Little Havana – A Cuban Food Adventure!

Off on a trip? Planning which restaurants you want to eat at? That’s usually an easy task with little homework. But here’s a really good foodie tip that nobody thinks of…take a foodie tour! Local Pickins is all about helping you have a food adventure wherever you are and nothing beats walking a unique neighborhood with an experienced food guide, to help you learn a little history and savor some flavors throughout the town.

A weekend getaway had me recently heading to Miami. It’s hip and hopping with a multitude of restaurants, but I wanted to discover a bit of the culture behind their food scene. Not being that familiar with this bikini clad city, made me decide to sign up for a tour with Miami Culinary Tours to visit “Little Havana.” Grabbing my sidekick for the weekend, Oliver, we headed to meet our group in this famous cultural neighborhood for 2 hours of tastings and historical lore. Gathered outside of an art gallery, the troop assembled and was comprised of 3 couples escaping the rug rats left behind in Connecticut, a local Floridian couple, two young Harvard Business School students – one of which who was participating in a triathlon the next day – and a lone ranger from Austria, who spoke minimal English. Not that it mattered, since we were strolling the main drag of Little Havana!

Our leader was Stephen, looking the part of a tour guide in sunny Florida, with his casual walking attire and straw fedora perched upon his head. This man knew his stuff and had us entertained and engaged from the beginning. First fact before wandering down Calle Ocho – Little Havana was originally settled as a Jewish neighborhood – did not know that – but become the home of many Cuban immigrants during the 60’s, therefore became nicknamed “ Little Havana” after Havana , the capital and largest city of Cuba.

stephen-2I could share with you all of the numerous facts regarding the Art Deco buildings, chimneys made of coral, the rather large wooden rooster sporting a flag of it’s native heritage – Cuba, and the very impressive, hand-rolled cigars from the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. with it’s life size carved wooden Indian and it’s faithful companion and owner Pedro Bello poised outside. Note to cigar loving people – smoke a cigar like how you would drink a fine wine, and the longer the cigar, the longer the smoke. But we are food people so I will move on!

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First stop, El Pub restaurant, where we were seated at a long table and then served a perfectly fried empanada encasing it’s delightfully moist combination of ground beef, olives, sweet peppers, onions, and garlic with a little cumin and bay leaf for spice. After we politely passed the platter of these palm size Cuban fritters, the consensus was that they were amazingly good, and everyone was looking for another. But hold on – pace yourself people – another Cuban delight was arriving momentarily, a “tostone.” Curious as to what a “tostone” was, Stephen described in complete details for the table what goes into the making – a fried green plantain, shaped over a coffee cup then filled with a mixture of chicken, olive oil, coconut milk and similar spices to the empanada. I was already full and yet this was the first stop on this culinary tour!

empanada-225x300tostone-e1383158043819-225x300Thinking what, no Cuban sandwich? Of course we had a Cuban sandwich! Next sharing table at Exquisito Restaurant had us in the back room enjoying a traditional Cuban sandwich made with thinly sliced ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. But what made this a standout was the “medianoche” bread, light and more like challah bread, while perfectly grilled with all ingredients tucked inside. Not to forget the crispy fried plantain chips served alongside, which are not any healthier than potato chips, although this one wishes they were!

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Craving something sweet, Stephen led us right to Yisell Bakery for a pastelito sampling, although we did make a pit stop at “Domino Park.” Wow, is that a unique cultural happening. Ladies and men, all ages, sizes and shapes, some even blind, gathered to play dominos and damn serious about it. But can’t get side tracked for too long, back to the Cuban food extravaganza.

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Best description of a pastelito? Think fluffy, puff pastry with a delicious filling inside. Ours happened to remind me of flattened, rectangular guava jelly doughnut. Buttery, layered dough, sweet and absolutely delicious! What about Cubano coffee? Oh don’t worry, we tried a sampling of Yisell’s finest. While Stephen watched us gobbling down our pastelitos, he came around passing a tray with teeny-tiny plastic cups for our shot of Cuban coffee, espresso that had been pre-sweetened with demerara sugar. This was the jolt we all needed to keep going, since our satisfied full bellies were slowing us down.

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The “Little Havana” food tour is the tour that keeps on filling! Next stop – Los Piñarenos Fruteria – with the largest, green avocados, I have ever seen! But that was not the main attraction here. Our agenda was a tasting of guarapo – icey sugar cane juice. Sugar cane is peeled, then put through a machine that presses and crushes the raw sugar cane into juice, to which is then added a bit of lime juice, then poured over ice before served. Do not think of freshly squeezed lemonade or limeade, it is nothing like that. This typically Cuban drink was refreshingly sweet with a mildly fresh herbaceous/grass type flavor.

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Since all great things do come to an end, our dynamically engaging leader announced that the “Little Havana” food tour was only missing one more component, dessert! A food item that everyone searches in any neighborhood, in any town, and even more so in warmer climates – ice cream! All tour participants happily crossed the road to arrive at Azucar Ice Cream Company. A stylish ice cream and sorbet shop, offering a selection of delicious tropical flavors inspired by the owner’s abuela. (grandmother). Which to chose was the dilemma, the Mamey, based on the fruit with the same name, or something with a Cuban spin to it. I settled on the Mulatica, cinnamon ice cream with bits of oatmeal raisin cookies. My sidekick? He went with the Café con leche – Cuban coffee with oreos – and was not disappointed!

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Moral of this blog…traveling is always an adventure, and making it a food adventure, may lead to a tad more exercising upon one’s return home… but totally worth it!

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