June 20, 2011

A visit to Little Havana (and beyond)

Last Thursday’s plan was to do a food crawl in Little Havana but what I got was so much more; sort of like a 2-for-1 Happy Hour and you find out its 3-for-1 with complimentary bar bites! A friend of a friend, (who after spending 6 hours with me is now my friend, whether he likes it or not) came along with me as my language liaison a.k.a. Little Havana tour guide/expert a.k.a. city driver. I owe this man a debt of gratitude for his time. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to spend the day with such a remarkably in-the-know and well-cultured person who showed me the true essence of Little Havana. My new friend? Happens to be none other than the King of Afro-Cuban Funk, Steve Roitstein a.k.a PALO

The day started at the famed Versailles Restaurant with a cortadito and a guava and cheese pastry at the window with all the locals and regulars. A little bit of background: I am intrigued with this “Cuban restaurant window concept.” I see it on television, in the movies, in newspapers, and am completely fascinated with this human version of a drive-thru. I totally buy into the school of thought “do as the locals do.” I am also one of those people who cannot resist buying magnets, coffee cups and other useless souvenirs from tacky gift shops. I am the queen of touristy and kitschy. So the opportunity to stand at the window and do-like-the-Cubans-do was very exciting for me. One of my goals was to find the “best window.” Come to find out there is no “best window” they’re all the same. The windows are staffed by java authorities* serving sweet, hot human motor-oil in thimble sized cups. I know this for a fact as I visited, oh about 17, and had equally as many thimbles. This crawl quickly morphed into the Little Havana 500. Cuban coffee is a culture acting as a catalyst for multitude situations. I learned quickly that the coffee and the window are very unique enigmatic phenomenons….casting a warm spell over its prey. 3555 Southwest 8th Street Miami, 33135 Versailles on Urbanspoon

Needing to counterbalance the obscene amount of caffeine and sugar my body had just been subject to, the next logical stop: The Juice Palace, El Palacio De Los Jugos. How bad can real fruit juice really be? This mindboggling fruit stand is much more than a few mangos and papayas being juiced into a cup; but every possible fruit, vegetable and prepared food item in the free world is on display; chicken, fish, pork, rice, beans, and every form of root vegetable known to man. Good Lord Almighty! this is the market to end all markets. 5721 West Flagler Street Miami, 33144

It was here that I was introduced to the wicked Chicharrón. I do believe that Jack LaLanne is turning in his grave at the mere mention of fresh juiced fruit and fried pork fat being sold at the same counter. I have to say that I saw some of the most delicious prepared food I have ever seen. It was colorful, fresh, moist, and screaming with flavor; I wanted to buy one of everything. El Palacio De Los Jugos puts commercial supermarkets to shame with their food displays.

Chicharrón is chopped right in front of you with an impressive cleaver. Steve told me, this is the best in town. Well, if it’s the best then we’ve got to have it, now don’t we? We sat at a picnic table with our bag of chicharrón and papaya juice. One bite, that’s all it took; it was at this moment I believe I felt the earth move. Feeling like I was committing a mortal sin, consuming fresh fruit juice and fried pork fat in the same setting; but I say, be dammed! it was the most outrageous indulgence. In my delirious pork-fat infused state I said something completely novice, I do believe it was: “want to get another bag?!!?”  Steve quickly diffused that question with “we still have so much more to do and eat, we probably shouldn’t.” We didn’t. El Palacio de Los Jugos on Urbanspoon

All aboard the Little Havana express, we are now in search of the Frita. The Cubans are funny people; I’m noticing a fixation with royalty here: Versailles, with its aristocratic exterior. El Palacio De Los Jugos translated means The Juice Palace and now I end up at El Rey de las Fritas; translated means The King of Fritas. 1821 Southwest 8th Street, Miami

Loosely defined, a frita is the Cuban version of the American hamburger. A frita is a mix of ground beef and chorizo fried, and served on a Cuban bread hamburger bun, topped with fried shoestring potatoes. This time we had a sweet mamey fruit shake to wash it all down. The King of Fritas did a good job packing some decent heat into this fried wonder. This luncheonette is bursting with personality with its vibrant red splashes of color and photos of menu items displayed proudly on the walls; it is here for customers to visualize just how good saturated fat really looks on a doily.    El Rey de Las Fritas on Urbanspoon

 No trip to Little Havana would be complete without a stop to a cigar shop and as luck would have it, we literally walked into the Little Havana Cigar Shop. This is one of the most sophisticated and handsome cigar stores I have ever seen. From $4 Macanudo’s to $40 Padron’s this fashionable cigar shop offers a hit of something for just about everyone, including beer and wine. We stopped to talk with the manager and a customer, who was sitting on one of the leather couches doing some work on his laptop. I believe it was 2 sentences into the greeting and the customer offered us a “shot” of that infamous Cuban espresso he had sitting on the table. I declined. Between the chicharrón, the frita and the 17 previous cortadito shots I was starting to have an out of body experience….and not the good kind. 1501 Southwest 8th Street Miami, 33135 (I just got a call from my Dad, who was completely blown away with his surprise gift from LHCS, guess I made the right choices.)

