Cuban Sandwich Showdown: Paseos vs Un Bien
Guest blogger Peter Woodburn dissects the drama of one the nation's great sandwich rivalries and declares the true victor.
In a city known for its seafood excellence, it is a bit interesting to note that Seattle’s favorite dish isn’t Dungeness crab fresh off the boat. Rather, it is a Cuban sandwich from a small little roadside establishment with an aluminum roof, up the hill from the Fremont: a neighborhood humbly known as the Center of the Universe. In an area of the nation that often times prides itself on being slightly unpredictable, it is fitting that Paseo eschews the norm for what is considered “northwest fare” and offers up the best sandwich in the entire city.
The interesting thing about Paseos is that it isn’t just the locals that sing the praises of the sandwiches--unless the locals are insistent on leaving a review on Yelp after each and every weekly trip. As of 2016, Paseos is the third-highest rated establishment in the entire nation on Yelp.
But the rest of the nation doesn’t know the history of Paseos, and it is worth reading up on because otherwise, the prospect of doing a Paseos versus Un Bien sandwich taste test has little meaning.
In a nutshell, the beloved Seattle institution open since the early 90’s suddenly closes and files for bankruptcy. New owners come along and purchase everything named Paseos in bankruptcy court, minus the recipes. Sons of original Paseos’ owner open a new restaurant, serving virtually the exact same menu they grew up on.
And that is how we come to this exact moment at this exact time: one of the great sandwich battles in the entire nation. Which is the better Caribbean Roast sandwich: the No. 2 at Paseo or the No. 1 at Un Bien? Which is the better Cuban Midnight Press: the No. 10 at Paseo or the No. 2 at Un Bien. The descriptions of the sandwiches are the exact same. The Caribbean Roast on Paseo’s menu says: “Pork shoulder coated in Paseo Marinade & slow roasted 'til falling into succulent morsels.” At Un Bien: “Pork shoulder coated in marinade and slow-roasted until it falls into succulent morsels.”
A few friends were invited over, because even though the idea of eating four Cuban sandwiches in one sitting is enough to have the tastebuds enact a violent coup d’etat on the brain, the gastrointestinal issues throughout the evening are probably not worth the pain. The sandwiches were divvied up, and consumption proceeded, with minimal talking (as is usually the case when eating something from Paseos or Un Bien).
Both sandwiches are a complete and utter mess, and that is a large appeal of the Paseos/Un Bien experience. The Caribbean Roast is an unholy pile of slow-roasted pork, piled higher than most mouths can reach, with thick-cut, grilled onions, a slathering of sauce, and a piece of lettuce for health reasons. Somewhere in the thick of it all, bread feebly attempts to keep the whole thing together. The bread always fails.
The Midnight Press has a bit more staying power, but not by much. Piles of ham lay underneath slow-roasted pork, and a lovely layering of melted swiss cheese provides the glue. Eating both of these sandwiches is art in its most primal and carnal form. The remnants of the sandwich and your shirt are not for the faint of heart.
Both establishments have it down right. The sandwiches are virtually indistinguishable and almost led to multiple official taste-tester arguments of which one is which. Each sandwich is a fantastically sloppy mess of a pork vessel. If you eat with your eyes first, you could probably care less which sandwich was on your plate.
Taste of Caribbean Roast
Verdict: Un Bien
After attempting to absorb what we were about to intake, the four of us took our first bite of each sandwich. The results came back uniformly: Un Bien was better. It was actually shocking how clearly Un Bien rose over Paseos. But then, we have to go back to the history of it all. The new Paseos owners didn’t get the original marinade recipes, they had to attempt to recreate it. Un Bien has the recipes, and it shows.
The issue was the pork for Paseos, which becomes an unfortunate negative mark considering pork is approximately 90 percent of the sandwich. The pork in Paseos was a bit dry, less slow-cooked at low temperatures and more medium-slow-cooked at medium-low temperatures. The contrast in the texture of the two porks was evident immediately. The sandwiches don’t have a lot of moisture to counterbalance dry pork.
The difference was stark in the flavor as well. Paseos’ pork launched off with the sweetness, but then it fell flat afterward. There wasn’t enough fat melting throughout the meat to leave any lasting finish on the tastebuds. It ended up eating like a wine that has been open one year too late--kicking yourself for not having it properly. This issue was immediately rectified by one bite of the Un Bien sandwich. The pork was moist, flavorful, sweeter, saltier--all the good things to make each bite last like five.
Taste of Cuban Press
Verdict: Un Bien
Unfortunately, there was a lot less drama with the Cuban Press than there was with the Roast. Seeing as how roasted pork is also one of the key ingredients of the Press, and seeing as how the roasted pork from Un Bien was quite superior, the verdict came down swiftly and without mercy. Un Bien was the all around winner.
The caveat being the sandwiches from Paseos were hardly bad, by any stretch of the word. On the contrary, standing on their own, most anyone would take a free sandwich from Paseo any day of the week. Unfortunately for Paseos, most days of the week, Un Bien is also open, and just a few miles away. So far, it hasn’t slowed their momentum down quite as much, but the lines at the new Paseos are not nearly as painstakingly long as the lines were at the old Paseos. The reputation of Un Bien is spreading in the same way the original Paseos did: An unassuming shack in a random area of town serving up simple Cuban sandwiches for people to eat on the streets.
Peter Woodburn spends a large majority of his free time on the Internet managing The Slipper Still Fits. When he isn't on the Internet writing about basketball, he is busy trying to eat anywhere and everywhere that pops up in his home of Seattle. He has an affinity for high-priced French meals, but enjoys the grit and dirt of shucking five dozen oysters just as much. For more of Peter's rantings and ramblings on sports and food alike, follow him on Twitter, @wernies.