When most hear “Miami,” their thoughts immediately turn toward the white sandy shores 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 up Cuban sandwiches and empanadas waft over the main avenue. First-generation Cuban immigrants congregate at a local park to play Cuban dominos while family-owned storefronts serve classic Cuban coffee and locally sourced tropical fruits.
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 background, is introducing us to popular Cuban artist Agustin Gainza. 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.
We then make our way along the main avenue while local Cubans in fedoras sit smoking cigars, playing drums, and 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 in the way it’s set up: half of it as a casual diner and half of it as a proper dining room. The Coro family founded the restaurant in the early 1960s when they first arrived in the United States. One look around the eatery is 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 unique yet familiar feel.
Our server brings out a plate of fresh tostones relleno de pollo, chicken in a warm plantain cup 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 next course of Cuban empanadas. Each Latin American culture has their own twist on empanadas; Colombians makes theirs with cornmeal and Argentinians are known for their baked empanadas. 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.