The first step towards planning our annual holidays is to buy the relevant Lonely Planet. We are still pretty independant travellers despite now having two tweens in tow and it’s still the only guide book that lets us get away from the usual packages and tourist trails.
The second step is flicking through the Lonely Planet, travel forums and Twitter for ideas of foodie hangouts and places to go. For Miami it was easy. We had watched the movie Chef and drooled at the Cubanos. Little Havana was top of the list. So I booked a tour with the highly recommended Miami Culinary Tours.
We met our guide Ralf at the Augustin Gainza Gallery on the infamous Calle Ocho – the heart of Little Havana. The artist was one of Castro’s earliest defectors. He was caught, jailed and treated as a traitor so he then began to use his mother’s maiden name of Basque origin to lay low. He defected to Miami again in the Sixties, this time successfully. He is inspired by his native Cuba. I particularly liked his Molinas series.
As we walked on from the gallery we observed different statues of roosters. They are a little tongue in cheek reference to the sheer number of live cockerels in Miami since the 1980s. There is even a Rooster Removal Team in the city. I thought they were rather pretty.
Our first food stop was El Pub. It’s one of 800 Cuban restaurants in Florida and has been serving customers for 52 years.
The basic layout is the same as other Cuban restaurants. There is La Cafeteria – a diner style counter with high stools and neighbouring booths with a Cubano station in the middle leading out also to a Ventanita or ‘little window’ to the street. Then there is the more formal seating area with a more comprehensive menu. What I loved about this restaurant was the decor. The walls are covered with pages from the family’s 100 year old recipe book as well as articles from Cuban newspapers relating to the revolution. Many of the family members still work here and it was a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
We were served Empanadas de Piqualillo with a Sofrito seasoning which is a mix of onions, garlic and bell peppers. Mine were vegetarian and made with peppers and the sofrito seasoning.
We also had Frijoles – a black bean soup cooked very simply with bay leaf and a little cumin. The beans just melted in your mouth like butter and there was a wonderful chilli aftertaste from the hot sauce that traditionally accompanies this dish.
And finally some Tostones – plantain baskets. Mine were plain vs chicken filled but I got to dip them in a wonderfully garlicky oil. I wanted to try more of the menu but sadly we had to move on.
We made a little pit stop to watch the cigar makers at The Cuban Cigar Company. I’m not a smoker and I found the smoke inside the shop difficult to stomach but loved seeing the process of cigar making. Who knew the glue they use to roll the leaves together is made from sweet potato?! It was really fascinating. What I loved most was how each of the cigar rollers had one dangling from their mouths. Perks of the job I guess.
We reached a very non descript Ventanita. Here we started with a shot of Cafe Cubano . It was strong! One shot is equivalent to 3-4 shots of what we’d have over here in the UK. These little places serve up cups for 75 cents with a glass of water. The custom is to buy a coffee and then take away a few extra shot glasses for your colleagues in the office.
The group also had Cubanos here. A Cuban pork sandwich served in Cuban baguette with pork, cheese, mustard and jalapenos. I had a Tequeno. A cheese cigar.
We were all a bit thirsty after that stopped and so crossed the road over to Ball and Chain – a bar originally opened in 1935 by a Jewish couple. It’s actually been closed for 60 years or so, due to law suits and changing neighbourhoods, and opened just last year under new management.
It had a brilliant Cuban vibe with loud music coming from the live band. Guests were dancing and singing away and it was only mid afternoon. We went out back to the newly created garden area and stage where various Cuban acts play live every night. Out came the Mojitos. A Mojito is a long drink made with crushed cane sugar, lime juice, ice, club soda and white rum. It’s absolutely the most thirst quenching drink on any bar menu in my opinion. The sans rum version is pretty great too.
Our next stop was quite a walk and on the way we passed Domino Park. It’s official name is Maximo Gomez Park and it is a Little Havana landmark, and meeting spot for older Cubans. From 9am til 6pm you will see residents sipping coffee, playing Dominoes and chatting (mainly politics) with friends. But as it’s an official park, even patrolled by a ranger, you won’t see any spitting or hear any cursing. We actually went back to watch a few of the games and chat to some of the local onlookers. All their stories were fascinating. All their problems and issues were the same as those my own family have experienced here in the UK. How do we keep hold of our culture? How do we keep the people back home safe? How do we teach our children to remember where they came from? How do we move on? I could have spent all day chatting to these charming, old men with proper old school manners and values. It was one of my favourite places in Miami.
Once upon a time Little Havana was predominantly Cuban. Nowadays there is also a South and Central American community bringing with it colonial French influences. This is why at Yisell Bakery eclairs and other patisserie feature heavily on the menu.
But we were here to try the Pastelitos. These are Cuban puff pastries with different fillings signified by their shape. The round ones are savoury and filled with cheese and the square ones are Pastelito de guayaba – guava pastries. I’ve never eaten guava in a pastry before and all I’ll say is that if I lived in Miami I would be huge in size as I’d be eating one of these luscious treats every day. It was sweet, tangy, crispy and soft. I wanted to go back to grab a Cortadito to have with it.
Our next stop was rather exciting as it was used as a location in the movie Chef. The Los Pinarenos Fruiteria and has been in business for 104 years. We wandered around this beautiful greengrocers admiring the enormous avocados and plantains as we waited in line for some sugar cane juice. I haven’t had any of that since holidays in India. The fruiteria also sells other juices but I think Ralf chose the best for us. So refreshing.
Finally we walked back towards Dominio Park and the shop with the huge ice cream cone. The one my girls had patiently been waiting for. Azucar Ice Cream Company. It was founded in 2011 and uses local businesses to source ingredients. Flavours inspired by the Little Havana community and the owner’s grandmother and her travels in Latin America. The girls had Key Lime Pie and Mango. My husband and I chose two of the signature flavours. One Abuela Maria with guava, vanilla, cream cheese, crackers, pineapple and dulche du leche. And one Mantecado with Cuban vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Both were utterly delicious. Rich and creamy just as ice cream should be.
That marked the end of our tour but we wanted to experience a Cuban breakfast so sought out the Venetian Bakery a little outside the area where we had been walking. We had Cafe Con Leche of course with some toasted Pan Cubano to dip into it (it tastes weirdly satisfying) and some Pan Cubano Con Tortilla – an omelette sandwich. It was all utterly delicious and came in a little under $50 for the four of us.
Thank you to Ralf for being an amazing tour guide. Truly one of the best since Magnus in Copenhagen. Thanks also to Miami Culinary Tours for our complimentary tour. It was one of our favourite experiences in Florida.