Cuba, like every country, has distinctive street food, and one of the crowning achievements of that tradition is the frita cubana, a style of hamburger that has taken on a life of its own in the years since its invention. Supposedly invented in the 1920s and spread through Cuban food carts and hotel chains, the frita cubana is perhaps now best known as a signature offering of Miami’s Cuban-American restaurants, celebrated by burger connoisseurs but little-known outside the places where it is routinely served. That is positively criminal, as this burger has few equals.
The frita cubana is defined by three unusual traits: its patty is a mix of beef and chorizo (some variations use ground pork instead, but those are wrong), its “secret sauce” is largely ketchup heavily seasoned with paprika, and it is topped with julienned or shoestring potatoes fried until crispy. The result is an intensely flavorful burger with a characteristic blend of heat and crunch, cheese optional, that your friends and family are unlikely to have experienced before.
The combination of so many components makes aligning the amounts of each one tricky. It will be easy to produce far more of one than another and end up with extra. Fortunately, there are always uses for extra fennel or shoestring potatoes, and it’s easy to make more secret sauce if it’s needed. You might even find yourself making more to use outside of this dish.
This recipe is designed to result in four patties and roughly the amount of everything else needed to complete them. Adjust as needed to match your specific situation, including scaling up. To serve this at a party or barbecue, it’s best to complete at least some of the work (particularly the potatoes) well in advance, or guests might be waiting a little too long for the complete experience. There is a reason that this dish is most popular in commercial settings rather than as part of a home cook’s repertoire.
For the sauce, you will need your favorite measuring tools, a small saucepan with a lid, a stove or other bottom-up heat source, and a wooden spoon.
For the potatoes, you will need a box grater or equivalent food-processor attachment, a bowl, a plate lined with paper towels, and your preferred setup for frying (either a deep fryer or a large skillet). A food processor and deep fryer are recommended.
For the patties, you will need your favorite cutting and measuring tools, a large bowl, a food processor, and a grill, griddle, or frying pan. It is traditional to cook a frita cubana on a flat griddle, but I find a George Foreman-style folding indoor grill to be ideal. The food processor has several roles in this part of the recipe that can all be replaced with hand techniques if needed.
For the whole recipe, you will need your favorite cutting and measuring tools, a small saucepan with a lid, a stove or other bottom-up heat source, a wooden spoon, a food processor with a grater attachment, your preferred frying setup, a plate lined with paper towels, a large bowl, and your preferred grill or griddle.
Metric and imperial units used here do not match 1:1 for convenience to the home cook. I used imperial measures while cooking; feel free to vary ratios slightly to suit one’s palate.
- Tomato ketchup, ½ cup (120 mL)
- Water, 2 tbsp (30 mL)
- Vinegar, ½ tbsp (12 mL)
- Paprika, ¾ teaspoon (3.75 mL). Sweet Spanish paprika is best but any paprika will work.
- Ground cumin, ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL)
- Salt, ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL)
- Dried oregano, ¼ teaspoon (1.25 mL)
- Crushed red pepper, ¼ teaspoon (1.25 mL)
- Cuban oregano, 1 branch
- 1 russet potato
- Oil for frying
- Variation: For a quicker, lower-effort alternative, use store-bought potato sticks.
- Ground beef, ½ lb (250 g)
- Chorizo, ½ lb (250 g). This is usually equivalent to one ordinary-sized package.
- Asafoetida/hing, heavily sprinkled onto meat. Don’t even try to measure it precisely.
- Fennel, ¾ cup (180 mL). An ordinary-sized fennel bulb will be close to 2 cups.
- Ketchup, 1.5 tbsp (22.5 mL)
- Ground cumin, ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL)
- Paprika, 2 teaspoons (10 mL). For best results, use 1 teaspoon each of sweet Spanish paprika and smoked paprika, but any combination, including all of one or the other, will work.
- Salt, ¾ teaspoon (3.75 mL). Kosher or other flaked salt works best here due to larger grain size; cubed salt will be saltier for the same volume.
- Black pepper, to taste.
- Variations: Like other burgers, it is common to serve with cheese or stacked with multiple patties. Experiment to find what you like.
- 4 buns. Cuban rolls are traditional, but brioche, ciabatta, ordinary hamburger buns, or any other suitably sized firm bread will work.
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: Watch for gluten in the chorizo, asafoetida, and buns and use gluten-free options for these ingredients.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Use alternatives to buns and consider leaving out the fennel.
- Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions, but watch out for garlic and other potential hazards in the chorizo. Consider switching to gluten-free alternatives of gluten-containing ingredients.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: This recipe showcases a specific meat blend and creating a similar experience with a meat substitute may be tricky.
- Finely chop the Cuban oregano.
- Mix the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and gently simmer, partially covered, for five minutes.
- Using a box grater or an equivalent food processor attachment on the course setting, grate the potato into shoestring size. Peeling first is traditional but not required.
- Rinse the potatoes in water, changing the water until it runs clear. This removes excess starch and helps the potatoes fry crispy.
- Let the potatoes air-dry while bringing the fryer to temperature.
- Fry in small batches until golden brown. Depending on your fryer temperature, this can take up to five minutes per batch.
- Set to dry on a plate lined with paper towels.
- Optionally, sprinkle with salt.
- Dice the chorizo and use your food processor or similar tool to mince it to a fine paste. This is necessary to make it mix properly with the other ingredients.
- Use your food processor or other cutting tools to mince the fennel to a fine paste. Reserve the largest bits to use as garnish later, during Final Assembly.
- Mix the ground beef, chorizo, and fennel. This works best by hand but can be done in a food processor. Pro tip: wear gloves.
- Dust the meat mixture with asafoetida and add the non-reserved fennel, ketchup, cumin, paprika, and salt. Mix again until the ingredients are uniformly combined.
- Form into four patties on parchment paper or a similar nonstick surface.
- Cook the patties on your grill or griddle for 2-4 minutes per side to the desired doneness. I found 5 minutes in a George Foreman grill to be ideal, not least because all four could be cooked at once this way.
- Open the buns and spread the sauce on the interior of both halves.
- Place a patty on top of each bottom bun.
- If using cheese, add to the top of each patty. Add more sauce to the top of each patty or the cheese, as indicated.
- Add the reserved fennel to the top of Step 17.
- Add large piles of shoestring potatoes to the top of Step 18.
- Place the top buns and serve.
This is another high effort, high reward dish best suited to communal situations. It is an ideal match for people who might make its various components on their own and thus often have them around rather than creating them all specifically for this combination, but it’s worth the effort even if shoestring potatoes aren’t a regular part of one’s diet. When preparing in advance for later reheating, stop at step 14 and perform the Final Assembly steps after reheating the patties only, for best results. It’s time to wow your friends with this lovely bit of Cubanidad. Happy cooking!