Meg van Huygen's "Sub Missives" column writes love letters to the Seattle area's best sandwiches. Know a hot sub? Write to us about it @ email@example.com.
Seattle’s got a whole lot of Cuban sandwiches. There are about 900 videos online of tourists narrating their trip to a neighborhood called “Ballard” or “Fremont” to compare one Cuban sandwich from one restaurant to a very similar Cuban sandwich from another, declaring each one an iconic Seattle meal. Most of these menus zero in on pan con lechón, featuring marinated roasted pork with a whole mess of onions, often grilled. That sandwich is synonymous with Paseo, Un Bien, Bongos, Cafe con Leche, et al.
But although the pan con lechón, sometimes styled as a Caribbean roast pork sandwich, is the lead character in the Seattle League of Cuban Sandwich Superheroes, these sandwich shops are serving all kinds of permutations on the Cuban sandwich concept. Some are new, some are old. Some are more authentic than others, if that matters. All of them are extremely good. Safe to say that no one makes a bad Cubano in Seattle, because they wouldn’t be able to sell it.
My fave among the crowd has always been Geo’s. For my money, this is the best pan con lechón in Seattle, if that’s your poison—and honestly, all of their sandwiches are the best in a team of all stars, no matter which one you choose.
Not only do I prefer the way Geo's does the meat—whether we’re talking about the succulent, slow-roasted lechón or the mystifyingly juicy chicken or the marinated palomilla steak or even just the super-premium ham they use—but there are huge flavors packed into these things. (The citrus-based mojo marinade and their signature garlic-cilantro aioli 🤤) Plus, they don’t go fucking insane with the onions, like certain other local Cuban sandwichmakers like to, who might be compensating for less meat with extra onions. Here, they just give you the meat. Plus the crackly, featherweight Cuban roll at Geo’s is exactly on point. (There’s a reason for that, and we’ll talk about it in a minute.)
I think the greatest thing Geo's makes is their fricassee de pollo, which Geo will make for you in entree or sandwich form. Fricassee de pollo is a sometimes-overlooked dish on Latin American menus in the PNW. The Cuban style stands out among the rest for relying on that citrus-based mojo, whereas some other versions might lean more on the wine or tomatoes. Geo makes his fricassee out of chicken thighs, the juiciest cut of the bird, and he does something extra-juicy to it to make it the juiciest scientifically possible chicken. Some of the juice is that mojo marinade, some of it is olive brine, some is actually straight-up olive oil, and some is exuded by the chicken thighs themselves. Then you got your potatoes, your sauteed peppers and onions, your stuffed green olives to keep things zingy, your cumin, garlic, oregano, your chicken stock, and I’m guessing some beer or wine, all stewed down into a soft, fragrant ragout. This is ancient comfort food.
Now it's time to talk about the bread. Geo heaps all that shiny chickeny stew on the aforementioned Cuban roll, which is flown in from Tampa’s legendary La Segunda bakery. This roll looks like French bread at first glance, but it has a denser crumb and is made with lard, not butter, to create the potato-chip crispness of the outer shell. I love this part: Each roll is made by hand and baked with a single palmetto frond-finger running down its length, used both as a weight and as a slightly sour flavoring agent, which is removed before serving. You can’t make a Cuban sandwich accurately if you don’t start with a roll from La Segunda, or at least not here in the U.S.—which is in fact where the Cubano was born.
I absolutely sucked down this sandwich the last time I ate it. It was pornographic. My boyfriend did the same thing to the pan con bistec, which is palomilla sirloin steak with sauteed red bells, lettuce, spicy mayo AND garlic-cilantro aioli, and those skinny little fried shoestring potatoes, which I was just so charmed by. These sandwiches demand to be eaten outside, by the way, thanks to the fragile, shattery quality of the bread, which I didn’t do once and I learned my lesson. I had crispy fried cloud shards in my bra at the end of the day. If ever a sandwich begged to be taken to the beach, it’s this kid.
Speaking of the beach, the current incarnation of Geo’s comes to us not without some tribulations. After co-owning the dearly departed food truck Paladar Cubano with Pedro Vargas (who’s now at Cafe con Leche in SoDo), Chef Geordanys "Geo" Rodriguez and his wife Kim Gianotti struck out on their own in 2013 with a tiny brick-and-mortar on Seaview Avenue, across from the surf shop on the way to Golden Gardens. Not long after, they put a food truck serving the same Cuban sandwiches and entrees a few miles away on Holman Road, at the Shell station.
