The Cubano sandwich at Quiero Cafe in downtown Portland. Photos by Ray Routhier

I’ve never really known what a Cubano sandwich is supposed to taste like. But after getting lunch from Quiero Cafe in downtown Portland, I know what I want it to taste like.

The few Cubanos I’ve had in the past just tasted like ham subs, with a little more heat. Nothing special, I thought. But the one I got from Quiero was a revelation, with lots of flavors I thought might be overpowering, but instead blended perfectly and created something totally new to me.

The Cubano’s foundation was very tender pulled pork, with a couple layers of what looked to be Spanish ham, dark red in color. It was topped with Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, pickles and garlic aioli. The long roll was slightly toasted on the outside, and light and fluffy on the inside. It was $9 and one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in a long time.

Inside Quiero Cafe on Deering Avenue in Portland.

Quiero Cafe’s Portland location, on the corner of Deering Avenue and Congress Street, opened in May. There’s another Quiero in Saco. Both feature an eclectic Latin American menu that includes baked empanadas (Latin American hand pies),  Cubanos, burritos, quesadillas, tamales and arepas (corn cakes), as well as plantain chips and yuca fries, made from the root of the cassava plant. There are hot dogs too – a Chileno ($8), with tomatoes, sauerkraut, avocado and mayo, and a Colombiano ($10) with pineapple sauce, onions, melted mozzarella cheese, queso fresco, potato chip crumbs and hard-boiled eggs.

The Portland location is an inviting space with honey-colored wood floors. There’s plenty of seating at dark wood counters and tables, including some near the windows that look out onto the busy street. The menu is written big and bold on overhead chalkboards.

I got my order to go, by ordering online. I found the website a little confusing. Next to the addresses for both locations the words “carryout only” appeared.  I figured that meant the restaurants were take-out places, with no seating. So I pressed the “order online” button, browsed the extensive menu, made my selections and paid. I got a message telling me my order would be ready in 15 to 20 minutes, which it was.

A pina empanada at Quiero Cafe in downtown Portland.

When I got to the place, I found it indeed had seating. I was told the instructions on the website were just to advise people that, if you order online, you can only get the food to go.

I also sampled a pina empanada ($3.75), with pineapple, ham and cheese inside. The pastry was golden and flaky, and firm enough to hold the fillings. The pineapple tasted fresh, and not too sweet. I like that Quiero stamps the name of the empanada on the outside, so you know what’s inside.

The dozen or more empanadas listed on the menu have some creative filling combinations. The chorizo has spicy sausage, potatoes and red peppers, while the pino has ground beef, onions, raisins, olives and a hard-boiled egg. Since they’re all $3.75, two or three empanadas would make a pretty cheap lunch.

I’d like to try more of the empanadas at some point. But I’m afraid, on return visits, the Cubano will be too tempting to resist.

Quiero Cafe on Deering Avenue in Portland.

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