Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Calle 8, Mofongo and coconut photos by Manos Angelakis
Up Close in Miami's Little Havana... Celebrate with a Cigar!
Near Miami’s luxe hotels is a place that drew me in with all my senses. I was in Miami but was I really? This was Miami’s Little Havana, authentic and easy. Miami has more than a million people of Latin origins who live and work there. It’s an American city with a distinctive Latin feel.
As soon as I entered this district, between Fourth and 27th Avenues, I felt I was in a foreign country. Signs are in Spanish; Latin music blares into the street; the smell of strong coffee permeates the air from street side coffee windows. It feels downright rustic, as if I had stepped away from Miami sophistication into another land. I was serenaded by clucking chickens, singing grackles, screeching parrots, and cooing doves.
This enclave, also called Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) has traditionally been the first place new Latino immigrants settle in Miami. It’s just a mile from Miami’s luxury hotels like the Four Seasons and the Mandarin Oriental and the Brickell Financial District. In the 1950’s, Calle Ocho became a refuge for Cuban exiles. Here they could find or establish small businesses. Many have moved up and on, their places taken by Nicaraguans, Dominicans, Salvadorians, Mexicans, and Uruguayans. They all are eager to share their stories from the past. They gave me information on where to eat, what foods to try, and how to get around. I soon discovered that the easiest way to do so was by walking or by bus.
Before long, I was popping into colorful shops and trying local fruits I had never heard of before. Anyone for mamy? How about zapote? Food was abundant at the most famous Little Havana restaurant “Versailles”. It is run by Cuban immigrants, the Valls family. This landmark has served the Latin community and eager tourists for over 50 years. I checked out its opulent chandeliers and drapes. Was it like France’s Versailles? No, not with this Versailles’ formica counters and chrome tables. Yet the food was fit for a king. I tried one specialty: roast pork with black beans and rice. Muy bueno.
We tried several other Latin restaurants in the ‘hood”. If you have a yen for Nicaraguan or Dominican specialties like mofongo, mashed plantains mixed with everything from salami to chicken or goat, Little Havana is the place to be. Instead of bread, I scarfed down plantain chips and was in my own special heaven.
And then it was time for a smoke. No Cuban meal would be complete without one. There are several small manufacturers still creating cigars right in Little Havana. We went to high-end Moore and Bode for a tour and to watch the fine art of cigar rolling. The owner spoke of it as an art form. The company returns émigrés to their traditional employment, while supporting the embargo on Cuban tobacco.
Next up: a refreshing coconut juice (coconut water)-- with a straw right in the shell. Los Pinarenos Fruteria offers other natural fruit juices like papaya, guayaba, and the Latin staple sugar cane juice. The family that owns it cooks one pot of stew a day. If you get there early, you might be one of the lucky few. We were sitting in the garden when the family rooster strolled by.
It seems that roosters often are pets of Calle Ocho residents. The everyday rooster is the symbol of this district. They stand outside businesses, advertising and offering what’s inside. There’s even a “doctor” rooster outside a medical practice.
To lighten things up I strolled through Domino Park at 14th and Eighth. Here were scores of older Cubans and other Hispanics playing dominoes and chess. A big mural features presidents of the New World, including Bill Clinton. The place looks as though it was airlifted from pre-Communist Cuba. The viejos (old men) could see our excitement, watching them play. After awhile, they asked us to join in!
We begged off as we wanted to go for a swim. But I sure hope to join in a game sometime. This non-Latina New Yorker came home with a new appreciation for a distinctive part of Miami. And its residents.
Vive La Pequena Habana!
For further Information: Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. www.MiamiandBeaches.com
© March 2022 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.
In this issue: