Cuban Chicken Panini (Panera Bread)

Today’s sandwich is the “Cuban Chicken Panini” from Panera Bread. It combines “all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken, smoked, lean ham, sweet & spicy pickle chips, Swiss, chipotle mayo & sun-dried tomato ale mustard” on focaccia.

Location: 343 Gorham Road, South Portland
Price: $7.95
Notes: The first thing you need to know if you have never eaten at a Panera bread, as I hadn’t, prior to today, is that people are absolutely buggo for it. The Panera Bread company in South Portland, at noon on a Tuesday, with every single seat in the spacious dining room filled with people happily munching salads, an overflow of teenagers smoking cigarettes outside while they waited for their broccoli cheese soup to warm through, and a parking lot that was positively ass-to-elbow with cars, was doing a booming business. Some of these cars were in legitimate parking spaces, while others had been carelessly Dukes-of-Hazzard’ed sideways onto the side of the road and abandoned by their owners. We parked in the Verizon lot next door, scrambling over a snowbank to fight our way through a legion of South Portland’s lunch-breakiest finest, figuring that after all these years, everyone must know something we don’t about this sandwich shop; assuming, if you will, that the simple pleasures of a cup of soup and half a panini had been remembered by the entire working population of the Maine Mall simultaneously.

And why not? With over 1,300 locations, wildly profitable annual reports, and top ratings in Zagat naming Panera for “Best Salads,” and, puzzlingly in a restaurant with many lunches hovering in the 1,000 calorie range, “Best Healthy Option,” we decided it was worth checking into.

I’ll tell you why not: Because this is not a good sandwich. While I was pleased to be able to make out the different ingredients, and while those individual ingredients weren’t exactly bad, they didn’t combine into a pleasing whole. The whole sandwich was really startlingly sweet, and not the way you would expect from a regular Cuban sandwich’s sweet pickles. As I pulled the sandwich apart, I realized that everything on it was sweet. The ham was sweet. The “sun-dried tomato ale mustard,” with its wonderful whole mustard seeds, was sweet. The Swiss cheese was melty-sweet. The pickles may as well have been candied. And the focaccia had a really sweet, buttered quality.

A chemically-tasting pile of sugar and salt can call itself a “Cuban Sandwich” all day long. It isn’t. It’s adult baby food. It’s not healthy, Zagat, and it’s certainly not delicious. If I’m going to drop almost 1000 calories on lunch, and then spend the rest of the day inert, covered in grease-sweats, and filled with regret, I’m at least going to own that decision, and do it with the two cheeseburger Extra Value Meal at McDonald’s.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed “Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road,” as well as the taco-centric blog “Eat More Tacos,” and the junk food-centric “Spork & Barrel.” His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, “‘Wich, Please,” was named “Hottest Restaurant in Maine” for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.


  1. I hate it when chains do “creative” or “healthy” spins on classics–to me, a Cuban can not be called such without the roasted pork.

    Panera is one of those “I’m on the road and I want something moderately wholesome” options for me, but in all honest I prefer the significantly smaller chain Atlanta Bread because (at least when there were locations near me) you could customize your sandwich. As someone who prefers Gulden’s over “creative” mayos and mustards, this held huge appeal for me. Au Bon Pain is a little more accessible and offers customization too, but it’s a little too tempting to get some brie thrown on that sandwich when it’s right there…

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  2. I forgot about that! What’s funny is that I didn’t much care for ABP until after it was sold and subsequently went under its brand redesign, which happened right around the time I started spending more time at 30th Street in Philly as I was going back and forth to New Haven fairly often.

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    1. My only experience with an ABP was at that one on Broadway in New Haven. They were a good option, but that was back when there wasn’t much else on Broadway. I wonder if they have changed over to being a Panera?

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  3. There was one in Atlanta practically adjacent to Emory and we all referred to it as “Dirty Panera” bc in addition to being atrocious ‘food’ the place always looked like a tornado had just ripped through it. Unfortunately it was open later than a lot of the other gross food options nearby.

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  4. If you want a good, REAL pressed sandwich or panini go to St. Joe’s Cafe in Gorham. Regular hangout of USM students and locals, out of this world, amazing pressed sandwiches that all come with a side of hand cut fries.

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  5. I go out of my way just to get this sandwich…and I’ve now gotten all my coworkers hooked on it. You’re crazy if you don’t like it. Damn- what kinda heavenly sandwiches have you been eating?

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  6. I know this is a little outdated, but I had to chime in. I got the cuban chicken panini today (after looking at the Panera site beforehand and deciding it sounded AH-MAZING)… and the flavor was just a little off. I liked it, for the most part, but I had a similar opinion to you where I felt that individually, everything tasted good.. but together was just a smorgasbord of too-overpowering & overly sweet flavor. I think that my opinion may have been a little better if they even left out the pickles – I love pickles, but the flavor was so sweet & tangy, I think the mustard alone carried enough flavor for a good sandwich. If you haven’t been convinced against Panera altogether, I’ve recently tried the roasted cranberry & turkey panini and it was pretty awesome.

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