By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Miami neighborhoods are as different as the multicultural people who live in this subtropical metropolis, where waves of immigration and history leave their watermark street to street.
From South Beach, Wynwood and Coconut Grove to Little Haiti, Overtown and the Design District, Miami is an ethnic archipelago, with each island-like neighborhood possessing its own personality and pleasures.
But if you want to experience the Magic City’s syncopated heart then follow the aroma of fresh-brewed café Cubano and the rhythms of pachanga to Little Havana.
“If you want to know the real Miami, you must go to Little Havana,” says Julio Cabrera, the classically-trained cantinero, or bartender, who co-founded Café La Trova, a retro Cuban hot spot in the heart of Little Havana.
“When you come to Miami, if don’t have a guava pastelito, a cigar and a mojito in Little Havana then you haven’t visited Miami.”
Long recognized as Miami’s welcome mat for immigrants, starting with Cuban exiles in the 1960s and ’70s, Little Havana is a storied working-class neighborhood just west of downtown Miami. Its low-rise homes and apartments, coffee windows, music clubs and open-air fruit markets stretch 27 blocks long and 24 blocks wide, with Southwest 8th Street – better known as Calle Ocho – as its hustling artery.
In recent decades, newcomers from Central and South America have settled in Little Havana, most notably Nicaraguans, who have established fritangas (cafeteria-style restaurants), and even named a street after Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. But the Cuban imprint remains strong – here and throughout Miami-Dade County, where a quarter of the 2.7 million residents was born in Cuba and another 500,000 are of Cuban descent.
In the cigar-making, domino-playing, salsa-dancing hub of Little Havana, Spanish is the language of choice, roosters are pets, and the local McDonald’s serves croquetas and McCafecito. Declared a “national treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Little Havana is known for its historical, political, culinary and artistic contributions, as well as its architecturally valuable collection of early 20th century homes and commercial buildings.
Want to explore Miami Cuban-ity? Incorporate at least a few of these experiences into a visit to Little Havana…
Drink a Cafecito
Thimble-sized cups of Cuban coffee, sweet and strong, fuel Miami. Stop by one of Little Havana’s many walk-up windows, or ventanitas, to sip one from a small plastic cup or down it like a shot. Add a little milk by ordering a colada or go big with hot steamed milk in a café con leche, the Latin version of a latte. Counter the caffeine buzz with warm croquetas, Cuban bread or a classic guava-and-cheese pastelito. The neighborhood’s most iconic coffee counter is at Versailles Restaurant, a Cuban exile gathering spot since 1971. Exuberant crowds gathered outside here to bang pots and pans after Fidel Castro died in 2016. Other popular coffee stops include Los Pinareños Fruteria, a family-run fruit market; El Pub, where the statue of a six-foot rooster guards the entrance; and La Carreta, a beloved local Cuban chain restaurant.
Stroll Calle Ocho
Little Havana’s main drag is walkable. Start at the Little Havana Visitor Center, 1600 SW 8th St., where there are maps, a new self-guided tour and news about upcoming events. Look down between 12th and 17th avenues to see the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame, where more than 20 pink marble sidewalk stars recognize famous Latin figures with ties to South Florida, including Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Thalia, Pablo Raúl Alarcón and Willy Chirino. Cuban Memorial Plaza, at Southwest 13th Avenue, is home to a half-dozen monuments and an eternal flame for those who fought for Cuban independence. In Maximo Gomez Park, better known as Domino Park, watch older locals gather at tables to slap down dominoes all day. Hire a local expert for insights via a Little Havana cultural walking and food tour or a HistoryMiami Little Havana History & Culture Walk. Make sure you snag a selfie with one of the neighborhood’s fiberglass rooster statues, which started popping up in 2002 to celebrate Little Havana’s culture. Favorites include the one dressed as a bullfighter next to a hen in front of Casa Juancho restaurant, 2436 SW 8th St., and the one sporting a Cuban flag in front of La Carreta, 3632 SW 8th St.
