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On the Road: Even Natives Learn at Miami’s Little Havana Culinary Tour on Calle Ocho

February 24th, 2012 · 2 Comments

A take-out window along Calle Ocho is busy day and night. /photo by Jan Norris

Dominos are the favorite game of retirees. /photo by Jan Norris

Looking to learn a little about Miami’s Cuban culture, taste some traditional foods and experience an historic neighborhood? Consider signing on for the Miami Culinary Tour of Little Havana.

I was invited to preview this walking tour last fall, and learned a little about my Cuban neighbors in Miami, bits of culture, history, art, and food lore from guides who know the area and live the culture. The guides help greatly if your Spanish is rusty – though many of the residents in the area speak some English, Spanish is the preferred tongue.

Grace Della, founder of Miami Tours.

Our guides were Grace Della, founder of the Miami Culinary Tours, and Mirka Harris, both American-born women with Cuban and Argentinian backgrounds.

Both women answered questions and provided tidbits of information that would keep most tourists intrigued. The walk is structured, with stops at art galleries, shops, several restaurants and bakeries and markets, and a few parks.


Art abounds in Calle Ocho

Agustin Gainza Gallery in Little Havana is one stop on the food and culture tour. /photo by Jan Norris

Our group of 10 met near 16th Avenue on Calle Ocho. The tour starts as close to the time stated as possible – don’t be late; catching up is tricky. (And don’t bring extra people along at the last minute – the restaurants have prearranged meals. And finally – feed the meters since the police do ticket.)

Fried chickpeas with garlic and onions from Casa Panza, Little Havana, were representative of Spanish foods that influenced much of Cuba's cuisine. /photo by Jan Norris

A brief overview from Della explained how Little Havana became home to thousands of Cuban exiles who flooded South Florida in the 1960s, running from Fidel Castro’s regime. Today’s neighborhood has changed – accepting immigrants from Cuba, Central and South America, as well as the surrounding Caribbean nations, but the street remains the heart of Cuban culture, social and political gatherings in Miami. Parades, protests and festivals all start here.

We stopped at one of the many art galleries in the neighborhood. Cuban born Agustin Gainza, once jailed for his political opposition to the Communist regime, has a reputation for his vivid paintings of landscapes from his native country, and of scenes from his many international travels.

Our first food stop was at Casa Panza, a Spanish restaurant where glasses of Rioja were served with bowls of tapas, presented family style to our crowd for sampling. A Spanish style potato salad, patatas aoili, was a creamy, mild dish.

It was followed by small chorizo (sausages) and fried chickpeas mixed with peppers in a garlic-laced sauce. Already we were sated, but continued our trek eastward.

Cigars represent Cuba

Don Pedro Bello is often found sitting outside his shop, Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co., on Calle Ocho. /photo by Jan Norris

Cigar shops are common in Little Havana.

Cigar making was a prized craft in Cuba, and tobacco farms were key to the island nation’s economy. After the revolution, Cuban cigar makers were ordered to turn over their factories and farms to the government. Most fled, heading for the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and other Caribbean nations.

Don Pedro Bello a legend

One heritage cigar maker landed in Miami – Don Pedro Bello. If you visit the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. on Calle Ocho, there’s a good chance you’ll see the patriarch of this fifth-generation cigar family sitting with a cigar outside his shop and welcoming visitors. His tobacco blends are award-winning, and cigar aficionados seek out the shop for his particular styles.

Cigar roller prepares tobacco for rolling at Cuban Tobacco Cigar Co. in Miami. /photo by Jan Norris

Inside, tobacco leaves hang from the rafters to dry while at a small table under them, a cigar roller is at work, demonstrating his meticulous craft. He slices, stacks and rolls the leaves, and the results are consistent, perfect cigars. Boxes and stacks of the brown sticks line the shop. The nearby lounge chairs are typically filled with guayabera-clad smokers puffing slowly to make their treat last.

Traditions in food

A map of Cuba serves as a backdrop mural at El Pub. /photo by Jan Norris

Another short walk – with a conversation about the diversity of the neighborhood from Della. A Chinese restaurant sits mid-block on the street, surrounded by botanicas – shops that cater to the Santeria cult with herbs, candles and religious amulets and statues – coffee walk-up windows, and produce stands. The Chinese are among the ethnic groups who found it easy to assimilate in an area already filled with immigrants, and served the community as well as the Cubans, Della said.

Our next stop was at El Pub, a restaurant with traditional offerings.

Black bean soup at El Pub, a Cuban restaurant in Little Havana. /photo by Jan Norris

Thick black bean soup is a staple of Cuban restaurants, served with yellow or white rice, and cilantro (with sometimes chopped onion) as garnish. While strongly associated with Cuba, it’s a dish common to Valencia, Spain.

An omelet made with plantains is a unique Cuban dish. /photo by Jan Norris

A pan-sized omelet made with plantains, the starchy version of bananas, was a different experience for many in the group, but the creamy texture of the cooked plantains with the fluffy eggs made for a unique combination.

