When most think of Miami their thoughts immediately turn towards the white sand beaches of South Beach with its blaring music, plastic surgery sculpted bodies and unrivaled nightlife. Miami can often take on an air of superficiality and excess–that is until you leave Ocean Drive and venture into the local areas like Little Havana.
What Miami Beach may lack in authenticity, Little Havana more than makes up for in rich heritage and flavors. The iconic Calle Ocho offers visitors a taste of the eclectic Cuban-American cuisine that mixes together Spanish, West African, American and French influences to create lively flavors that dance along the palate.
Latin and Afro-Caribbean music play from restaurants on Calle Ocho, while smells of freshly whipped Cuban sandwiches and empanadas waft over the main avenue. First generation Cuban immigrants congregate at a local park to play Cuban dominos–their faces kissed by the sun and etched by time–while family-owned storefronts serve classic Cuban coffee and tropical fruits sourced locally.
I meet my Miami Culinary Tours guide, Ralph, in front of a charming art gallery nestled on the tail end of Calle Ocho. It is a humid afternoon and Ralph (a native of Miami with a Cuban-American heritage) is introducing us to popular Cuban artist, Agustin Gaiza. Agustin’s work has been celebrated around the world and his whimsical art has found a home in Miami’s Cuban community. The appreciation of art in Miami is a reoccurring theme here–from the retro art deco architecture of Miami Beach to the galleries dotting Little Havana.
The visual treat of seeing Agustin’s paintings is matched only by the anticipation of the Cuban flavors that we will soon be devouring. As we make our way along the main avenue, local Cubans in fedoras sit smoking cigars and playing drums while swaying to the music that seems to play from every corner. It is a festive scene infused with a local pride that emanates from the first and second generation Cubans that live here.
Ralph leads the way to a modest restaurant named El Pub that he explains is the quintessential Cuban restaurant by how it’s set up–half of it as a diner and half of it as a proper dining room. The restaurant is owned by the Coro family who founded the eatery in the early 1960s when they first arrived in the United States. One look around the restaurant gives a testament to the decades these walls have seen. Old magazines and newspapers line the restaurant as do pages from the family’s cook book, giving El Pub a familiar and unique feel.
Our server brings out a plate of fresh tostones relleno de pollo–chicken in a warm plantain cup and seasoned with sofrito (a mix of onion, cumin, bay leaves, tomato base and Spanish olives). The flavors pack a punch as I devour my plate and wait eagerly for the highly anticipated next course of Cuban empanadas. Each Latin American country gives their own twist to empanadas–Colombia makes theirs with cornmeal, Argentina is known for their baked empanadas and in Cuba this doughy treat is deep-fried and filled with seasoned pork or beef.
Ralph sweeps us away from El Pub and leads us to an unexpected stop on our Little Havana food tour, the Cuban Tobacco Cigar Company. The unassuming store is nestled on Calle Ocho and seems to be the type of place you could blink and miss; yet inside its doors the family run cigar shop is home to the finest cigars outside Cuba. While I don’t consider myself a cigar connoisseur by any means, I am amazed to hear that the Cuban Tobacco Cigar Company routinely sells authentic Cuban cigars.
The savvy reader might raise their eyebrow and wonder how this has been possible given the past embargo placed between the United States and Cuba; the answer rests in a loop hole. John F. Kennedy had such an affinity for Cuban cigars that he allowed an exception for Cuban tobacco seeds in the embargo so that he could revel in his vice. In order to sell authentic Cuban cigars, the Cuban Tobacco Company purchases tobacco seeds from the federal government, which they then use in plantations in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. The Cuban Tobacco Cigar Company is hailed by Cigar Aficionado Magazine as the finest cigar manufacturer in the world and is run by the same family that can be seen expertly rolling cigars today.
Our next stop swaps the iconic Cuban cigar for another decidedly Cuban symbol: the Cuban sandwich. At El Exquisito I learn that this iconic sandwich is hardly Cuban at all but rather an American concoction that has somehow lent itself to Cuba’s epicurean culture. On second thought, the Swiss cheese and kosher pickles should have been a tell tale sign of the sandwiches’s true origins but regardless Little Havana serves up Cuban sandwiches and they serve them up right with fresh Cuban bread, layers of ham and roasted pork and a thin slice of melted cheese.
The Cuban sandwich is accompanied by a laughably small cup of Cuban coffee that is said to have enough caffeine to wake up the dead. Being from Colombia, I have my bias towards Colombian coffee but I sidle up to the table anyway and take a sip of the curiously strong roast. Cuban coffee is traditionally very dark and strong, with one cup serving as the equivalent to a grande coffee in the States in terms of caffeine content. Rather than grab a cup to-go, Cubans turn coffee into a social gathering where people share a large cup by pouring it into smaller, sugar filled cups to be passed around. The tradition brings up memories of my past trip to Buenos Aires and how afternoons would find Argentines sipping mate together while huddled on street corners.
With my thimble of coffee still in hand, my guide leads the way to Domino Park where the walls are painted in bright, political messaging and first generation Cubans sit playing dominos. The park is historic and is buzzing with life as 55-year old men play tabletop games while animatedly talking, their hand gestures punctuating their sentences. In the past this park was considered a “man’s world,” where it was deemed inappropriate for ladies to join in the revelry but today women are stepping up to the tables and playing men at their own game. I walk through the park as a silent observer, fluidly weaving in between lively domino players and elderly men focused intently on high pressure chess matches.
Ralph motions over to me as we make our way to Yisell Bakery, a classic Cuban bakery that whips together a guava pastry I am shamelessly inhaling. Flaky crumbs falls to the floor as pink-red guava paste oozes across my fingers; the taste is irresistibly sweet and despite my protests of being “too stuffed” I devour the pastry in the blink of an eye. As we saunter down Calle Ocho, walking by the 120 year old fruit stand, Los Pinarenos Fruteria, Ralph points out one of the more popular ice cream shops in Miami, Azucar Ice Cream Company.
Everything on Calle Ocho seems to run in the family and Azucar is no exception. Shop owner, Suzy Batlle founded Azucar with her ice cream maker grandmother in mind; with flavors like Abuela Maria (maria crackers, cream cheese, vanilla ice cream and guava) it’s no surprise that even the hot spot Miami Beach restaurants source their desserts from the Batlle family.
The afternoon sun is growing hotter and my cup of Abuela Maria is melting quickly. My whirlwind culinary tour of Little Havana is drawing to a close as Ralph hastily points out other restaurants that serve the best mojito (Cuba Ocho) and other dishes “I must come back and try.” It is clear from just a walk down Calle Ocho that Little Havana is teeming with art, music and flavors of a country that remains ever vibrant and prevalent in Miami.
Have you been to Little Havana? Share your favorite places to visit below! To learn more about Miami’s Cuban Community, check out Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto!