Throughout the world, there are several areas where culture and history make such a footprint, they become interwoven with the fabric of the society, an ethnic enclave that pieces together the people and roots of our country.
I was born and raised in South Florida. I’m a third generation native Floridian, This is my home, humidity and all.In addition, my home is where the produce stands sell cups of fresh fruit with chile and lime, where a hot loaf of Cuban bread is at every market, and where you never have to search far for a good cup of cafe Cubano.
But, I was told- (by my Cuban neighbors) the best of all of it is in Little Havana.
Little Havana, a mere spot on a map in Miami that is so saturated by history and culture that it permeates throughout the state. Of course, the best part (to me, at least) is the food. Over this past weekend, I was able to attend one of the Culinary tours offered by Miami Culinary Tours.
A word about parking if you go: The metered spots on the street have a 2 hour limit, – I highly suggest you use the pay by phone option; most of the machines could not print receipts. We stayed a bit longer than two hours, and we got lucky, with no ticket upon return.
Our tour guide began our tour at the art studio/gallery of Agustin Gainza
His bright, story telling creations range from classic oil on canvas masterpieces, to intricately small masterpieces painted on matchboxes. He believes that if you appreciate his art, you should be able to afford to own a piece.
It was quite evident he stood by his belief, when he handed my daughter a print bookmark. She asked me to keep it safe in my handbag, and throughout the day questioned me for the assurance of the safety of her piece of art.
Our first official food stop was “El Pub” (1548 SW 8th street)When we got there, we were quickly seated in the dining area, where refreshing ice water and neatly arranged paper placemats awaited us.
The restaurant, walls decorated with clipped recipes from thier menu held a timeless feel of a 1950’s diner, a wraparound counter to satisfy a craving for a media noche (Midnight sandwich) and an outdoor walk up window for a fast spot of cafe cubano.
We were served beef empanadas, wheat pastry filled with picadillo (seasoned ground beef)
Next up were the tostone rellenos
They consisted of small cups made from mashed plantains and filled with diced seasoned chicken and potatoes.
Seeing the full entrees being served all around us, definitely made me want to take another trip down to revisit.
Our next stop was at Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company and this happens to be Mr Don Pedro Bello himself – he is the most photographed man in all of Miami. My husband informed me that they are ga-zillionaires, and it made me smile that is still quite content to smoke his cigar in front of his family business, absorbing the rhythm of Calle Ocho.
After this stop, we walked down to a small ventanita..
Our tour guide, Ralph re-enacted a typical coffee experience , you see Cafe Cubano is not meant to be shared….
You can see why.
In this tiny cup, there is the same amount of caffeine as 8 ounces of coffee. It’s brewed from a almost talcum fine grind, and served sweet and black. If you prefer a creamier variety, you can always order a cafe con leche (coffee with milk).
And this is where we were treated with one of the tastiest Cuban sandwiches around. For those of you that are unaware of what a Cuban sandwich consists of, let me attempt to explain the flavor explosion between bread.
In it, you have sweet ham, savory roast pork, salty crisp pickles, creamy Swiss cheese and yellow mustard. It’s all placed between slices of Cuban bread (a type of baguette) and pressed in a flat iron sandwich press, (although some places will press them using a hot foil wrapped brick). There are several mutations of the sandwich that can be found throughout Florida, some made with media noche bread( with is a denser, chewier bread made using eggs). It’s known as the midnight sandwich, because people would order them at street side stands in the wee hours of the night , perhaps to absorb one too many Mojitos.
Fortunately, our tour had the option of Virgin Mojitos available. At The Ball and Chain
The Mojito, is a tropical cocktail that has gained it’s popularity recently. Refreshing and crisp, it is a mixture of clear rum, simple syrup, macerated mint and lime and a splash of club soda.
…. further down the road, we stopped at Los Pineranos Fruteria A fruteria, is an open air produce stand where the flowery sweet aroma of ripe mangos perfumed the air like Mother Nature’s Febreeze. We drank fresh pressed guarapo (sugar cane juice) and enjoyed the escape from the blazing sun amidst tropical fruits and spices.
We were treated with a small lecture from a mango expert along with a sampling of fresh mango….
Our next stroll down the street brought forth more small walk up eateries, alive with color and energy and people that were alive with the beat of the city, caffeine and, perhaps rum. A city, sharp like its coffee, but with a sweetness and endurance beneath.
The sweetness of the tour did not stop with the coffee or cane juice, it continued with a visit to a small bakery, to experience Guava Pasteles (Guava Pastries)
Not overly sweet, with a light flaky crust and filled with a fragrant tart tropical paste that perfectly compliments the mild and flaky pastry.
And, although this could be considered dessert for myself, we stopped at Azucar for some fresh ice cream.
A sweet finish to a day.
In all, Little Havana holds way more than delicious culinary stops and art galleries. It holds onto a people, a culture, and a vibrancy that’s like nowhere else on earth. A small strip of community, heritage and culture that speaks into all walks of life.