Little Havana, is a neighborhood in Miami, Florida. For those who might not know, it is home to a significant number of Cuban immigrant residents. There is a tremendous Cuban influence in Miami, and it makes the city much more interesting and vibrant. The neighborhood of Little Havana is a huge shift from the glitz of Miami Beach. Off of the central drag, Calle Ocho, you’ll find it’s much more “down home” with lots of family owned fruit stands, art galleries, Cuban restaurants and shops.
Doing my planning to visit Miami Beach I found the glossy magazines and e-zines, like Conde Nast Traveler, said that Little Havana was not worth visiting. Gentrification has shrunk the area. As first generation immigrants left, Little Havana slowly slipped from the sprawling cultural oasis it once was to become more of a tourist destination.
These criticisms are accurate and valid. Still, I personally disagreed that it’s not worth the trip. Miami is more than nightlife and five-star restaurants. Cities are ultimately an amalgamation of neighborhoods, large or small, that are rich with culture. And even if it’s smaller, Little Havana is brimming with a culture not easily found anywhere else in America.
On a whim, we booked a Little Havana Food Tour ($59/person and roughly 2.5 hours even though our tour much closer to 3.5 hours) for our last full day in Miami. As a frequent traveler and food lover I always try to combine the two. In my past travels I’ve done food tours (and walking tours). Based on those, I’d rate this one top-notch. It rivals the four-star experience I had with Madrid Food Tours in Spain.
In fact, just like my experience in Madrid, it’s inadequate to think of this one as just a “food tour.” We certainly ate delicious Cuban foods, but we also saw a lot of small businesses and got to hear a little bit about the story behind each location. Really, it was two tours in one. So let’s start with the food portion of the tour.
After a brief introductions and an overview of the Little Havana area, we stopped at El Pub, a family owned “traditional” Cuban restaurant. What makes it traditional? According to our guide Ralph, traditional restaurants feature a sandwich station (think 50s style diners) and a separate more formal dining room.
Here we sampled empanadas. In case you haven’t had an empanada, it’s a protein -in this case ground beef- wrapped in wheat flour dough and fried. Empanadas are more of a South American dish than Cuban food. What makes these uniquely “Cuban” are the spices used when cooking the beef. It’s blend of Cumin, olives, bay leaves among others that leaves you with a flavorful, Creole-like taste. It’s important to point out that Cuban food is spiced, but not “spicy.” Think flavor explosion in your mouth more than four-alarm fire.
After El Pub’s Empanada, we sampled molded plantains stuffed with chicken. The plantain was molded into a cup like shape and baked (or fried, I’m not 100% certain). Whenever I’ve tried plantains in the past, the result has not been good. But wow, these were delicious and so filling! Overall, the plantain had a more “starchy” feel compared to the empanada but the chicken, featuring more of the Creole seasoning, was an excellent combination.
One fun feature at El Pub was that the recipes are posted on the walls. Some were slapped on, others framed but they are all pre-Castro recipes that the family uses as a foundation for their cooking.
We walked a few blocks and went to Exquisito Restaurant for a Cuban Midnight sandwich. A traditional Cuban sandwich includes sliced ham, sliced roast pork, swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and is served on a baguette. The Midnight version is served on a yellow bun that is similar to challah bread. The result is a slightly sweeter sandwich. All I have to say is: wow, wow, wow. I will never think of a Cuban sandwich the same way, and it was worth the trip just to bit into a Cuban Midnight.
After so much food, some Cuban Coffee was in order. Cuban coffee is basically a darker espresso roast that is more finely ground. It’s a very, very bitter and an acquired taste. With a tablespoon of sugar, it’s not bad and certainly worth at least trying. It’s got a jolt to it.
I was wondering how Ralph could top the food selections we’d already tried, but he didn’t disappoint. We walked, stopping by a local park to watch some feisty games of dominos—in Little Havana, dominos is a contact sport—and then headed to Yisell Bakery for a guava pastry. The shop is unique because most restaurants outsource their bread making… to Yisell. The pastry is a filo dough-like pastry filled with guava paste and cream cheese. Again, amazing. It’s sinfully delicious, and you won’t realize you ate the entire square until it’s too late. Luckily you can get another, and it pairs nicely with the bitter sweet Cuban coffee.
After this sensational treat, we stopped at Pinareos Fruteria, a 112-year-old fruit stand. Being in the south, you’ll see much more tropical fruit. In fact, I was introduced to mamey and brought one home to try. Note: if you take the tour, get the mamey and try this recipe. I wouldn’t eat it every day, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting to bring some of Miami home.
Ice cream has to be one of my food weaknesses so it was perfectly fitting that our final stop was Azucar Ice Cream Company. The shop is run by a second generation Cuban-American who strives to make ice cream like her grandmother did. We were all offered tastes of any flavor. Ralph highly recommended the Abuela Maria ice cream. Since he hadn’t gone wrong yet, I figured it was a solid recommendation. I was right. Abuela Maria is cream cheese, guava, vanilla and maria crackers (similar to a sweet biscuit served with tea) . Simply amazing.