One recent morning I was on South Clinton Avenue heading toward downtown when I noticed a sign tacked up on the side of a nondescript building just past Goodman Street: "Georgie's Bakery makes the best Cuban Sandwich in Rochester." Liz Ruiz, who has owned Georgie's along with her husband, George, since 2005, was against putting up the sign. "It's caused me no end of work," she says with a laugh, "because I'm the one who makes all those sandwiches." I am happy to report that there is truth in advertising. While, admittedly, there are few contenders for the title of best Cuban sandwich in Rochester, Georgie's is unquestionably the best -- and it would give Cubans in Florida (where I'm currently doing "research" on the subject) a run for their money.
A traditional Cuban sandwich is a combination of roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles layered on a distinctive sandwich roll, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, and then squashed flat on a hot griddle until the cheese melts and the bread toasts. The result is usually a compact and very tidy sandwich, each strata distinct from the others. Liz Ruiz's Cuban is something of a departure from this standard. It includes turkey as well as ham and roast pork, instead of mustard she uses mayonnaise, she adds onions and lettuce to the mix, and it's not very flat.
It's not flat because it simply can't be. Even the small Cuban has what appears to be most of a pound of meat on it in addition to all of the other ingredients. The mayonnaise is actually a brilliant substitution: when the sandwich is heated up it liquefies, combining with the juices from the ham and roast pork to make a sauce that will leave you licking your fingers (and potentially your elbows) in an effort not to let even one drip escape. And the bread is darn near perfect -- the crust crunchy and delicious, the interior snowy white and almost cake-like with a little bit of sweetness to round out the salty and meaty flavors. At $6.75, the smaller Cuban is more than enough for a big lunch (they offer a "larger" size for $8.75). The large is enough for two people to share and potentially have leftovers for a midnight snack (if you can wait until midnight to sneak down to the fridge and polish it off).
The Cuban sandwich is reason enough to visit Georgie's, but once you tire of a steady diet of sandwiches (I can't imagine that this is possible, but it might happen) there's plenty of other reasons to stop in for lunch. On Wednesdays, for instance, George makes some pretty incredible fried chicken ($6.75). There was a time when fried chicken did not wear a crunchy suit of armor. For those of you old enough to remember it, the Colonel's original recipe was a variation on pan-fried chicken, the coating on the outside thin, intensely flavored, but just thick enough to allow the meat underneath it to steam in its own juices. George Ruiz's chicken is a wonderful return to this earlier model. Like Harland Sanders', George Ruiz's batter recipe is a closely guarded secret: when I asked him what went into it, he just chuckled and looked away. There's a little bit of cornmeal to give the coating a nice crunch, and it sports a pretty good amount of both salt and black pepper, but beyond that, I can't say. The meat nearly falls off the bones and dissolves in your mouth along with the coating, making each bite a little bit of heaven.
The day that I had it, the fried chicken was served with macaroni salad, and even that was excellent. I'm not a fan of the sweet, one-dimensional mac salad that is ubiquitous in our fair city, but Liz Ruiz's version is a throwback to the days when the side dish still had hardboiled eggs, mustard, celery, and celery salt in it. It made a perfect complement to the fried chicken -- a picnic on a plate that left me nostalgic for my grandma's cooking.
Cubans are available every day, and fried chicken only on Wednesdays, but those in the know will show up on Saturday morning or early afternoon to partake of Georgie's roasted pork ($7.99) or chicken ($5.99) with rice and gandules (pigeon peas). George roasts pork shoulders and whole birds right in the bread ovens, using the intense heat to sear them and then render them fork tender. A single portion of roast pork is surely enough for dinner for two. The meat is sweet and falls apart in fragrant shreds, each bite infused with cumin, pepper, salt, and creamy fat. This indulgently rich treat is accompanied by a square of crunchy pork skin (chicharones) that is best broken up and stirred into the rice along with pork juices, spreading its salty savor throughout the already flavorful rice.
Notable by their absence are any form of vegetables. Although she does make green salads, Liz Ruiz points out, "there is no diet food here." Georgie's is an unapologetic celebration of fatty goodness, and so it only makes sense to finish off your meal with one of the bakery's incredible quesitos: flaky pockets of butter pastry filled with cream cheese and guava paste ($1.25 each). I've rarely seen pastry so lovingly made, each layer as distinct as the leaves of a book, the crust outside full of the compressed bubbles that are evidence of a master baker at work. Grab a couple for later on -- and hide them lest friends or family get to them before you do.