Pork Belly Cubano at Bunk Sandwiches

621 SE Morrison St. and other locations, 328-2865, bunksandwiches.com.

Tommy Habetz started his chef's career cooking in the restaurants of seemingly every celebrity chef in America, from Bobby Flay to Mario Batali to culinary tycoon Drew Nieporent. But his tastes ran a lot simpler. He wanted to run a sandwich shop, making the humble flavors he fell in love with starting when he was a kid eating at McDonald's.

Bunk's pork belly Cubano hit Portland's food scene like a protein bomb, sending lunchtime lines sprawling out onto the sidewalks of a then-desolate stretch of Southeast Morrison. It's a classic Cuban updated with a fine smoked ham and a healthy slab of fatty, lovely pork belly, and when it is perfect, it is truly perfect.

As told by Habetz…

"The pork belly Cubano first came about when I worked in Boca Raton, Fla., for a year in 2000 opening a resort. Florida, especially at that time, is the desert of morals and the desert of food. Cuban food was where it's at. The first time I had a Cubano sandwich I was obsessed. It's a perfect sandwich. The combination of flavors is similar to a McDonald's cheeseburger. When I was a kid, a McDonald's cheeseburger was the most delicious thing—I was not raised on foie gras.

Move forward to 2008, we're starting Bunk, and I said, 'We gotta do a Cubano.'

One of the great things about being an American chef, and a Portland chef specifically, is you've got a lot of freedom. There's a blank slate. Sometimes that results in horrible abominations with too many alfalfa sprouts, but it lets you stand back, look at something and see every element to make an improvement.

The sandwich is great, but the ham and the pork loin are always the weak elements. We have a great smoked ham from Eastern Oregon—otherwise it's usually just a boiled ham. And at the time, pork belly was kind of an unusual thing. We took a chance by making it pork belly—some people find it too fatty. Now we make a roast out of the shoulder and the belly, so you get some of the meatiness of the shoulder. We do a cure on it, and then slow roast it with molasses.

We wanted to use a really good yellow mustard, and adding mayonnaise is kind of a personal thing. Some people are traditionalists. But the mayo and the swiss cheese, when we put it into a press and put it in an oven, it creates a whole other thing. It makes a great sauce. We add Valentina hot sauce, which tastes like Cholula at a fraction of the cost.

The Cubano was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives within the first 12 months of being open, even though we were neither a diner, drive-in or dive. Chris Cosentino picked it on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. And now everyone gets the Cubano."

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