I’ve written a lot about being from Miami and growing up eating the best Cuban food in the country. If there’s one thing I hope I’ve shown the world on The Saboscrivner, it’s that Orlando has an exciting, burgeoning culinary scene, one that allows us to hold our own against other midsize-to-large cities. We even have Cuban restaurants, but even though some of them are good, very few compare to the plethora of excellent Cuban dining options four hours south of us in Miami. And nowhere is that more clear than with the legendary Cuban sandwich, AKA the Cubano. Plenty of good ones, but nothing that matches the iconic Versailles restaurant, the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban community and a can’t-miss destination for locals and tourists alike. Versailles’ Cuban sandwich is even featured in Jon Favreau’s delightful movie Chef, one of the best food-related movies ever made, which I strongly recommend to all my readers (most of whom have probably seen it already).
Well, dear readers (all those bakers’ dozens of you), I think I’ve finally located Orlando’s finest Cuban sandwich, one that can stand alongside los mejores en Miami, in large part because it’s larger than many of them. It’s at College Park Cafe (https://collegeparkcafe.com/), a humble diner in the College Park neighborhood near downtown Orlando, a place just far enough out of my regular radius that I rarely venture out that way. I’ve been seeing Facebook posts from them and from foodie friends, singing the praises of the Cuban sandwich and other food, so I had to try it for myself, and I’m so glad I did. A sign outside the diner advertises “The Best Cuban Sandwich In Town!”, and they ain’t kidding.
(Picture credit: Barbara Martinez/College Park Cafe.)
College Park Cafe is open from 6:30 AM until 2:00 PM, so I planned to get lunch from here, knowing they aren’t open for dinner. I called in my takeout order and spoke to Barbara’s son Juan, who was very friendly and patient. I had to make a few stops on my way there, and Juan called me back to let me know they were out of something I ordered, and called back a second time when I was about five minutes away, to let me know my order was ready. I appreciated the communication. Later, I spoke to cook and owner Barbara Martinez over Facebook Messenger while I was writing this review, and she said her family moved to Orlando from South Florida a year ago and took over the diner in August of 2019. That’s when they added Cuban dishes to the large menu full of American breakfast and lunch classics.
Of course I ordered the Cubano ($10.50) for myself, and I chose one of my lifelong favorite foods, sweet plantains (maduros) as the one side the sandwich comes with.
Opened up to show off all the shredded, marinated, roast pork, thin-sliced sweet ham, melty Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, sliced pickles, and crunchy potato sticks on this sandwich. Potato sticks aren’t typical, but they were a nice touch — says the guy who likes to put chips in almost any sandwich.
And a cross-section, so you can see just how thick this sandwich really is:
Sweet plantains with black beans (more about them below):
I also got a side order of onion rings ($2.50) because this was my first visit to the College Park Cafe, and whenever I see onion rings on a menu, I have to try them. That’s why this review gets a [AIR HORN!] RING THE ALARM! [/AIR HORN!] tag. It was a great value for a generous order of small, mostly uniform onion rings that were still warm by the time I got them home. Served with some ketchup I keep chillin’ in the fridge for such rare occasions, they were a nice accompaniment to that awe-inspiring Cubano.
My wife wanted palomilla steak ($11.50), a thin, marinated, grilled Cuban-style steak, which came with rice, beans (she chose black beans), and salty fried plantains (tostones), which she always prefers to the sweet ones. I always plate the food when I come home with takeout, especially in these pandemic days, and that means I always try a little bite of whatever she ordered. She likes and orders steaks far more than I do, but WOW, I was in heaven after one bite of this thin, flat, tender palomilla. My eyes rolled back in my head, and I was reeling from the excellent seasoning. There was garlic, cumin, maybe the sour orange juice of a mojo criollo marinade. It was an explosion of deliciousness, all from one bite. And because my wife hates onions and I love them, I slid all the grilled, seasoned onions off the top of her steak to enjoy myself.
When I got there, I saw they had a rich-looking chocolate cake under a glass dome, as any good diner should. My wife always loves chocolate, so I got her a slice of that too. It looked like they have flan as well, but I had to save some stuff for future visits.
I would have ordered the Cuban frita sliders, small burgers made with a blend of ground beef and chorizo sausage, usually served on buns pressed in a plancha like the Cuban bread of a Cubano sandwich, and topped with potato sticks and onions. But unfortunately they were out on this visit. I discovered frita burgers relatively late in my life, on my most recent trip back home to Miami in early March, right before the pandemic struck, and I have a review of that restaurant written and ready to run on a week I don’t have anything new to report on locally. I don’t know of anyone in Orlando serving fritas aside from College Park Cafe, so I’ll definitely return to try those. I don’t think anything could keep me from ordering another one of those perfect, overstuffed Cubanos, though. That thing would be a bargain at twice the price. It really is that damn good, and not just by Orlando standards either.
So that’s College Park Cafe, a friendly neighborhood diner with all your timeless diner classics: Reubens, patty melts, Greek omelettes, country-fried steak, eggs Benedict, chili cheeseburgers, anything you can picture in your diner dreams. They even have an unlimited salad for $8.99 (for dine-in only), or $11.99 when paired with a few different entrees. But the Cuban food is the real star of the show, and it’s definitely some of the best Cuban food to be had in Orlando, good enough to hold its own in Tampa or Miami. The Martinez family is so incredibly nice, and I shouldn’t have to remind you that they could really use every bit of support. Plus, normally parking along Edgewater Drive in College Park is kind of a nightmare, but it wasn’t bad at all on a Saturday afternoon during a pandemic. Trust me — if you and the people you’re comfortable being within six feet of can’t decide between breakfast, diner food, and Cuban cuisine, have I got the place for you.