I’ve never been to Havana, but it’s easy to pretend I’m there — or in some equally exotic locale — while chomping on a Cuban sandwich and soaking up the sunny atmosphere of west Asheville’s Ideal Market Cafe.
Yet the casual eatery, which opened last September, also manages to exude a thoroughly local vibe. That’s due to co-owner Leland Edwards‘ diligent efforts to preserve vestiges of the old Ideal Drug Store, which occupied the Haywood Road storefront for nearly half a century.
Besides keeping the Ideal name and the original tin ceiling, the cafe displays a curious collection of empty medicine bottles and other old-timey artifacts arranged in a display case toward the rear of the warm, welcoming space.
“Being the Ideal Drug Store for 47 years, I thought it had to have the name Ideal still attached to it,” says Edwards, an Asheville native. “It was out of respect … and wanting to leave the community intact that was here, not take away from it. I wanted to take the history and keep it and leave it and honor it.”
On a recent afternoon, the place is bustling. Slipping in incognito, I ponder the list of deli sandwiches, salads and homemade soups posted on the menu behind the deli counter, considering the Westside Special (a hot pastrami melt), the Haywood Special (beef au jus), and assorted intriguing vegetarian specialties. In the end, though, I go for the Ideal Cuban sandwich ($6.95) and a soft drink.
Grabbing a table overlooking the intersection of Brevard and Haywood roads, I spy on my fellow diners (whose ages seem to range across a 50-plus-year span) and eyeball the market part of the establishment. There, racks hold wines (including organic selections), plus such Sclafani brand Italian staples as dry pasta, olives and tomato goods. Pottery and funky glasswork by local artists are also for sale.
The Ideal Cuban arrives, accompanied by a bag of potato chips and a crisp dill pickle. It’s a satisfyingly yummy concoction: slices of marinated roast pork, boiled ham, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayo and mustard, all nestled between slices of traditional Cuban bread. The entire sandwich is “heat pressed” on a panini grill, which gives the bread a light, crisp texture.
Edwards and co-owner Jeff Frank reveal the lengths to which they’ve gone to make the Ideal Cuban, well, ideal. The bread recipe comes from Tampa — with the stipulation that the two not reproduce it in the state of Florida. (The precise origin of the sandwich is somewhat mysterious, though Tampa’s Weekly Planet noted in 2002 that it may indeed been born in Ybor City, now a part of Tampa.)
For those in the know, Ideal’s version is an Ybor City-style Cuban sandwich minus the turkey, Edwards explains. Tradition, he notes, even calls for the sandwiches to be cut at a particular angle.
Although the Ideal isn’t a Cuban restaurant, Edwards says his original business partner (who later moved back to his native Tampa) persuaded Edwards that they ought to make El Cubano one of their signature sandwiches.
“We just go out of our way to make sure that we’re doing it right,” declares Frank, the former executive chef for Biltmore Estate.