Big tastes in Little Havana

The coffee, cigars and sandwiches have lost none of their Cuban influence in Miami, writes Shaney Hudson.

WHEN McDonald's opened up on 8th Street in Miami years ago, the local community wasn't happy. Surprisingly, the problem wasn't the food but the coffee. It didn't serve cafe Cubano. And if you were going to start a business on the Calle Ocho in Little Havana, you had to get the coffee right.

While McDonald's on 8th eventually yielded to community pressure, most locals will tell you that the best cup of coffee in town is made by a local woman called Betty, who keeps a small coffee cart in the El Pub restaurant a few blocks away.

Thick, strong and full of sugar, Betty places what looks like a triple shot of espresso in a small plastic cup on the counter, along with a handful of thimble-sized plastic cups. The idea, my guide Grace Della explains, is to share the coffee with others, pouring small shots from the main cup and passing it around. It's a small ritual but one that makes me feel welcome in a community I've been curious to learn more about.

After travelling to Cuba years ago, I've always wanted to see the other Cuban experience - that of the Cubans who fled in exile to Miami decades ago, refusing to live under communist rule. My Miami Culinary Tour of Little Havana takes place on the Calle Ocho, the shopping street that has become a home away from home for the exiled community. While the tour focuses on Cuban cuisine, the food provides a window to interacting with and understanding the community.

Grace takes me into the back room of the El Pub restaurant, where old recipes from Cuban cookbooks line the walls, to see a large mural of limestone crags. It's a vista from the region of Cuba where the 85-year-old owner was born, a place he hasn't been back to for decades but which is obviously still close to his heart.

The art scene is strong in Little Havana, with several artist-owned galleries lining the Calle Ocho. The art reflects the Afro-Cuban roots of Cuba but is also largely political. At one studio Grace shows me her favourite piece: an impressionist work of a woman standing on the island of Cuba, head thrown back, arms up, fists clenched, breaking the shackles on her wrists. It's a clear reflection of how most people in this neighbourhood feel.

We take a seat at the Exquisito diner a few doors down from the gallery, where red and white paper placemats list the daily specials in Spanish and a man plays the keyboard in a corner. A plate of boniato, crispy fried wedges of white sweet potato with mojo garlic and oil sauce, is placed in front of us, along with the famous Cuban sandwich. Originally the Cuban sandwich was called the medianoche or midnight sandwich, after the Cuban labourers who came home late at night and needed something filling to eat. Two pieces of fluffy, sweet, yellow-coloured bread (traditionally made with lard) are layered with pork, pickles, ham, mustard and Swiss cheese and toasted. "Cuban food is very simple food," Grace tells me with a grin. "You might love it or hate it." Dripping with fat, it's a sensational mix of salty and sweet flavours and while you wouldn't necessarily want to eat this combination of heavy and indelicate flavours every day, it fills me up and keeps me going.

Little Havana isn't the only Cuban community in Florida and, while I chow down, Grace explains the rivalry between Cuban communities of Tampa and Miami, which both claim to have created the Cuban sandwich. The dispute remains unresolved but the key difference is the Tampa Cuban sandwich has a slice of salami added to it.

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The Exquisito is next door to the local art deco cinema, which wouldn't look out of place among South Beach's Art Deco District (or an episode of Happy Days). Still open today, the cinema is an important part of Little Havana's history, as it was the first place at which most newly arrived Cubans were exposed to American culture. Watching American movies subtitled in Spanish helped new arrivals learn English and adapt.

"However," Grace tells me, "there are still plenty of people who fled from Cuba 40 years ago that still don't speak a word of English."

Pedro Bello is one such gentleman. He sits on a chair outside the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Factory wearing a cowboy hat, silently smoking a cigar, watching the world go by. His image is affixed to the velvet-lined cigar boxes inside and he doesn't flinch as tourists snap his picture.

Grace takes me into the backroom of his family-owned business. Thick hessian sacks filled with tobacco are stacked in a corner, the top one ripped open and filled with sheets of brown leaf. Dark brown cigar stems wrapped in paper bundles are stacked on wooden shelves. Two generations roll cigars by hand, while a third sits at a separate table doing her homework.

Our final destination is the tiny Maximo Gomez Park, where a few dozen elderly men and women sit in tables of four playing dominoes. The game is intense, stakes are high and the thwacking of dominoes on the purpose-built tables drowns out the little chatter there is among the old timers. Walking around Little Havana it's easy to get a feel for the district. It's harder to scratch the surface with the people in just a few hours. While they're friendly and welcoming and most have built a comfortable life, one gets the feeling they still ache for a home they can never return to.

The writer was a guest of Miami Culinary Tours and The Betsy Hotel.

Trip notes

Getting there

V Australia fly from Sydney to Los Angeles with connections through Delta Air Lines to Miami from $2153. 13 82 87, vaustralia.com.au.

While most visitors to Miami stay on South Beach, Little Havana is accessible by public transport. People are friendly and the neighbourhood is safe during the day.

Staying there

The Betsy is located on the beachfront at South Beach with 62 rooms starting from $US325 ($305). +1 305 531 6100, thebetsyhotel.com.

Touring there

Miami Culinary Tours offers Little Havana Food Tours every Saturday from 12:30pm to 2pm, starting from the Calle Ocho. Tours cost $US59, which includes all food. South Beach food tours are available from Tuesday to Saturday and also include a Cuban food stop. +1 855 642 3663 miamiculinarytours.com.

More information

miamiandbeaches.com.

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