The heart of the exiled Cuban community is Little Havana in southwest Miami and the main artery is Calle Ocho – 8th Street. It’s a unique street in not only South Florida but America, filled with the rich history of Cuba and its people, cleaned up and brimming with the art, music and culture of a place so close yet so far away. It’s the beginning – or end – of the Tamiami Trail, a cross state commerce route that was originally a dirt road bringing produce to the city.
Little Havana Food by Miami Culinary Tours is a great way to see and understand the area, as the guide gives the backstory to all its exotic sights, smells, tastes and sounds. Meeting at Agustin Gainza Arts and Tavern, the group included tourists from as far away as Japan and several Europeans.
Our ebullient hostess, Mirka Roch Harris, was a smartly informed guide, eager to answer queries and give straight talk answers to political and cultural questions.
Agustin Gainza is a combination coffee wine bar and art gallery with high ceilings and a comfortable upscale vibe. But food was on our minds, so we made the short walk up to El Pub Restaurant for a street window experience.
El Pub Restaurant is a common feature of Latin eateries, where you can sit inside for a full meal or get your food and café from the window counter watching people going by. A large tray of empanadas magically came through the window, fresh from the kitchen, hot and greasy and filled with seasoned ground beef, peppers, onions and spices. A little shake of tabasco over the top made it just right. A staple of Latin cultures the world over, this no fuss street food. It is filling and savory. There was also a plate of tostones and fried plaintain slices with a yummy garlic sauce for dipping. The corner restaurant is across from the visitors center and some chirpy giant painted chickens. The official birds of Little Havana, chickens and roosters and baby chicks can be seen strutting and pecking around the streets and parking lots of almost every restaurant on the strip. Like pigeons in the city and seagulls on the beach, it’s a natural bird territory.
We had our first little sip of Cuban coffee at El Pub. Black and rich and sweet, this is the real fuel of the culture. Served in a large cup and meant to be shared, Mirka explained how every day at 3:05 – in a nod to Miami’s area code – workers take a break to gather and have a shot.
After the filling fare at El Pub, we walked across the street to the Ball & Chain, a historic club founded in 1935 that saw the likes of Chet Baker and Billie Holiday and Count Basie play in the storied jazz joint. Gambling, bootlegging, and police raids all figure in the Ball & Chain’s colorful history. Costumed girls stood at the entrance, dancing and beckoning customers to come inside and cool off. A lively three piece salsa combo played just inside the doors as people danced in the street to the hip swaying music.
Making our way past the large center bar and tables against the walls, a large open air patio had a pineapple shaped stage and plenty of sofas and chairs to lounge in. A cool refreshing Mojito was brought out, a sparkling drink with muddled lime, mint, sugar, rum and club soda, a staple of Cuban bars.
The walls of the club are filled with original posters, photos and signs from the clubs hey day, a who’s who of American entertainers of all races. A Sunday Jam session was especially popular here as players showed up to try out new music and play with musical combos.
Across the street is the Tower Theater, an Art Deco gem that has been fully restored and is one of Miami’s oldest cultural landmarks. When it opened in December of 1926, it was the finest state-of-the-art theater in the South, the first place to have air conditioning.
In the early 1960s, when large numbers of Cuban refugees fled to Miami, films at Tower Theater were an introduction to American culture in addition to pure entertainment. Soon they altered its programming to include English-language films with Spanish subtitles, and eventually Spanish-language films.
However, after 60 years of operation, Tower Theater was closed to the public in 1984. But in 2002, the City of Miami authorized Miami Dade College to manage theater operations. Now under the direction of the Cultural Affairs Department, MDC’s Tower Theater continues to serve as a historic gathering place for cultural connections in Little Havana, where the community sees alternative exhibitions and performances, free educational lectures given by MDC faculty, and both Spanish-language films and English-language films, subtitled in Spanish. The new marquee is digital, a modern nod to this decades old gem.
We briefly stopped at the Domino Square, where old men gather daily to play dominoes. The courtyard is strict with no smoking, cursing, drinking, or firearms allowed. Murals line the walls and even the bathrooms have domino painted tiles.
Photo Gallery – Little Havana Food: Best Culinary Trek through Miami’s History and Cuban Culture
Next stop was the back patio of Old Havana Restaurant, where hot toasty Cuban sandwiches and croquettes were served. The delicious combo of thin sliced ham, pork, cheese, pickles and mustard is divine. They were topped with a sprinkling of fried potato sticks. On the bar was a full cured pig leg, ready to be sliced and served. Chickens hopped around the back, hoping for some potato sticks.
After the filling sandwiches, desert was on the menu over at Yisell Bakery where we had a Guava pastelito, a square pastry filled with sticky sweet guava paste. The crust sticks to the roof of your mouth and it’s not uncommon to see folks walking around with crumbs on the shirt from the delicious treat.
As if the pastry wasn’t sweet enough, we then had a full glass of iced sugar cane juice (known as guarapo) at Los Pinarenos Fruteria, a combination produce market, antique mart and juicery. Bananas, plantains, coconuts, mangoes and mamey fruit filled the stalls of this authentic open air stand.
Now on the full road to sugar overload, the final stop was at Azucar Ice Cream next to the Ball & Chain, unmissable with its huge 3D scoops decorating the front. Unusual flavors were offered, like Watermelon Mint and Mango Sorbet. When Castro died, the store offered a flavor called Burn in Hell Fidel that had lines out the door and garnered national press. The chocolate ice cream with a major cayenne kick is a dish best served cold.
This 3 hour culinary trek through history and cultures is one of the best, most colorful tours in South Florida, an essential way to understand this wildly complex, heat stroked place that Cubans, African, Caribbean’s and Native American all call home.
Little Havana Food Tour: Explore outdoor marketplaces, sit-down restaurants, Cuban music, traditional Cuban grubs, art, cigars, and much more in Calle Ocho.