Walking Calle Ocho with Croquetas and Cafe Cubanos

When I think of Miami, I think of mint green and salmon pink. Mint green curved window balconies, mint green golf carts, mint green storefronts and mint green tank tops. Salmon-colored Spanish-style streets, salmon-colored plates, salmon-colored door frames and bike tires. It comes to mind like photographs, a city on the beach gleaned over with a retro Instagram filter.

There is one place, however, that doesn’t fit into the whole mint-and-pink color scheme. It’s a long stretch of street, aptly named Calle Ocho (because it’s on 8th Street), and is known famously as Little Havana. Calle Ocho isn’t exactly flashy; it doesn’t look a thing like the other Havana; it’s not even pedestrian-friendly, really. Upon first glance, it looks like little more than a regular strip mall, the kind built in the 1960s, without any attention to aesthetic or architectural flair. When I think of Calle Ocho, I don’t think of muted pastels at all—I think, instead, of brilliant turquoise, of canary yellow, of cherry reds and grassy greens. I see murals (in Little Havana, it’s not graffiti), splashed on the walls of the aging American storefronts, murals of women dancing, of Spanish words and phrases, of flowers in bloom and evocative scenes of Havana as it might be, because so many of these artists have not actually been to Cuba in a very long time.

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I went to Calle Ocho in June on the heels of my first trip to the Dominican Republic on a new cruise line called Fathom. It wasn’t your typical kind of cruise: over the course of the week, one of my best friends, Alison, and I had planted baby mangrove trees along a swamp to help with pollution, helped build water filters out of clay and silver for needy families, and played with at-risk children at a summer camp in a small mountain town. Now, we were in Miami for two days—and, because I’ve never tried Cuban food before, I’d signed up for a food tour to do just that.

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The tour started inside Augustín Gainza’s personal art gallery. After I go in and let him know I speak Spanish, he shows me his paintings, many of which depict food customs in Havana in the 1940s. His Havana—the one he so clearly remembers—is stuck in his childhood, as he was born in Havana in 1943 but escaped to the U.S. as a man in his early twenties. He has lived here, in Little Havana, ever since. We chat in Spanish, my gringa Spanish still a little tongue-tied, his a rapid-fire, consonant-swallowing Cuban Spanish, and I ask him if he paints from photographs like Ryan, my husband, sometimes does. Agustín tells me no, never—he paints only from his memories. His work is evocative, reminiscent of Matisse, rendered like a sophisticated child, with lumpy chairs and off-kilter horizon lines. But it is also elegant, depicting taro root and plantain fields, queens of the water, Chinaman working in the sugarcane fields. I love it.

As we have been talking, the other seven participants have entered, awkwardly, as if on the first day of school, wondering if they’ve gone into the right classroom, unsure how to introduce themselves to everyone else. Jennifer, a Miami local who will be our guide for the next two and a half hours as we walk in and out of Calle Ocho together, walks in the door, and I wonder: Am I going to be tasting Havana as it once was, or will this be Havana as it is? Or, has Little Havana evolved into its own evocation of memory and, in turn, come into its own?

  1. Medianoche:

    a pressed sandwich, cousin of the Cuban, with soft challah bread instead of a baguette; eaten at midnight in bars in Havana

We start with picadillo empanadas. Our server brings them out, piled up on a plate, still steaming. Inside is sofrito, a hearty mix of ground beef, peppers, onions, cumin, and oregano, tomato sauce, green olives, and a bay leaf. As we eat, we introduce ourselves—there’s me, travel writer with her notebook out and camera around her neck, a single mom from Miami who just wanted to try some new food, a young recently-graduated couple from Brooklyn who work in international relations, a French couple, who are also journalists, and a couple on vacation with a basically newborn baby. As we eat our empanadas, we talk about what brought us here: wanting to write stories about Cuban food, wanting to try Cuban food, wanting to see a different part of Miami, etc. We all share our favorite foods.

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Then comes out the medianoche, a sandwich sliced diagonally on what looks like flatbread. Jennifer tells us it’s called the “midnight sandwich” because it used to be a popular food to serve at midnight in Havana nightclubs. Though it’s not beans (another food I loathe!), I’m a little nervous about this one, because I know what it’s buttered with: yellow mustard. And I hate yellow mustard. From what I’ve read, to make a medianoche, the sweet Challah bread is swabbed in mustard, filled with roast pork, sliced ham, and slices of Swiss cheese, and topped with mini dill pickles. It’s usually served atop a plate of tiny slivered French fries.

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So, it’s down to me and mustard. I know I’ve got to hold up my fearless travel writer self, and so, holding my breath, I pick it up and take a big bite. All I taste is mustard—that awful, smelly, freakishly yellow stuff—but I smile, say “mmm” like everyone else, and swallow.

Then I basically run back to my picadillo empanada, my sofrito and puffed pastry respite.

  1. Croquetas and café Cubano:

    where you eat small fried croquettes out of a window and drink small, thumb-sized coffee that has more caffeine in it than a large cup of American drip coffee

Our next stop is a window, literally. Here, though, it’s called a ventanilla (“little window”) and the idea is easy: since there are no food trucks here, people pop by little ventanillas to grab easy-to-eat bites like croquettes, coffee, empanadas, and other finger foods. Jennifer takes a large round tray filled with little fried ovals and tiny plastic cups from the woman behind the window and passes them around. We much on the croquetas de jamón first, little fried bits made of a kind of “ham paste.”

