When you think of the Tennessee Smokies, you often think of all the great recreational, cultural or natural attributes that you associate in pairs:
Hiking and camping …
Stills and moonshine …
Deer and winding streams …
And in case you haven’t made the discovery yet, cheesecake and Cuban sandwiches.
Smoky Mountain Cheesecake Café in Sevierville is still one of the region’s best-kept secrets, but that status is in dire jeopardy. Word is spreading, and the online reviews are overwhelmingly flattering. Visit your favorite travel site and see for yourself. One TripAdvisor contributor wrote “Unique in an area of tourist food. Cuban sandwiches were fresh and awesome and cheese cake, omg!” One endorsement on Yelp read, in part: “This is my new favorite place to eat. The health score was a 97 and the owner was very kind.“ And then there was this, on Urban Spoon: “First place we’ll stop when back in town.”
This is not an established, corporately bankrolled operation that overwhelms its competition through sheer resources. This is an unassuming family enterprise open only since 2011. Its hours, scope and maybe even location size someday may expand as success warrants. But as of summer 2014, it closes as early as 3 p.m. and no later than 8 p.m. depending on the day. It squeezes 16 tables, a kitchen and other necessities into 1,000 square feet of indoor space and manages space for 16 more tables outside. Its payroll consists of the manager, his wife (who makes the cheesecakes from scratch), their son (the sandwich cook), and a hired waitress.
Meet the Zalva family. Ron is a retired Hillsborough County, Florida Sheriff’s deputy enjoying his new career after 27 years in law enforcement. His wife, Christina, is a former hairstylist. Ron and his brother had followed their father in the Sheriff’s department. When he’d put in his time, he packed his wife and two sons into an RV and traveled the country for a year. Finally they decided to buy a retirement home in the Smokies. One son returned to Florida. The other, R.J., stayed behind to man the kitchen of the new family restaurant.
They knew Christina’s homemade cheesecakes would sell because they already had been selling. She’d grown a loyal clientele in Florida by filling orders on the side at her salon. She actually makes 43 scrumptious varieties, even though only 15 appear on Smoky Mountain Cheesecake Café advertising, Besides “Good Ole Plain,” try Guava, Oreo, Black Cherry Bottom, Peanut Butter, Butterscotch or maybe Almond Joy. And Christina’s always willing to take a stab at advance requests, as she did for a couple that wanted cheesecake spiked with legal Tennessee moonshine.
The story behind the Cuban sandwiches
That explains the cheesecake, but what about the Cubans? How did a combination of ham and roasted pork turn up and create a flavorful niche in the land of fried chicken, cornbread and cobbler?
Here’s a clue: Hillsborough County, Florida, includes Tampa, and Tampa is where the sandwich, if not created, was perfected.
Ron Zalva’s grandparents had migrated from Cuba to Florida’s Gulf Coast, joining the historic community of immigrant Cuban and Spanish cigar workers known as Ybor City. While his father entered law enforcement, Ron’s mother actually worked in a cigar factory.
Cuban sandwiches—made with a style of bread originating in Ybor City—have been a staple of Ron’s life since childhood and now, through R.J.’s wizardry, he’s introducing them to locals and tourists at the gate of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The secret to the sandwiches’ taste isn’t much secret, really. Ron uses Cuban bread direct from Ybor City and slow-roasts pork for five hours after marinating it in a heavily spiced mojo (Spanish pronunciation: mo-ho).
R.J.’s repertoire begins with traditional-style Cubans. (The Tampa Cuban combines pork, ham and salami with Swiss, pickles and mustard. The Miami Cuban doubles the ham and subtracts the salami. The Key West Cuban enhances the Miami combination with lettuce and tomato.
But there’s more—a menu of Twisted Cubans. These variations, products of R.J.’s imagination, include the Cajun Po Boy Cuban, Spicy Cuban, Cheddar Bacon Cuban and Cuban Club. Cuban bread, mojo or both also find their way on to some of the other deli sandwiches and wraps on the menu.
But food isn’t all that you’ll find authentic at Smoky Mountain Cheesecake Café. So is the care, respect and welcome that Ron & Co. show customers. As you can tell from sampling online reviews on your favorite site, Smoky Mountain Cheesecake Café feels like home. This little roadside gem just north of what passes for downtown Sevierville provides none of the grandeur you’ll encounter elsewhere in your exploration of the Smokies.
But it’s as precious a little find as you’ll come across.