Watch a cigar roller
Calle Ocho is home to an array of family-owned cigar shops specializing in small batch, hand-rolled cigars, including El Titan de Bronze, Cuban Crafters, Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company and Little Havana Cigar Company. With the ongoing trade embargo with Cuba, the tobacco typically comes from Central America or elsewhere in the Caribbean, but the skilled, Cuban-trained rollers who sit and roll up to 125 cigars daily on site are the real deal. Cigar Aficionado magazine says every self-respecting cigar fan needs to make a pilgrimage to El Credito Cigar Factory, where the non-Cuban La Gloria Cubana cigar was born. Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Sr. first rolled it here in 1968, and since 1980 the brand has been shepherded by his son, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr. Most of the cigars are now made in the Dominican Republic, but La Gloria still has its original galleria here, where a dozen cigar-makers work in the main room, open to the public. Next to the rolling area is a posh cigar shop with a few chairs.
Slurp down a Cuban smoothie
Long before smoothie shops were the rage, Cubans and other islanders were turning mango, mamey, papaya and other tropical fruit into juices and shakes, or batidos. El Palacio de los Jugos, with 10 locations in Miami – including a Little Havana spot at 1545 SW 27th Ave. – is literally the city’s palace of juices. Bankers and politicians, migrant workers and moms, even culinary stars like Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart, have been known to sit elbow-to-elbow at the bustling market, enjoying shakes and meals from the Latin food stations. For the ultimate sugar rush, order the guarapo (sugar cane juice).
Watch a Marlins béisbol game
The Miami Marlins have landed two World Series championships since their inaugural season in 1993. The newly-named loanDepot park, 501 Marlins Way, is a retractable-roof ballpark in Little Havana where you can catch unobstructed views of Miami’s skyline – and the occasional foul ball, if you’re lucky. There’s a swimming pool in a South Beach-style nightclub in the outfield, and Cuban sandwiches and mojitos on the menu, among other Miami-style features.
Eat a classic Cuban lunch
Along with the legendary Versailles, where waiters in white coats serve Cuban sandwiches, palomilla steaks, maduros, ropa vieja and other gold standards of Cuban food on paper placemats in a mirrored hall, check out El Mago de Las Fritas or El Rey de Las Fritas for slider-sized spicy Cuban burgers topped with matchstick potatoes. The pan con minuta at La Camaronera Seafood Joint & Fish Market is a fresh boneless fried snapper sandwich on a Cuban bun. Or walk up to the window and order the croqueta preparada, a croquette sandwich, at Sanguich de Miami. Finish off lunch time with a sugar high at Azucar! Ice Cream Company, an artisanal ice cream parlor with imaginative, Latin-inspired flavors, such as café con leche, sugarcane and pineapple, caramel flan, and fried plantain.
Catch a film at Tower Theater
Next to Domino Park, the Tower Theater is a historic, Art Deco movie theater built in 1926. It used to be a gathering spot where Cuban immigrants watched Spanish movies with English subtitles to learn English. Today, the Miami Dade College-owned art house hosts Cuban exhibitions and performances, free educational lectures by faculty, and Spanish- and English-language films.
Enjoy a Cuban cocktail
Find out why GQ magazine called Café La Trova co-owner Julio Cabrera “America’s most imaginative bartender.” Crowned American Bartender of the Year at the 2019 Spirited Awards, Cabrera and his team of Cantineros bring the café’s retro Cuba atmosphere to life with artisanal, handcrafted cocktails while James Beard Award Winning Chef Michelle Bernstein presides over a kitchen that turns out modern twists on Cuban dishes. Along with the classic Cuban mojito, the bar specializes in Cuba’s generous contribution to cocktail culture: the daiquiri. Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina is another spirited location that serves mojitos and daiquiris.
Spend a night exploring Cuban culture
Futurama 1637 Art Building is a creative workspace that houses 12 artist studios and hosts monthly art openings, music productions and other events. Cubaocho Museum & Performing Arts Center is devoted to telling the story of Cuba through rotating art, a bar specializing in rum and music performances, from salsa bands to Latin jam sessions and Cuban jazz legends. It has a large collection of 19th century and early- to mid-20th century Cuban art. Café La Trova and other restaurants and clubs along Calle Ocho host live music starting around 7:30 p.m.
Time it right
Every third Friday of the month, Viernes Culturales, or Cultural Fridays, is an outdoor street party and gallery walk showcasing Little Havana’s arts scene between 13th and 17th avenues along Calle Ocho. A stage is set up in the street for live performances, and galleries keep their doors open until 11 p.m. In March, Calle Ocho – the massive street party that culminates the 10-day Carnaval Miami – winds its way down 23 blocks and attracts over 1 million people, with live Latin acts on eight stages, street performers, conga lines, salsa and Latin street food. It’s one of the largest Hispanic street festivals in the world.
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