Life

A Quest For The Best Bite Of Food In Little Havana


Uproxx / Miami Culinary Tours

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

Uproxx / YouTube

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.

12:45 pm: Azucar Ice Cream Company

Uproxx / Steve Bramucci

Café con leche still in hand, I trotted across Calle Ocho to Azucar Ice Cream Company, which is marked on the outside by a massive plastic ice cream cone facade. You literally can’t miss it.

Since it was early in my odyssey, I tasted a few of the shop’s most famous flavors (their use of cinnamon is something I am definitely on board with) but kept things simple and ordered a Mantecado (Cuban vanilla). The ice cream was almost-custardy and ultra-silky.

12:55 pm: Ball & Chain

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Ice cream in hand, I walked next door to Ball & Chain — the epicenter of Little Havana’s nightlife scene — to meet my friend Jenice, a Miami local who was going to take me around to a few of her favorite spots.

“What are you doing with ice cream already?” she asked.

I licked my cone and shrugged. “Enjoying it?”

“And you got vanilla? I’m taking you there later to try their most famous flavor.”

I flashed a smile. “If you don’t realize that I can eat ice cream twice in one day, then you really don’t get me.”

Surely we could have bantered further, but at that moment, with maybe 20 people in the bar on a Tuesday at 1pm, a full band struck up a set filled with jazzy renditions of salsa classics that boomed through the indoor/ outdoor space. There was a keyboard player, a drummer, a guitarist, and an elderly man shaking maracas — all playing in an amphitheater which was shaped like a hollowed-out half-pineapple (complete with a towering copper stem on top).

“This is why Little Havana is so beloved,” I thought, marveling at the scene.

What I said to Jenice was, “Let’s order mojitos and dance.”

1:20 pm: Domino Park

Miami Culinary Tours

When the band took a break, Jenice and I wandered down the Little Havana Walk of Fame to Domino Park. This little tucked away enclave is a heard-before-it’s-seen type of spot — with the slapping and mixing of dominoes clattering down the block. Past the park gates, you’ll find about a dozen gaming tables, with an elderly Cuban man seated on each side. Above each table is another ring of men, this group standing and speculating on the action.

“Oh, I wish I could get in a game,” I said to Jenice.

“You have to register with the park office,” she said.

“Well, how long could that — ”

“You also have to be over 50,” she added.

By the time we wandered further down the street, I’d fully fallen in love with the “over 50” rule. The game isn’t for neophytes or interlopers, it’s for the locals who give their time to it on the daily. All are welcome to watch, but the play is left to the pros.

1:30 pm: Old’s Havana Restaurant

Steve Bramucci

This was, theoretically, our lunch, though I’d enjoyed an empanada, an ice cream, a mojito, and a coffee in the span of an hour (while walking about 1000 feet in total). Still, I was game for more food and Jenice was eager to find a good Cubano.

My best method for finding trusted food has always been to ask locals. I don’t take the advice of the first local I meet, either, I keep going until some place comes up a few times. It’s like an informal poll. This was how we found Old’s Havana, and their Cubano didn’t disappoint. Holding with tradition, it featured both ham and slow-cooked pork, swiss cheese, dill pickles and yellow mustard. It’s tangier than any other iconic sandwich I can think of, which provides a nice balance to the unctuous pork. It’s also got a grilled cheese aspect, after being buttered and grilled in a panini press.

At Old’s Havana, the Cubano is served on newsprint — a throwback in line with the restaurant’s decor — and within five minutes of getting our food, the grease left behind on the paper was the only sign we’d ever eaten.

Before racing off to the next stop, I also ordered chicken croquettas. These little, fried balls were perhaps the highlight of the day by this point. Small morsels that helped balance out the sweetness of my second mojito.

2:00 pm: Yisell Bakery

Uproxx

Whereas many of the spots in the early half of my tour were well known by tourists, even if they were also beloved by locals, Yisell Bakery is truly for the residents of the neighborhood. The display cases are lined with pastries, though the options had slimmed out by mid-afternoon. Jenice insisted that we order the guava and cheese pastelito — a puff pastry filled with guava paste and cream cheese. The cheese was a crucial element here, as it balanced out the sweet and tart elements of the guava. Also, pastries with cheese are never a bad idea.

Considering the number of fried or cheesy things I’d eaten, I also felt the need for another café con leche to power me through the rest of the afternoon. It worked like delicious rocket fuel.

2:30 pm: Wandering the Streets of Little Havana…

Miami Food Tours

Jenice and I walked back up Calle Ocho to try the house specialty at Azucar Ice Cream Company, a flavor called Abuela Maria, which also featured guava paste and cream cheese. It was even better than my vanilla and — as promised — I had an easy time taking it down. A few minutes later, Jenice was in a taxi, headed back to work, and I was once again left to my own devices.

I’d tasted some fantastic food, heard live music, downed two mojitos, and eaten two ice creams. More than that, I’d soaked up some of the local culture — centered on music and food.

But I still wanted more. I wanted to feel like I’d truly explored. I wanted to sit and watch street performers. I wanted to take some photos back at Domino Park. Most of all, I wanted another meal.

So I wandered. I strolled down Calle Ocho right out of the tourist center, trusting my nose to lead someplace delicious. I felt like I could handle one more savory meal and I had to decide what it would be…

3:00 pm: La Esquina De La Fama

Steve Bramucci

I finally settled on the homey, little La Esquina De La Fama — mostly because they serve you a mojito with dry ice inside and I am certainly one to be charmed by stunts like that. Once seated, I ordered the Camarones Enchilados, which is a yellow rice and shrimp dish akin to jambalaya. After two ice creams and three mojitos, plus a pastry, I needed something rich and savory.

This dish was it. The rice was cooked in chicken broth and filled with grilled peppers and onions. Thin slices of Cuban sausage deepened the flavor even further.

My food was hot, my drink was smoking, and I felt very happy. I’d already spotted a spot to buy a fresh juice and then there was more exploring to do. Besides, dinner was only a few hours away. As I finished my meal — the best food I’d had all day — I wondered what classic I’d try next. Black beans and rice? Fried plantains? I’d have to have Ropa Vieja, of course. It’s a classic. But maybe it was shaping up to be a two entree night?

It was fun to think about. The exploration aspect of finding restaurants is as much fun as the eating for me, and I had some friends trusting me to choose dinner. But at that moment a band came on, people started dancing, and the energy of Little Havana pulled me out of my thoughts once again and back into the energy-filled present.

That’s the neighborhood as best I know it: Food and music and living in the moment. It’s a lifestyle that leaves you feeling full in all the best ways.

×