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July 14, 2010

The Taste Bud: It’s not just a sandwich, it’s … well, more

I fully admit that I sometimes patronize corporate fast-food chains. My excuse is that I consider fast food a food group in and of itself; for instance, I’ve always maintained that Taco Bell (one of my faves in that realm) isn’t really Mexican food — it’s more like Mexi-esque. Or quasi-Mex. But it fills a need when called upon.

However, these fast-food standbys pale in comparison to the joy that can come from scoring an original and unexpected meal that is as affordable and at least nearly as convenient as Mega Burger© or Big Beef Land™ or Super Subs® — and it’s worth seeking out. This feeling is kind of like the joy you get from throwing a perfect spiral, or finding your favorite beer on sale for $2.99 and buying every six-pack they have.

Or standing in line at the DMV and, however improbable, meeting that special someone and falling in love. Maybe.

Whatever the case, I recently stumbled upon a sandwich that fits into this special category, and it can be found in an unlikely place. This sandwich lives in a supermarket, in fact: namely ValuMarket in the Mid-City Mall. I met Julie Odum, assistant deli manager there, at a recent beer and food event, and had the chance to sample this masterpiece. I was immediately smitten.

You know, if you want to break it down, a sandwich is essentially just meat on bread — but it’s the preparation and desire to make it more that really can make a sandwich, well, more. And this one is more.

As Odum excitedly described the “Authentic Cubano” to me, I admit I briefly grappled with the urge to propose marriage. She delivered her description with such passion, it nearly made me woozy, and I kept thinking if any woman could get this excited about a sandwich, imagine what she could do with … well, a juicy, supple brisket of beef. Or a hot, piquant bowl of chili.

The thought of it makes me tremble and blush; is the Authentic Cubano better than … true love? To test its value with one who should know, I asked Odum five important questions. Would she rather have …

LEO: A Cubano or a garden salad with iceberg lettuce?
Julie Odum: Oh Jesus, a Cubano!

LEO: A Cubano or six fast-food, dollar-menu sandwiches of her choice?
JO: Cubano.

LEO: A Cubano or $11.47 in pennies?
JO: Definitely the Cubano. I hate pennies.

LEO: A Cubano or an autographed picture of LEO’s Bar Belle?
JO: I want the autograph; I can get a Cubano almost every day.

LEO: A Cubano or … true love?
JO: Oh darn. I think they’re the same thing. Aren’t they?

See?

This sandwich de resistance is built upon pork shoulder marinated in adobo and mojo seasoning, then cooked for four hours, pulled and sliced thin, and finally piled upon a 6-inch French bread bun. Sitting on top of the succulent pork is a layer of grilled ham, mustard, Swiss cheese and two deli-style, length-wise pickle slices, which add a nice garlicky crunch to the final product. The sandwich is pressed when finished.

And it’s only $5.99. Big as my freaking forearm, confoundingly tasty, potentially better than true love, and it’s six freaking bucks. I knew immediately I had to make it mine, and I got two meals out of my Cubano for that paltry amount. (I don’t remember that happening with a No. 4 combo from Mega Burger© anytime recently.) It was so satisfying, I nearly wanted to cuddle with it and smoke a cigarette.

Odum says each ValuMarket deli — there are five, so check out www.valumarket.com — makes fresh food from original recipes, and each one is a little different. “We try to do stuff locally for the neighborhoods we live in,” she says.

Oh, and she also let me try her smoked potato salad ($4.99 per pound). It’s mustard- and mayo-based with tender, skin-on red potatoes smoked in a pressurized smoker, pimentos, onions … I would go on but, well, let’s just say there are some things that can’t be printed in a respectable news publication.

(Julie, you’ve got my number.)

Drop me a line about your favorite cheap eats, dives, diners and specials. I promise I’ll share … until Mom stops looking.