Food4Koreancuban Courtesy032620Geunmin Kang (L) and Hyunmin Cho, who own South Korea’s Tampa Sandwich Bar.Tampa Sandwich Bar

In the Spring of 2016, an old friend of mine mentioned that his Korean fiancé told him there was a Cuban sandwich shop in Seoul, Korea named “Tampa Sandwich Bar.” As a Tampa native, and staunch Tampa supporter in the Cuban Sandwich debate, I was honored that someone overseas thought so much of our humble sandwich that they’d build an entire restaurant concept around it, and the place it was invented in.

It was even more amazing that the restaurant happened to be 7,520 miles away.

So I did an interview with owners Geunmin Kang and Hyunmin Cho and published it on since-shuttered music and culture blog Suburban Apologist. The 9th Annual International Cuban Sandwich Festival is rescheduled for Sunday, May 31 in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, so I checked back in with my friends who sadly won’t make it to Tampa in 2020.

Read highlights from our Q&A below, and get a link to the full chat via Grove Brands.

9th Annual International Cuban Sandwich Festival
Sun. May 31, 11 a.m. Free to attend.
Centennial Park, 1800 E. 8th Ave, Ybor City

How has the coronavirus changed people’s habits in Seoul?

The government, doctors and nurses are doing their best to respond to the virus. As you may have seen in the news, we can do a medical exam for the virus very quickly. The government is taking it step by step. We can get text messages with information about what’s happening in our area, which is helpful. Everyone is being careful. There have been a few changes in South Korea. Many companies are encouraging work from home and everyone is being careful when they take public transportation or going out. Most restaurants and stores are placing hand sanitizers at their entrances. We believe we’ll overcome this epidemic soon enough.

What was the most surprising thing about the reaction to the news that there was a Tampa Cuban sandwich shop in Korea?

We never expected any reaction in Tampa when we opened up the shop. We were just a small shop among thousands of restaurants in Seoul, so we could have never imagined an article published in Tampa––the origin of the Cuban Sandwich. After the article went viral in Tampa. Many companies reached out to send us gifts of Tampa memorabilia and products. Visit Tampa Bay put together a great gift basket with Tampa themed items, Cigar City Brewing Beers and decor, as well as the shirts and bags you sent. We used much of this to decorate the shop. The Columbia Restaurant Group gave books, shirts, special ingredients and more. Everyone encouraged us to keep working hard and wished us well. The most surprising part was the people coming into the shop from Tampa and beyond. They all really enjoyed eating our Cubans. We’re so happy to not only be selling the famous Cuban sandwich, but also talking to our guests about Tampa.

The Cuban Sandwich started as a simple, handheld and affordable meal for working class people in Ybor City. Is there a comparable dish in Seoul to that?

Korean meals are centered around variety. Koreans generally eat kimchi stew, spicy stir-fried pork with rice, etc. Korean food culture is usually based on one main dish with lots of side dishes. For that reason, sandwiches are a special meal for Koreans. If people don’t have much time to eat, they often go with a burger or sandwich. Around 10-15% of our customers take their sandwiches with them on the go. 

Why do you think Americans are really starting to take notice of Korean culture?

The answer lies in mukbangs [an online audiovisual broadcast, in which a host eats food while interacting with the audience], BTS, and “Parasite”! Korean culture is very unique. Old Koreans still remember the Japanese occupation, Korean War and IMF [financial crisis of the late-’90s]. Even though young generations didn’t experience it themselves, the lasting scars of the past still have an effect them. Because of this, they’ve created their own unique and Korean style. As you know, hip teens with self-esteem are leading this new culture even in high school. As a result, Korea’s unique story is getting more interesting to the world—thus the rapidly increasing interest.

In “Parasite,” jjapaguri ramen made quite a few Americans hungry. What other Korean dishes are Americans missing out on?

There are so many delicious dishes in Korea. Koreans love to create dishes there way and to share them with others. Muckbangs are a prime example of that (see YouTube). Here’s another way to make Jjapaguri. Before the famous Jjapaguri ramen, people wanted to make their japagettie ramen more delicious. Some people found the best combination included a fried egg and cheese. We call this jjagechi. They’re made with Japagettie ramen and are delicious. It is easy to cook and you should try it right now!

How are you spreading the gospel of the Cuban sandwich?

A small number of Koreans know of it now thanks to the movie “Chef” and Tampa Sandwich Bar. Many believe the sandwich is from Cuba. But after our restaurant, we want to teach everyone that it’s from Tampa, not Cuba. We’re dedicated to telling the story of how they make it and how it spread globally.

Our local Nebraska Mini Mart has a bulgogi cheesesteak with kimchi and gochujang mayo. Do Koreans in general like to see westerners adopting flavors and traditional ingredients?

I believe that foods are from the earth. There is no Western or Eastern. Asians eat rice, yes, but so do Mexicans in burritos and Italians in risotto. In Korea, Domino’s and other pizza chains put bulgogi on pizza. Many American franchises also put various ingredients in their foods to appeal to Koreans. If the west is adopting Korean ingredients, we just hope that it’s delicious. That’s all.

What was your favorite place to visit in Tampa?

That’s a difficult question to answer! We spent 10 days in Tampa in 2017 and 2018. We’d have to say the Riverwalk is the best place in Downtown Tampa. Walking, running and chilling. It’s the perfect place for me. Restaurants? Can’t choose just one. Every single restaurant has an awesome vibe. The Columbia, La Segunda, Stone Soup Company, Goody Goody Burger, Ulele, Oxford Exchange, Ceviche’s and La Teresita! Even Taco Bus!

What’s next for Tampa Sandwich Bar?

We would love to make a culture and food space, similar to Oxford Exchange. We’d love to continue introducing Florida culture, foods, art and people to Koreans. We really have fallen in love with Tampa and Florida.

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