Dreaming of Cuba? Get a Taste of Havana in Miami

What Miami Beach may lack in authenticity, Little Havana more than makes up for in rich heritage and flavors

Little Havana is teeming with art, music and flavors of a country that remains ever vibrant and prevalent in Miami.

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. 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.

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.

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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.