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When in Miami, Do as the Locals Do and Eat Cuban Food

In honor of National Salsa Month, explore the cuisine of South Florida’s Little Havana.

Story by Renee Sklarew

As soon you step off the plane in Miami International Airport, you immediately detect you’re somewhere different: An enticing, aromatic scent fills the air. Follow your nose through the terminal, and you’ll find at least one Cuban food stand stacked with hot pastries and a barista dispensing strong cups of coffee. Whether arriving or departing, I can never resist buying a bag of picadillo empanadas (hand pies) and a cortadito (espresso with steamed milk).

Expresso - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Miami Culinary Tours

Cuban food is a quintessential part of Miami’s heralded culinary scene, and there are dozens of restaurants and ventanitas—walk-up windows dispersing coffee and pastries—throughout the city. How did this cuisine become so important to South Florida? This culinary story begins in 1959, when Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution drove more than one million Cubans from the island to settle in the Miami area. The first wave of exiles was predominantly wealthy and educated; they fled the country when their property was confiscated by the new government. As Castro’s hold on the country continued, more Cubans immigrated to South Florida, bringing entrepreneurial skills and a desire to rebuild their lives and foodways.

This diaspora led to the establishment of Little Havana in Central Miami, also known as Calle Ocho or 8th Street, a boulevard flanked by markets, bars, shops, and restaurants. Little Havana serves as the epicenter of Cuban heritage and is the place to find all things Cuban—whether that’s a guayabera, a traditional shirt with four pockets, artisans rolling cigars, salsa music, or Domino Park where the locals gather to play Cuba’s favorite pastime: dominos.

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Photo Credit: Miami Culinary Tours

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To learn more about the local food scene, I spoke to Grace Della, founder of Miami Culinary Tours. She organizes excursions led by knowledgeable guides who offer samples of the cuisine and share neighborhood stories. Her Little Havana tour includes five stops for food and drink, along with lessons on history, architecture, and cultural practices for context. Having participated in two Miami Culinary Tours—Little Havana and South Beach—I was excited to speak to her about the Cuban cuisine of South Florida.

“The large Cuban population brought their customs and cuisine to Miami, and it’s such a great influence,” says Della. “Miami adopted them because that’s the food that they wanted to eat. If you come to Miami and don’t try a Cuban sandwich made by folks making them for generations, you’re really missing out on an iconic flavor of Miami. Miami has an array of different cultures and cuisines, but we are so proud of our Cuban cuisine, because it’s really what we know how to cook well.”

Cuban Favorites to Try in South Florida

The Little Havana tour stops for crispy empanadas containing picadillo—ground beef flavored with a fragrant sofrito of olives, peppers, onions, and tomatoes. “It seems that every culture has its version of chili, and for the Cuban culture it is picadillo,” says Chef Robyn Webb, an award-winning cookbook author and educator who teaches cooking classes for Miami Culinary Tours. Webb shares her picadillo recipe at the end of this post.

Picadillo Empanada - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Joanna Kalafatis

Ropa vieja is the national dish of Cuba. The tender meat stew translates to “old clothes,” which makes sense when you see its stringy texture. Flank steak is combined with bell peppers, pimentos, capers, onions, olives, and peeled tomatoes, then slow cooked for hours. “If you want a dinner feast, then order ropa vieja with Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice),” says Della. “These are very popular because every Mama at home in Cuba prepared those dishes.”

White rice mixed with black beans is a staple of Cuban cuisine, however, Miami chefs are serving it in new ways. “They are getting super creative,” says Della. “Now they do fritters or arancini with cheese in the middle. The name Moros y Cristianos represents the battle between the Moorish and Christian people. “The story I know is that they always fought, but somehow, somebody mixed those two; it’s the struggle in a dish.”

Other Cuban favorites are tostones, which are twice-fried plantains, and yucca, a root vegetable similar to a potato. Both are served with Cuban mojo, a tart orange sauce. Don’t miss croquetas de jamon, which are bite-sized logs of ground ham coated in breadcrumbs and fried.

For lunch, order the classic Cuban sandwich, or Cubano sanquich, as it’s known in Little Havana. Cuban bread is sliced in half then layered with mustard, cheese, pickles, ham, and braised pork. Placed in a cast iron skillet coated with olive oil, the sandwich is pressed down firmly until compressed and crispy. Served with a sprinkling of potato sticks, the Cubano sanquich is the perfect take-away for a visitor on the go.

