the sandwich chain’s standard light and chewy bread (your choice of white or whole wheat). The sandwich is run through a conveyor belt oven, not pressed using a plancha—a key difference.

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The Potbelly in my neighborhood is under 10 minutes away by car, which is convenient. But what isn’t convenient is the fact that they’re resurfacing the roads in our neighborhood, which meant that parking sucked ass. I didn’t get back to my place for a good 20 minutes or so, which meant my sandwich was barely past warm by the time I tucked into it. I wasn’t expecting much.

But I am happy to report that it is indeed delicious, even nearly at room temperature. I know, I was pretty shocked too. Though it didn’t look like it was filled with a ton of meat, the ratio of filling to bread was perfect, and the combination certainly read like a Cuban sandwich in terms of flavor. The taste was pretty close, but the texture was pure Potbelly toasted sandwich. This was fine, but far enough away from a standard Cubano that I can’t really compare the two on level ground.

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I didn’t expect I’d like it so much. The star was the pulled pork, which was silky with a surprising amount of fat (I’m guessing it’s pork shoulder). I would have been happy with a sandwich just made of that alone. The ham, which was just a single sheet, added a bit of salt, while the mustard and the pickles balanced out the meatiness of each bite. The provolone was just, you know, there. It did congeal and didn’t add much by way of flavor, but I bet right off the conveyor oven, I’d have gotten a really satisfying melty bite out of it. Too bad so few people order their Potbelly sandwiches for dine-in.

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Does this stack up to a real-deal Cuban sandwich? No, not entirely. It’s just a chain sandwich, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. I’m glad Potbelly defied my expectations, because I would happily order another one, just for another bite of that pulled pork.