The magic of Little Havana is found in its vibe. There’s an energy, a mood, a feel to the Miami neighborhood that’s electric. It’s bold but has nothing to prove. Flashy, but never fake. People are out and about — walking the streets, playing dominoes in the park, and buying café con leches or cortaditos from walk-up windows — but there’s nothing performative about it for the sake of tourists. Everyone’s just living their lives.
In these lives, there seem to be a few constants. Music is everywhere, especially along the busiest stretch of the famed Calle Ocho, between 17th Ave and 13th Ave. It’s played live and ingrained into the fabric of the neighborhood. Same goes for food. Cuban food in this neighborhood is ubiquitous and deeply connected to culture itself. Even the McDonald’s has been designed to fit the local aesthetic. In small restaurants and walk up windows, there’s a deep sense of care evident. You can see it in the precise, practiced movements of the man making your empanada or the woman dropping an iron press down on your sandwich.
Last month, I visited Little Havana for the first time. My goal was to soak up its energy, prove to a few friends I’d be meeting up with that I had legit salsa moves, and get my Cuban coffee fix met. Most of all, I wanted to eat everything I could manage over the course of a single day.
As you’ll see, I succeeded on that last agenda item. Dramatically.
12:30 pm: El Pub Restaurant
If you’re going to Little Havana, you’re undoubtedly ending up at El Pub at some point. So why not start there? The restaurant has all the markers of a community touchstone — from the black and white newspaper articles laminated on wood, written about the restaurant’s early days, to framed photos of the owners with celebrities (The Rock gets prime position).
But no one goes to El Pub just because it’s famous. They go because the restaurant serves fantastic food and excellent Cuban Coffee. They go because the air smells like fry oil and espresso. They go because, like so much of the neighborhood, El Pub is thrumming with energy morning, noon, and night.
I arrived at El Pub around half past noon, after hearing about it from the crew at Miami Culinary Tours (a great option, if you’re looking for a tour). Since I hadn’t eaten prior, I was still in the need of breakfast and a coffee. I went for the classics, naturally, and ordered a beef empanada and a café con leche. Among all the Cuban coffee options — the cortadito, the colada, and the cafécito — the café con leche is the least bitter and has the most milk added. As an inexperienced Cuban coffee drinker, this was definitely the right go for me.
The empanada, on the other hand, needs neither an introduction or any alterations. It is a perfect example of Cuban food’s straightforward efficiency, paired with strong flavors. This isn’t rocket science. Minced beef, seasoned and stuffed inside fried dough? Yeah, that’s gonna be good.
Pro tip: No one ever regretted having a second empanada.