Cuban Sandwich - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Miami Culinary Tours

Try Something Sweet

Cubans love coffee; it’s part of the culture, and locals typically sip tiny cups with enough caffeine to keep going all day. Della suggests ordering from coffee stands: “If you buy coffee at a Cuban ventanita, you’ll usually only pay $1.50.” Start with café con leche, a Latin latte with a shot of black coffee drowned in milk and sugar. For something stronger, there’s cortadito, an espresso drink made with evaporated condensed milk. “There’s also café Cubano, which is extremely sweet,” says Della.

Cuba has two iconic cocktails: the mojito and the Cuba libre. The mojito is a frosty highball made with rum, lime, soda water, fresh mint, and, traditionally, a stick of sugar cane. Cuba libre, also known as rum and Coke, originated in the early 20th century and is named for the liberation of the Cuban people after the Spanish-American War. “Cuba libre, done the right way, is amazing,” says Della. “People always say ‘I thought it was Coke and rum,’ but it’s nothing like that, because of this one ingredient: lime. You have to add a lot of it, because adding the lime changes the flavor of the Coke completely.”

Cubans love pastelitos de guayaba, a puff pastry layered with guava paste and cheese. You can find these treats in every Cuban bakery, alongside trays of flan (egg custard), torticos de moron (sugar cookies with rum and lime), arroz con leche (rice pudding) and churros (fried dough rolled in sugar). When you’re in Little Havana, stop by Los Pinarenos Fruteria to try fresh-pressed juices and smoothies.

Little Havana Fruit Stand - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Miami Culinary Tours

“Outside of South Florida you don’t find really good Cuban food,” says Della. “You might find a restaurant that serves Cuban food, but this is an entire culture, with food customs and recipes that have been passed down for generations.”

Where To Eat

Here are Della’s recommendations on where to find authentic Cuban-American culture and dining:

Versailles Restaurant – “For an affordable, homey lunch, go to Versailles in little Havana,” says Della. “The service is quick, plus you see old timers who have been going there for generations—grandfathers, great grandmothers, children. It is a cultural experience.”

Café La Trova – “This higher-end restaurant is crafting amazing food and drinks,” she says. “It’s home to James Beard award-winning Chef Michelle Bernstein. What I love about the place is the Cuban mixologist Julio Cabrera who has won every award imaginable in the mixologist world. It’s a beautiful restaurant that feels like you’re in Cuba, pre-Castro era.”

Azucar Ice Cream Company – Try the Abuela Maria Ice Cream made with French vanilla, cream cheese, guava paste and Maria tea-biscuit cookies.

Picadillo Recipe with Chef Robyn - Foodie Travel USA

Chef Robyn Webb

Picadillo Recipe

Recipe by Chef Robyn Webb of Miami Culinary Tours

“My first introduction to picadillo—a mélange of beef, sautéed vegetables, and spices—came early in my life watching my grandfather’s Cuban housekeeper prepare picadillo for him in his Miami home,” says Chef Robyn Webb. “She had come to Miami from Cuba in the first wave of newly arrived immigrants to the United States. He absolutely adored the Cuban picadillo she lovingly made for him. It is one of the most comforting dishes you can prepare, and the aroma will fill your kitchen with love.”

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small red or green pepper, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoon dried oregano
salt and pepper
2 bay leaves
½ cup dry white wine
1½ pounds ground beef
1 cup diced canned tomatoes.
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup raisins
½ cup pimento stuffed olives plus 2 Tablespoons of the brine
2 Tablespoons capers

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and peppers and sauté for 5-7 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper to taste, then the bay leaves. Cook for 3 minutes. Add the wine and cook for 5 minutes until the wine is completely reduced.

Add the ground beef and cook for 5-7 minutes or until no longer pink. Stir in the tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, raisins, olives, the brine, and capers.

Cover and lower the heat to medium low and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Can be simmered longer.

Remove the bay leaf and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Plan A Trip

Miami Culinary Tours – Food is the focus of these tours. In Little Havana, you’re going to try a Cuban sandwich, drink a mojito, eat empanadas, churros, taste Abuela Maria ice cream, and learn the stories behind the food.

The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora – The history, culture, and contributions of the Cuban exile community is showcased.

Wynwood Walls – The neighborhood of Wynwood draws visitors to see the exciting outdoor art collection of modern murals painted by international artists.

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens – Take a self-guided tour of this National Historic Landmark overlooking Biscayne Bay. Built between 1914 and 1922, the waterfront mansion is a flourish of eclectic crafts and furnishings and surrounded by ornate Italianate gardens.

Find accommodations with help from TripAdvisor.

For more information, visit Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Renee Sklarew

Contributor

Renee Sklarew writes Travel & Dish.