Dreaming Of Cuba? Get A Taste Of Havana In Miami

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.

The savvy reader might raise their eyebrow and wonder how this is possible given the embargo between the United States and Cuba; the answer rests in a loophole. 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 indulge 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 Cuban cigar for another decidedly Cuban symbol: the Cubano sandwich. At El Exquisito  I learn that this iconic sandwich is hardly Cuban at all but rather is 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 sandwich's true origins, but regardless, Little Havana serves up Cuban sandwiches and they serve them up right:  fresh Cuban bread, layers of ham, roasted pork, and a thin slice of melted cheese. [pullquote:right]

The Cuban sandwich is accompanied by an initially laughably small cup of Cuban coffee that is said to have enough caffeine to wake up the dead. Being from Colombia, I am a bit biased toward 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 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 recent trip to Buenos Aires and how afternoons would find Argentines sipping mate together while huddled on street corners.

My guide then leads the way to Domino Park where first-generation Cubans sit playing dominos. In the past this park was considered a "man's world," where it was deemed inappropriate for ladies to join in the revelry. Today, however, women are stepping up to the tables and playing men at their own games.

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 Pinareños 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 Mulatica (cinnamon ice cream & oatmeal raisin cookies) and 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.