Sort-of Secret: Cubano Kings, an 18-square-foot Cuban kitchen with a takeout window on Spadina

Sort-of Secret: Cubano Kings, an 18-square-foot Cuban kitchen with a takeout window on Spadina

Part of our ongoing series spotlighting the city’s edible hidden gems

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The sort-of secret: Cubano Kings, a teeny-tiny Spadina takeout spot for Cuban sandwiches and coffee
You may have heard of it if: You’ve walked by and been drawn in by the music blaring from inside
But you probably haven’t because: It’s an 18-square-foot space and only opened this past April

Ventanitas, small storefronts with takeout windows that offer coffee, pastries, sandwiches and other snacks, are a dime a dozen in Miami, where they were opened by Cuban immigrants in the 1960s. But, here in Toronto, these tiny, typically buzzy gathering spots are virtually unknown—that’s where Cuban expat Felix King comes in.

Blaring Cuban music outside his minute storefront at Spadina and Richmond, which is proudly painted in bright blue and yellow—reminiscent of the bold colour palette found on the streets of his home country—the chef from Havana aims to introduce a little bit of his culture to the city. “There’s all types of food everywhere in this city—African, Jamaican, Chinese, Korean, Indian—but Cuban food is really hard to find,” says King. And, while his stamp-size storefront barely makes a physical dent in the city’s culinary topography, the pleasure here is in the satisfaction of the small stuff.

With three pork-based pressed sandwiches, a few kinds of coffee, some snacks (chicharrones, spicy peanuts) and pastelitos (a puffed-pastry dessert filled with guava paste) on offer, the menu is minimal and strictly Cuban. “I haven’t put a vegetarian sandwich on the menu yet because I can’t figure out how to convey the smoky flavours of the mojo—the roasted pork—in the right way,” says King. But rest assured, plant-based eaters: King—who is classically trained and from a family of well-known Cuban chefs—will figure it out one of these days.

Before coming to Canada, King worked all around the world, cooking international food in high-end resorts and on cruise lines. That is, until the Cuban government called on him to leave his position, which at the time was in Spain, and head to work as a sous chef on an oil rig off of Nova Scotia. “When the government tells you to do something,” King says, “you don’t ask questions. You just do it.”

On his way to the Maritimes, during a stopover at Pearson, two of the team members he was travelling with—including the head chef—fled. When he arrived at his hotel in Dartmouth, King says, “I freaked out.” With only $80 and his backpack of meagre belongings, he snuck out of the hotel in the middle of the night, got a ride to Halifax from a generous cab driver and never looked back. With no papers and no money, King stayed in a Halifax shelter until a friend who lived nearby said he could crash in his boiler room in exchange for taking on the household’s cooking and cleaning. That’s where he got on his feet, working various odd jobs for cash until, after a few years, he finally got his papers. Around that time, King landed a job cooking at Dalhousie University, where he met his wife, who was a student at the time. They moved to Toronto in 2007, and the rest is history.

While King’s home country may have forced him into some tough times, Cuban culture is still very much a part of him. Years working in non-Cuban restaurants and catering companies across Toronto left him unsatisfied. “I wanted to give the people of Toronto the tastes from back home,” he says, “the food that my grandmother and her grandmother used to make.” Without enough money to invest in his own place, King spent a lot of time daydreaming—even taking photos of spots for lease that he knew he couldn’t afford. But, when the former home of Carbon Café came on the market for $1,000 a month, he saw the tiny window and knew he needed to have it.

The spot is the perfect size for him to sling his sandwiches and Cuban coffees from. For King, consistency is key: it took him months to find the right bread, which wouldn’t be too filling, would work well in the panini press and wouldn’t overtake the sandwich. So far, the most popular sandwich is the traditional Cuban ($10), a modest layering of locally sourced ham, Swiss cheese, thinly sliced pickle and yellow mustard. Like all the sandwiches on the menu, it’s pressed until the inside is gooey and the exterior is golden and crisp. According to King, it’s best paired with a side of spicy peanuts, a pastelito and a cup of sweet cafecito made from smoky and rich Café Bustelo espresso beans.

His other sandwiches—the Miami ($12) and the Tampa ($13)—are also stuffed with melt-in-your-mouth mojo (pulled pork shoulder) that King marinates in a secret spice blend for up to three days, then rubs with mojo criollo (a citrusy, garlicky marinade), yellow mustard and adobo seasoning. Lastly, it’s slow-cooked for 10 hours at low heat until it falls apart. The Miami features the base of the traditional Cuban plus the sweet, smoky and tender mojo. But the Tampa, the Italian spin on the traditional sandwich—which also happens to be King’s favourite—has some Genoa salami in the mix. Though the Tampa sammy is still a one-hander, it’s brimming with comforting and satisfying flavours. Just like Cubano Kings, it’s small but packs a punch.

Cubano Kings, 141 Spadina Ave.,, @cubanokings