Next stop, Exquisito Restaurant. Aside from my fascination with “the window” Exquisito also has that very friendly, kitschy counter-corridor, use-all-the-space-you-can thing going on. This should not come as a surprise (if you’re still with me) that I’m becoming smitten with Little Havana; for all its charm, resourcefulness, and realness. We didn’t sit at the counter but in the dining room which was very ornately decorated complete with the name of the restaurant emblazoned on the tables and chairs. I’ve got to hand it to the owner he sure can market the place, just in case you forgot where you were. Exquisito serves mountains of food for under $10. I find it hard to believe that one person could eat all the food that is served to them, thus a lot of take home; that I’m sure people will be eating for the next two days afterwards. We had Crema de Malanga. Steve told me this was an old fashioned remedy for an upset stomach. It kinda worked. 1510 Southwest 8th Street Miami, 33135 Exquisito Restaurant on Urbanspoon

As we walked down the street we came upon Domino Park, a central meeting place in Little Havana where locals and retirees gather to play chess and dominos. There is a spectacular mural within Domino Park of the Presidents of the Americas commemorating the Summit of the Americas held in Miami in 1993. A bit further down is Memorial Boulevard with a series of monuments commemorating the history and culture of Cuba. The pride in Little Havana and with its people is subtle yet overwhelmingly powerful. 801 SW 15th Ave. Miami, FL 33135

Walking down the street we followed the sweet scent of fresh fruit to a pretty little open air market, Los Pinarenos Fruteria. It was here that I tasted the purest mango batido (shake). Not all fruit drinks are created equal and whatever the ingredient ratio is, they have a winner here. We sat outside at the window (it’s not just for coffee!) sipped our icy cold fruit shakes; suffered minimal brain freeze and just let the wave of this endearing culture wash over us. 1334 Southwest 8th Street Miami, 33135 Los Pinarenos Fruteria on Urbanspoon

Next we were off to El Nuevo Siglo Supermarket, to check out Publix’s nemesis and the famed lunch counter. This is one of those places you must be introduced to or you’ll never know it exists; and I think the locals want it that way. An authentic Latin American grocery store with the findings and staples of the old county. The butcher and the baker crank out some fine looking product. But that lunch counter, just like an old fashioned American five-and-dime. A mish-mash of furniture, vinyl and metal barstools, a few wood stools, and a handful of  high-top tables serve as overflow seating for the crowds that jam the lunch counter. The menu is written on a chalk board in Spanish and nothing is over $10. Generous servings of classic Cuban dishes are prepared and served to the constant flow of people one dish at a time. This archetypal Cuban wonder sits unaffected by the goings-on outside and moves along doing its thing quietly and proudly. I felt horribly invasive taking photos at the lunch counter, I was getting looks, so I stopped. It’s something I believe that should not be done without asking first; simply out of respect. And now I know for the next time. 1305 SW 8th Street Miami, 33135

And coming to the tail end of our day we ended it with dessert and wine, (did you really expect anything less?) The croquetas and pastries at Ricky Bakery were outstanding as we had a bite of just about everything in the case. The guava and cheese pastry is probably the best I’ve ever had and the croquetas were as award winning as they claimed to be. The ham croquetas and the spinach croquetas are a must try. 3119 Coral Way, Coral Gables Ricky Bakery on Urbanspoon

It’s off to the gas station for a fill-er-up, of wine. El Carajo Tapas & Wine is another one of those  hidden gems that you need to be introduced to or you’d never walk in. This is a tapas/wine bar in a BP gas station. Make no mistake, this Spanish play on words for its namesake is no hell-hole but a beautifully decorated wine bar and restaurant; showing off dark woods, crystal wine glasses and a sprawling mural of a gardens on a Spanish Estate? (that sounded about right).  The selection of wine is impressive with recognizable names and very nice pricing, there is minimal markup on the bottles, and the corkage fee is $10. The tapas menu is extensive and with both hot and cold choices and a dozen or so entrees of chicken, meats and fish for more substantial fare. Located on the corner of US1 and SW 17th Ave. (2465 Southwest 17th Avenue Miami, 33145) El Carajo International Tapas & Wine on Urbanspoon

To tell you about my experience at Latin American Restaurant and give it the justice it deserves, I’ve decide to write a separate post about it and the Cuban Sandwich. I’ll post that story in the coming days.

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To view the photos of my visit and my eatings click here.

And here’s a big, fat, in-your-face shoutout to the man who made all this possible. Check his band out:
PALO, the website
PALO on Facebook
PALO on Twitter

* (as I like to refer to them, these people have espresso running through their veins. Titled baristas and fancy coffee shops can learn a thing or two by hanging out at a window)



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