The medianoche. The Elena Ruz. The frita Cubana. All iconic sandwiches that are as woven into the fabric of Cuban life as coffee and mambo. And though there's a never-ending procession of travel shows and blogs dedicated to the panoply of portable Cuban culinary ingenuity, there's one they all forget: The disco volador, known in English as the flying saucer.
The sandwich is painfully simple. One slice of white bread goes down on the counter and is topped with anything from an egg and a slice of Swiss cheese to cream cheese, guava jelly, and ham. Another slice of bread is set on top, and the whole thing is buttered and placed into a circular Toas-Tite press that, when closed, trims the sandwich into a near-perfect circle. After a brief stint inside the press on a hot stovetop, the sandwich's edges are sealed shut, and the bread is toasted a golden brown.
It's a sandwich many in Cuba grew up with. "For a lot of kids, it's what you ate when you got home from school," says Adriana (who declined to give her last name), a waitress at Calle Ocho's longstanding La Palma Cafeteria, which serves about a half-dozen varieties of discos. "It's perfect for picky kids because you can put anything inside of them." Here, find discos stuffed with ham and cheese ($3.95); ham, pork, and Swiss cheese ($4.95); and ham, cream cheese, and strawberry jelly ($4.95). The sandwiches are a little sloppy, and the edges aren't quite sealed, but it's easy to see why they appeal to children.
Adriana's go-to while growing up on the outskirts of Havana was buttered Cuban bread with cream cheese and strawberries grilled inside a Toas-Tite press. "I still eat them once in a while," she says.
Yet how the Toas-Tite that is so integral to discos made its way to Cuba seems a mystery. "No idea," Adriana says. Michael Beltran, the Miami-born-and-raised chef/owner of Coconut Grove's Ariete, echoes the same even though his family was intimately familiar with the comforting sandwiches.
The Toas-Tite sandwich press is something like the ancient predecessor to the modern-day panini press. The stovetop or campfire variety was first manufactured in the late 1940s by the Cincinnati company Bar-B-Buns Inc. By 1953, the company had stopped making them, according to the New York Times. Fast-forward nearly a half-century, and sisters Susan Caldwell and Janice Feigenbaum rediscovered the contraption their mother used to make them gooey grilled cheese sandwiches while the girls were growing up in frigid suburban Chicago. By 2010, Bar-B-Buns' patent on the Toas-Tite had expired, and the company had long since gone bellyup. The pair bought a Toas-Tite off eBay, reverse-engineered it, and in September 2011, the beloved presses could once again be purchased new.
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Ariete's Beltran was introduced to the disco when he was 8 years old. "I was being an ornery kid, saying I didn't want anything, and my dad said, 'Here, try one of these,'" Beltran recalls. One bite into the hot round with a crackly crust that gave way to ham and melted cheese was enough. Discos became a constant presence in Beltran's life throughout high school and even today. "I still try to go back [to La Palma] for one every four or five months," he says.
And when it came time to toy with the menu for his Grove project, discos had to be there. The press came down mostly during brunch, when Ariete packed eggs, truffles, Gruyère cheese, and caramelized onions into a circular sealed sandwich. Alas, the disco's time at Ariete was short-lived. The press was too cumbersome in the kitchen, even more so when a handful of tables ordered discos. "Those things are cool at home, but when you're in the middle of service trying to do five at a time, it doesn't work," Beltran says.
There may be hope. Occasionally, an aging industrial version of the Toas-Tite appears on eBay. It looks similar to a waffle iron, and perhaps if Beltran can get one in his kitchen, the disco (but never disco) will make its grand return.