Nobody comes to the Smoky Mountains in search of excellent Cuban food, but here it is. The selection is a full complement of familiar dishes: roast pork, ropa vieja, picadillo, paella, stuffed yuca, chicharron de pollo, empanadas, sweet plantains, cafe con leche, and guanabana shakes. Prices are reasonable — well under $20 for a full-scale dinner — and ambience in the quiet, wood-paneled dining room is a tasteful reprieve from the uncouth commercial corridor outside.
If I spent a lot of time in Pigeon Forge, I would relish eating my way through the menu and discovering the ups and downs of island cuisine. The one more-or-less Cuban dish I do know something about is a Cuban sandwich. Most historians agree that it is not, in fact, truly Cuban, but is related to Cuba’s “Media Noche” sandwich (made on tender bread), and it was created by Cubans who fled Communism for Florida.
The “Cubano” (aka Cuban mix) these expatriates invented — in Key West, Tampa, or possibly Miami — is now popular throughout the U.S.A. A perfect storm of multiple ingredients, it includes roast pork, Swiss cheese, ham, mustard, and pickles all piled into a hero loaf. The sandwich would slither apart and fall to pieces as constructed, but it attains poise and harmony as it’s heated on a hot grill under a heavy weight. The weight presses down on the assembled package, toasting the bread and causing all the different flavor notes to bond together as one resounding chord inside the crisped loaf. The pork at Smokies Cuban Cafe is especially tender, more pulled than sliced, making for bites that feel as good on the tongue as they taste.
Among native desserts, rum cake can’t be beat. Made as an individual little round pastry, it has a sweet vanilla crumb with just-baked tenderness, and it comes sopped with enough Cuban rum to seem actually intoxicating. With that cake, of course you want strong Cuban coffee, either a regular espresso or, to go whole hog, a cafe bombon, which is espresso with condensed milk and a shot of chocolate.