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“These are pretty classic snack foods,” Jennifer says, “but this is my favorite thing in the whole world.” She nods at the row of dark-colored drink in the little glasses. “It’s café Cubano.” Café Cubano, apparently, is a type of thick espresso that originated on the streets in Cuba after espresso machines were first imported there from Italian immigrants. What makes it unique, though, is the stream of sugar the Cubans pour into it as its being brewed.

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“You can have it with a little bit of steamed milk,” Jennifer tells us as we all tip our cups and take the shot of espresso in one sip. “That’s called a cortadito.” The ratio is either 50/50 or 75/25 espresso to milk, and it always comes pre-sweetened with sugar.

When you taste café Cubano, you’ll see exactly what I mean. It’s candy disguised as coffee.

  1. Mojito:

    a mint-infused cocktail that reminds me of my first travels and of tropical islands

Normally, I wouldn’t swing from super-strong espresso to an alcoholic beverage in the time it takes me to cross the street, but today, that’s exactly what we do. We go from the ventanilla to a well-established bar across the street called Ball & Chain—a place that, in its heyday, featured such national acts as Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Chet Baker. Its storied past, too, evokes the same kind of odd nostalgia that this whole area has: during its first 25-year run (after it opened in 1935), the place was often filled with bootleggers, gamblers, felons, and artists, meaning that its music acts—mostly jazz and blues musicians—filled the clubs every night. It reopened in 2014, with new owners committed to restoring the glory of the early Little Havana nights.

Inside, there is a live drum band and a Cuban man in a hat shaking maracas and dancing in a circle. He’s also wearing his sunglasses, but I can’t figure out why—not only is he inside, but he’s inside a dark bar.

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We order a round of mojitos, drink them quickly, and imagine what it would be like to be here at night, amidst both criminality and greatness.

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  1. Pastelito guayabo:

    sweet guava-filled puffed pastry, served in workplaces on Fridays to celebrate the start to the weekend

Our next stop is to an unassuming bakery, where we munch on fresh guava pastries.

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The walls are bare and the Challah bread is wrapped up in paper with Cuban flags printed on them. Jennifer tells us that people often serve pastries like this on Friday afternoons. I stuff an extra pastelito in my purse for Alison, who’s back at our hotel working on her novel. I know she’s going to love it.

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  1. Sugarcane juice:

    in which you drink the world’s natural sweetener, all on its own

From our brief stop at the ventanilla, I knew Cubans liked sugar, but I did not know they liked it so much that they drink pure glasses of it. Here, in a frutería filled to the brim with boxes of plantains, guavas, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, mamey, and sugarcane stalks, we watch as the man behind the counter pushes the long grassy stalks through a machine and turns them into sugar water.

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He fills each glass with ice and pours the sweet liquid into each one. The drink, called guayapo frío, is a pineapple-yellow color, foamy on top. Its sweet (no surprises there) but not in the way I imagined: it’s sweet in a generous, natural way, like water that has been tinged with a light agave syrup might.

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As we sit outside in the shade and sip our drinks, I think about how strange it is that I’m exploring Calle Ocho with seven people I’ve never met. We’re sharing this intimate experience of eating new foods together—one of the true joys of life—and yet, I don’t really know anything about any of them.. We’ve all fractured back into our original partnerships (if we had them) and those of us who are here by ourselves talk about our travels, our favorite foods, and where we want to visit next.

  1. Abuela María ice cream:

    to cleanse the palate, a guava, cream cheese, and cookie ice cream does just the trick

We come to the end of our time together at an ice cream shop. Jennifer mentions we might want to try the Abuela María, a Cuban ice cream flavor made from vanilla, guava chunks, cream cheese, and galletas María, crunchy sweet butter crackers. The line is literally out the door, so as we wait, I watch the people around me: young Cuban families, young American families, foreign students all wearing backpacks with their school’s logo on it, college-aged students, and couples. They are all here, like me, for the very same reason.

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Because we all love ice cream.

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There’s something magical that happens around food—no doubt about that—and even more when you experience it like window-shopping, trying individually-sized samples along a historic street that runs for 12 city blocks in Miami.

I get back to my hotel and give Alison her pastry. As I suspected, the restaurants, cafés, and window shops in Little Havana are not just a piece of history. They are continuing to make their mark, every time one of us takes a bite.

© Miami Culinary Food Tours
© Miami Culinary Food Tours

Yours in travel,

Kristin

In case you’re interested, we visited the following restaurants in Calle Ocho during our 2.5 hour food tour: El Pub Restaurant, Exquisito Restaurant, Ball and Chain Restaurant, Yisell Bakery, Los Pinarenos Fruteria, and Azucar Ice Cream. All are on SW 8th Street in Little Havana in Miami, Florida. The Miami Culinary Tour – Little Havana Food Tour is $59/person and includes all food and drinks.

Special thanks to Fathom Cruises and to Miami Culinary Food Tours for sponsoring my trip to the Dominican Republic and, respectively, the aforementioned food tour. All opinions are, of course, the author’s own.