June 18, 2010
Exploring the savoury history of Miami’s Cuban neighbourhood, Florida resident and writer LoAnn Holden treats us to a tasty tour of Little Havana’s top gastronomic hot spots.
“It may have a rough-around-the-edges exterior, but Little Havana more than compensates with a wealth of flavours. “¨The neighbourhood, centred on Calle Ocho (Southwest Eighth Street) between 12th and 27th Avenues, has been Miami’s Cuban stronghold since the 1960s – a wave of immigration that coincided with Fidel Castro’s 1959 rise to power. Nicaraguans, Colombians and Hondurans – and to a lesser extent Puerto Ricans, Salvadorians and Mexicans – have added to the mix in recent years, but Cubans still dominate this stretch of low-rise buildings west of downtown Miami. Although Spanish chatter fills the streets, menus come with English translations and it’s possible to get by without speaking Espaol.“
Start the day at the pastry shop adjacent to Versailles, Little Havana’s best-known restaurant. Try a flaky guayaba y queso (guava and cream cheese) pastry and a shot of sweet, dark Cuban coffee.
Versailles is a bit west of Little Havana’s centre, at 35th Avenue, so it really requires wheels. But after that it’s on to Calle Ocho’s heart, a pedestrian-friendly stretch lined with palms and black olive trees and home to juice vendors, simple diners and an endless supply of outdoor coffee counters.
Then there are the traditional cigar makers such as El Titan de Bronze, where the earthy aroma of tobacco hits you as soon as the front door opens.
A couple of blocks along from the cigar shop is Los Pinareos Fruteria y Floreriam, where the dark-green awnings and freshly squeezed juices provide a brief respite from the Miami humidity. The original wooden structure burned down in the mid-1990s, but the Hernandez family has sold produce and flowers on this spot for more than 40 years.
Peter Hernandez, working behind the counter with his mother, offers a paper cup of light, sweet guarapo (pure sugar cane juice) which he’s just squeezed. The second glass he produces has lime added, a twist he says his North American and European customers prefer. It’s true that the tartness tones down the sweetness, but in truth both are delightful.
From 11am to 1pm, except on Sunday, Hernandez also serves one of his mom’s home-cooked Cuban dishes at the fruit stand, such as arroz con pollo (chicken with yellow rice) with boiled plantains for just a few dollars.
Further on down Calle Ocho, the clacking of tiles becomes audible before Maximo Gomez Park pops into view. The park’s official name honours a Cuban revolutionary who fought Spanish oppression, but most call it Domino Park. Silver-haired retirees sit around every table engrossed in lively games of dominos or chess; once only men participated in the games, but now women compete against them.
If you want to picnic in the park, it seems only fitting to grab a Cuban sandwich. This ubiquitous Little Havana menu item typically features sliced Serrano ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, butter, mustard and pickles pressed between crusty slices of Cuban white bread. At Exquisito just across the street, the menu includes the regular Cuban sandwich as well as its smaller sibling the media noche (midnight sandwich), which is served on sweeter egg bread.
Exquisito is also a good choice for a sit-down lunch, or you might try El Pub. It’s owned by the same family but is more visually interesting, with walls covered in Cuban photographs, newspaper clippings and maps – it’s like a scrapbook come to life. Live piano music accompanies meals on weekends.
Like Exquisito, El Pub covers the staples of every Little Havana menu: cumin-rich black bean soup, bistec empanizado (breaded steak) and its pollo (chicken) counterpart, masitas de puerco (fried pork chunks) and moro (a mix of black beans and white rice).
After crossing 17th Avenue, the terrain starts veering toward strip malls filled with salons and dollar stores, auto body shops and American fast-food chains. There’s no excuse for resorting to McDonald’s though, because El Rey de las Fritas (“King of the Cuban burgers”) is on the north side of the road.
Cuban takeout merges with a U.S. malt shop in this jaunty diner, which is striped red and blue like the Cuban flag. The house specialty is the paprika-seasoned burger topped with shoestring fries, onions and secret sauce. Pair one with a tropical fruit batido (milkshake).
Back in the car, heading west, Versailles looms large once again. The evening bustle has yet to begin, given that the palace of Cuban food serves into the wee hours of the morning. A few gentlemen in guayaberas, the traditional Cuban cotton shirts, are replenishing their caffeine levels at the walk-up window.
You may not be hungry again just yet, but come evening – once the live music starts – the atmosphere and home-style Cuban dishes make Versailles a fine place to end your day.
Thanks to photographer Daquella manera on Flickr.