The ubiquitous Cuban sandwich – layers of ham, cheese and roast pork with a pickle and mustard – pressed and served warm, was our treat at Exquisito restaurant.

Cuban sandwiches or a medianoche such as these at Exquisito restaurant in Little Havana can be picked up at most windows, along with a cafecita - a tiny cup of strong black coffee with sugar. /photo by Jan Norris

The servers at this counter worked efficiently to turn out the orders from our group and those lined up for a sandwich or cafecita – the strong, black, sweetened coffee that’s another must-have wherever Cubans gather.

Stars, and sweet stuff

Celia Cruz's star on the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame. /photo by Jan Norris

Celia Cruz

Our tour continued eastward down the street, which was now lined with pink marble stars embedded in the sidewalk. This is the Walk of Fame – names like Celia Cruz, Sammy Sosa, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias and Tito Puente are included in a controversial list of celebrities who have their names embossed in the stars.

Musicians are revered – music is everywhere in the community. Cuban jazz, salsa, meringue and everything in between is heard in restaurantsĀ  from speakers fixed around take-out windows or from their kitchens.

Originally set up for only Cuban notables, the project has gone through a number of managers, and many changes in the rules to award stars. Today, the big names with ties to South Florida appear – Madonna and Sly Stallone have stars here, though neither is Cuban.

Bakery window on Calle Ocho displays flan, rice pudding, coconut pudding and other sweet treats. /photo by Jan Norris

A stop at Yisell Bakery for paper-wrapped pasteles, filled with guava and cream cheese, sweetened the walk. The flaky, tender turnovers are a pick-me-up morning and night for Cubans, and the perfect match with the cafecita or a cafe con leche.

Cubans are fond of puddings – rice, chocolate and coconut puddings were on display at the bakery, along with flan – the egg custard made with a caramelized sugar on the bottom. Once flipped from its pan, the creamy custard is covered by the golden brown layer of liquid sugar.

Fresh fruits – and guarapo

Boxes of mangoes and other tropical fruits on display at Los Pineros Fruteria. /photo by Jan Norris

Tropical fruits figure prominently in Cuban households. Many grow backyard fruits – coconuts, mangoes, bananas and citrus fruits are readily available in South Florida. These and more were on display at Los Pineranos Fruteria. like most other markets, it served also as a coffee stop and juice bar.

Here, we were treated to tiny cups of iced guarapo – sugarcane juice. Pressed from large stalks of sugarcane in an a hefty electric mill, the juice is served in small cups. Sweet though it is, it also has an earthy flavor. Sugar remains one of Cuba’s largest exports and guarapo can be found at many walk-up windows and produce stands.

About the chickens and roosters

Chickens and roosters run free in neighborhoods bordering Calle Ocho in Miami. /photo by Jan Norris

All around Calle Ocho chickens and roosters run loose. They’re in the streets, hiding in bushes and pecking at tossed foods in the parking lots.

Roosters were bred for cock-fighting in Cuba; it’s a widely accepted sport in many Latin countries. Though not legal in the U.S., there are still cockfights held in stealth. Chickens also are raised for sacrifice in the Santeria religion, where blood and bones are used to spill on the ground to ward off evil or to appease saints.

Cuban Memorial Boulevard at Calle Ocho

Bay of Pigs memorial on Cuban Memorial Boulevard, Miami. /photo by Jan Norris

In the next block, 13th Avenue, is the Cuban Memorial Boulevard Park, running north and south. At the head is a monument to those who died during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. It’s here that Cubans gather en masse for festivities, such as the Three Kings Parade, or for large protests, as when Elian Gonzalez was deported.

Just behind the Bay of Pigs statue is a huge banyan tree, fronted by a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin Mary watches over the sacrifice tree, at the Cuban Memorial Boulevard in Little Havana. /photo by Jan Norris

Around the base of the tree, small bones, presumably from chickens and possibly goats, are scattered. The practitioners of Santeria scatter the bones here in ceremonies at night, we’re told. Santeria is a mix of religions that includes Catholicism, popular in the Caribbean.

A large number of Cubans and Haitians and some African Americans practice Santeria in Miami; the majority of Cubans are Catholic, however, and Calle Ocho is surrounded by churches.


Dominoes – the national pasttime of seniors

A hand of dominos is taken seriously at the Little Havana Domino Club. /photo by Jan Norris

On the last leg of the tour, we stopped in at Maximo Gomez Park to watch a few rounds of dominos. The seniors gather here daily to throw their tiles down with fervor in the spirited games. You must be over 55 to play – and most of the players are men, though a few women now participate.

Sweet ending

The tour ended at El Cristo restaurant for flan. A delicious example of the custard plus a cafe con leche left us tourists stuffed but enlightened.

Tours are $59 per person. Custom tours for groups are available.

For more information, go to the website, MiamiCulinaryTours.com.

You never know what you'll spot on Calle Ocho. This musician was transporting his vibraphone to a gig nearby./photo by Jan Norris


Tags: Off Road · Traveling in Florida · What's Happening Here

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