El Sabor de Cuba
El Sabor de Cuba
Above all else, the city of Miami is a melting pot. Not only do a large number of its residents come from Latin American backgrounds, the city also plays host to millions of visitors from around the world every year.
The original waves of Cubans mostly settled in an area just west of Miami's Downtown district. As they built up a strong community and established new businesses, the region quickly became known as Little Havana. The area flourished in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, becoming a self-sustaining subculture and a microcosm of the life the residents had left behind.
Now populated by generations of Cuban-Americans, as well as other South Americans, Little Havana – with Calle Ocho at its centre – is the most authentic representation of Miami's international influences. Entering Little Havana feels like traveling to another country.
Embodiments of classic Cuba such as men smoking cigars and playing dominos on the sidewalks, cafeterias (window coffee shops) on every corner and even a monument to the botched counter-revolutionary assault on the Bay of Pigs, converge with modern businesses including trendy salsa clubs and Cuban restaurants to create a thriving and diverse community. The annual Calle Ocho festival hosts one million visitors for street dancing, entertainment and food.
Azucar Ice Cream Company
There's ice cream, and then there's ice cream made from the 75-year-old recipe of a Cuban grandmother – perfected as she traveled across South America. Enter Azucar, a five-year-old ice cream and sorbet shop located in the heart of Little Havana. This popular spot is the passion project of Cuban-American Suzy Batlle, who never forgot the culinary highlight of her childhood: her abuela's extraordinary ice cream confections. Azucar has introduced a whole new take on the age-old dessert, offering customers the chance to sample tastes they have surely never dreamed existed.
More than 70 evocative flavours, such as sunset-coloured mamey with creamy avocado and condensed milk, sweet guava and mango sorbets, Cuatro Leches (Four Milk Cake), and the Elvis (peanut butter 'n' banana), are handmade every day, using local ingredients whenever possible. In addition, the boutique serves its unique take on flan – the egg-custard dessert never far from any Cuban's mind – including pumpkin, caramel and coconut flavours. Azucar's tropical ice cream is the perfect antidote to Miami heat – just beware, this one-of-a-kind sweet treat is truly addictive.
Ball & Chain
Most Ball & Chain first-timers leave the legendary nightclub uttering something along the lines of, "Now this is what I came to Miami for!" The jazz bar-meets-salsa club-meets-live music venue first opened in 1935, and has been entertaining legions of visitors ever since.
This Calle Ocho institution has a history seeped in intrigue, matched only by its fascinating and diverse clientele. What started as a gambling spot in the 1930s segued into a jazz club in the 1950s attracting the likes of Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, before shutting down for almost fifty years due to legal and financial issues.
In 2014, the legendary outpost reopened – bringing back the Cuban flavour and dedication to music that was established in its 1930s incarnation. The new owners kept the original pine ceilings and even brought in handmade Cuban tiles. The performance schedule includes live jazz every Thursday to Saturday, as well as a live "la pachanga" party every Saturday night, complete with dancers and a ten-piece salsa band.
Ball & Chain's strength lies not only in its colourful history and tremendous music, the food and cocktails here are standout as well. The bartenders pour as many Mojitos as anywhere in Cuba, and somehow each one tastes genuine. Traditional Cuban dishes such as the salty and crunchy mariquitas de maduros (baked golden plantains) and warm congri fritters (imagine a rice-and-beans spring roll) are the perfect pairing with music and cocktails.
One of the best ways to experience Miami's Cuban culture firsthand is through the food of Little Havana. Versailles, which touts itself as "The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant," is an iconic institution, one that has been in the city for almost 50 years. This stop should be numero uno on any Cuban-Miami food itinerary.
The scene here is straight out of Havana, from the friendly Spanish-speaking staff to the 1950s decor. Any Saturday morning will find a group of elderly men in one corner arguing over cortaditos (Cuba’s version of espresso), while a local politician chats with his constituents in another. Families, tourists, locals and foodies alike all flock to this legendary establishment.
The cuisine at Versailles is diner-style, with comfort foods including fried croquettes (opt for the ham and cheese for the authentic, indulgent experience), a highly respected Cuban sandwich (naturally), a perfectly seasoned fried snapper and the very sweet caramel flan. The restaurant's celebrated buttery garlic bread arrives immediately, while more adventurous favourites including oxtail stew and plantain pie with picadillo (ground beef stew) are must-tries. Expect to wait in line for a seat, but don't lose patience – the experience is more than worth it.
Molina Fine Art Gallery
The work of Cuban artist Luis Molina captures the colours and diversity of Cuba with extraordinary immediacy. Molina's Calle Ocho gallery provides an intimate look at his 40 plus years of work, which has been featured in exhibitions around the world. Although Molina has been living in America for over 20 years, his paintings are all inspired by his memories of home and the culture of Cuba. Many of these works depict the country’s Afro-Cuban population, particularly those descended from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Molina also enjoys interpreting the African gods and folklore he learned about in his youth.
Molina Art Gallery is more a cosy home than a cold, stuffy gallery. More often than not, the artist himself is present to walk you through the space and discuss his work over a cortadito.