Then in 2018 at 105th and Greenwood, just around the corner from the Shell, the couple opened Geo’s Cuban Bar and Grill, a sit-down date night joint replete with live jazz on weekends in their lush, checkerboard-floored, art deco-influenced bar that just was straight out of Havana. Oh, man, that place was so swank. Immaculate cocktail list too. But like so many other ill-fated businesses, Geo’s resto-bar didn’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic. His Shilshole takeout shop was forced to close in 2019 as well, due to low foot traffic in the off-seasons.
Geo’s been in the hospitality business in the Puget Sound area since the aughts. Born in Guantanamo and raised in Havana, he began his career locally at Blackbird Bakery on Bainbridge Island. After some time at Seattle Central College, he became an alum of Serafina, Serious Pie, and Wild Ginger before striking out with Vargas, his friend and fellow Cuban, to start the Paladar Cubano truck on Aurora in 2009. But he still wanted to do his own thing, which led him to open Geo’s Cuban and Creole over by Golden Gardens, which enjoyed a respectable six-year run.
When asked about what happened with his Shilshole restaurant, he shook his head and replied, “Hard winters. The summers? Through August? It’s great, everyone is going to the beach, I’m cooking a lot, it’s fine. September 1st? I was like ‘There’s no people here!’ No business at all, suddenly, overnight. We finally decided, ‘We gotta go further into the city.’”
So they did, and built that scintillating Havana-style bar in Broadview that was ultimately felled by COVID-19. I asked him if he missed it, and he said “Oh, my god, I do, but it was hard, man. We did a great job on that space, it was beautiful, but we had such a hard time during the pandemic. The main thing that we miss is the bar. That was the whole point, the whole idea! And then right when we were hitting our stride, we got shut down, like everyone did. But we really do miss the live music and the bar.”
Geo and Kim went through a few rounds of shutdown and reopens before cutting the cord on Geo’s Cuban Bar and Grill late last year. They’ve since traded in the tiny Shilshole spot and the big Broadview spot for two small storefronts, both on Aurora—Geo’s Cuban is at 100th, across from Burgermaster, and its little brother, El Cubano, is up the road at 200th, just south of the Costco in Shoreline.
El Cubano is blowing up already, if online reviews indicate anything, and things are just starting to swing at the namesake store in Licton Springs. The menus are the same, except only Geo’s Cuban has the empanadas. These new fast-casual joints mostly see takeout traffic, and it’s a family affair, with Geo, Kim, and their two kids all chipping in. They’re doing a brisk catering business as well, offering an expanded menu that includes old favorites from Geo’s Cuban Bar and Grill, like spicy garlic shrimp, ham croquettes, chicken/andouille gumbo, and his spectacular arroz con pollo.
So, how’s it going? Six or so months after the change-up?
“I’m happy right now,” Geo announces after a deep breath. “I don’t have to worry like I was worrying with the bar and grill, going to bed every night wondering how long I could do this. Man, listen, for the last five years? We just worked. That’s it. We had to sell our house so we could save our business. And we were like ‘Okay, well, we’re gonna go through it together,’ and we did, up and down, and we’ve survived! So now, finally, we are at the place where we’re doing okay again. It’s been a journey for me and I’ve loved every bit of it, but yeah, whew, I’m real, real good now. I’m happy.”
I glance around at my surroundings as he talks, to take in the redux. The little strip-mall space is done up in sweet, bright pastels and plenty of kitsch. Two walls made of conjoined painted doors have partitioned off the kitchen area from the pair of dining tables, and the outsides of the door-walls are decorated with folk art of cartoon people smoking cigars. Flamenco, Afro-Cuban, and Latin pop is on the stereo. There’s the empty Hoovered-up wrappers from my chicken fricassee sando and boyfriend’s pan con bistec, as my dude’s picking up all the fatty flaky bits of empanada crust and shoestring fries from the paper with his finger. We’re bursting at the seams, mind you. I already miss my sandwich a little bit.
Meanwhile, Geo’s greeting every customer who walks in the door like they’re an old cousin, grinning from behind the register, where he stands before a Cuban flag. It’s Round 4 for Geo, and it all seems like it’s going pretty good so far. He feels good, the store looks good, the food’s very good. Geo said it all himself: He’s real, real good.