Cuban food and culture
Certainly, as Grace Della knows, Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood is one of the tastiest places in the entire state. Another expert tour guide, she launched Miami Culinary Tours and regularly leads visitors around the area to taste mariquitas de maduros (shaved, deep-fried plantains), empanadas (filled turnovers) and the perfect Cuban sandwich, a treat unlike any other made with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, all pressed together on flaky Cuban bread. Della swears by the Ball & Chain restaurant, originally debuted as a saloon in 1935, for Cuban sandwiches and chicharonnes (deep-fried pork skin), as well as perfectly muddled mojitos. You can score a similarly impressive Cuban sandwich at the infamous Versailles Restaurant, where any dish is served alongside a potent dose of island politics.
If fruits like guava are unfamiliar, head to Los Pinarenos Fruteria (1334 SW 8th St) or El Palacio de los Jugos for an education in tropical produce ranging from soursop to sugarcane, which you can have pressed into juices or batidos (Cuban milkshakes) and sip while you stroll the colourful aisles.
HistoryMiami, the city’s pre-eminent history museum, also offers an excellent walking tour of Little Havana. Like Miami Culinary Tours, it’s rich with stops for snacks such as pastelitos (pastries) filled with guava at one of the bakeries – Yisell Bakery is a favourite of many residents – as well as art gallery visits.
If Cubaocho Museum and Performing Arts Center isn’t on the list, make sure to visit on your own. It’s a cultural highlight, showcasing the island’s fine arts, from visual to literary.
A stroll down Cuban Memorial Boulevard is equally striking. The landscaped monuments dotting the Boulevard demarcate important Cuban events, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the hundredth anniversary of poet, revolutionary and national hero José Martí’s death.
Dominos and dancing
No visit to Miami’s Little Havana district would be complete without witnessing a fierce domino battle. Maximo Gomez Domino Park is a landmark, located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Street. Built in 1976 and named for the soldier who helped secure Cuba’s freedom from Spanish rule, the park is home to mainly older Cuban men who match tile after tile, all the while smoking cigars and talking politics. If it seems odd to them to be a tourist attraction, gawked at by toddlers licking caramel flan ice cream cones from the nearby Azucar Ice Cream Company, you’d never know it by the intensity of their play.
Be cautious about getting in on the action, though. Even if you speak the language, there’s a strict hierarchy here ruled by a social club, the Circulo de Santiago de Cuba, and you have to be from the city of Santiago to enter it.
That doesn’t prevent you, however, from buying some dominos from a souvenir shop to set up yourself or take home and practice your moves. (You can also play chess or even checkers if you like; Cuban ladies play canasta and other games as well). The most interesting boutique, the Little Havana Welcome Center, also has the most unlikely collection of Coco-Cola memorabilia, in addition to other souvenirs that will remind you of your time in this culturally enriching area of Miami.
If you can’t tear yourself away while the sun still shines, grab some dinner and hang around until the hour Cubans consider is proper for going out – around 10pm or 11 p.m. Then head to Hoy Como Ayer nightclub to listen to live Cuban bands and learn some salsa moves from the locals.
Written by Jen Karetnick
El Pub Restaurant - Photo courtesy of the GMCVB
Little Havana Miami © iStock: Juanmonino