Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A slice of sunny Cuba chases away winter

Straight from a heated press, a classic Cuban sandwich -- layered ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard -- is $6 at La Pola Restaurant in West New York, "El Rey de Sandwich Cubano."

Joe Rico, who has been working in his father's shop since he was 5 years old, builds a sandwich with Cuban water bread, hand-sliced roast pork and other ingredients.


You'll forget the bone-chilling weather after just a few minutes inside La Pola in West New York, listening to the machine-gun Spanish and sipping a cup of freshly pressed sugar-cane juice.

Belarmino Rico, the owner of La Pola, calls himself "The King of the Cuban Sandwich," and it's no idle boast.

He roasts the pork in a pizza oven, and sells hundreds of the freshly made sandwiches each day, along with a limited menu of Cuban and Spanish dishes, cafe con leche and sugar-cane juice.

A friend loved his Cuban sandwich, but as someone who doesn't eat meat, I was happy with coffee and the delightfully sweet juice.

La Pola is named after the small town in Spain where the elder Rico was born before he emigrated to Cuba, where he learned to make Cubanos at his uncle's bodega in Havana.

A heated press or plancha compresses the sandwich and turns it crispy.

Rico's hands are a blur as he assembles the sandwich, above and below, before spinning around to put it into the heated press.

Sugar cane is pressed to order, producing a pure, sweet drink that is a powerful reminder of the sunny island of Cuba. The split cane is kept on ice, below.

A big cup of sugar-cane juice or jugo de cana is $4.50 without ice.

The Ricos offer more than a dozen sandwiches.

La Pola Restaurant, 5400 Palisade Ave., West New York; 201-867-6028. Open 5 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Sundays. Small parking lot. Cash only.

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