It’s hard to imagine what Miami, Florida would be like now if the Cuban revolution never happened in the late 1950’s. The Cubano culture has become such an integral part of the city and surrounding areas. I’m sure there still would have been a significant Cuban presence, but not the total richness that there is now. My Travel With Doc Culinary Insiders tour group and I literally got a taste of that culture on our trip thanks to the guidance of people like Norman Van Aken, Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog and Javier Ramirez and the stellar work of a variety of cooks, restaurateurs, bakers, shopkeepers, barmen and fishermen in and around the famous Calle Ocho, Little Havana and other parts of the city. Come along for a virtual taste!
Cuban cooking in Miami reminds me of the Italian cooking that I grew up with in Brooklyn in the 1960’s and ’70’s. The cuisines are obviously very different in content, but they are very similar in spirit and style. Both cuisines rely on good ingredients treated simply, but effectively with respect and the love of food and a good meal. In neither case is the food particularly fancy or expensive and in both cuisines, seafood and pork play essential parts.
Our first stop was at the legendary La Camaronera, a combination restaurant and seafood market located in the Little Havana section of Miami, about eight blocks north of the famed Calle Ocho, the heart of Miami’s Cuban community.
It was there that we met up with our local guides for the day, legendary Florida chef, Norman Van Aken, who was instrumental in putting “Fusion Cuisine” on the culinary map in the 1980’s and later, and Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, an iconic native Miamian, who has cooked in some of the world’s greatest restaurants, including elBulli, and who has since made a name for himself cooking a more down-home local cuisine at his Gastropod restaurant in Wynwood.
Deep-fried foods are not my usual morning routine, but it was late morning and deep-fried seafood was the specialty of the house. Starting with the fried Gulf oysters, I could see why. These were moist inside, sweet and crisp on the outside. I’m not typically a big fan of fried oysters, but these were exceptional. Fried calamari were good, but more ordinary as were the conch fritters.
Whole fried fish, in this case yellowtail snapper, came to us in two ways. The first was their signature sandwich, the Pan con Minuta, which was centered by a tail-on snapper amidst a Cuban roll with chopped onions and a secret sauce laid out atop the fish. The result was a texturally rich, fresh, hot sandwich with satisfying flavor – one of the better fish sandwiches around.
Even more impressive was the large fried whole yellowtail snapper that had been scored before the frying, allowing perfectly sized chunks of pristine fish-flesh to be peeled off the underlying bones. This particular specimen, though just a touch dry, was full of flavor and beckoned me to return over and over again.
We tasted a few other things, all good and then moved out to head over to Calle Ocho for a walk in and around the atmospheric Domino Park, a haven for Cuban-born and Cuban-heritage Miamians with a love for the game of dominoes.
In need of some coffee, we stopped at one of the many coffee windows on the street. Like in much of Latin America (and most of the world), coffee holds a significant place in the culinary culture in Cuba and Little Havana. The coffee is strong and often served (heavily) sweetened and with milk.
Jeremiah ordered a colada, a large Café Cubano for sharing and poured the coffee into smaller cups, each cafecito packing a dark, sweet jolt of caffeine.
After downing the cafecito, I had a second cup, but this time I had a cortadito, essentially a short café con leche. I omitted the sugar. The coffee was robust with more than enough sweetness from the steamed milk.
Our guides suggested a stop at Azucar for Cuban ice cream. I suppose what makes this “Cuban” ice cream, other than being on Calle Ocho, is its emphasis on tropical fruit and flavors taken from the Cuban culinary canon, though their flavor spectrum extends beyond that to more traditional flavors popular throughout the United States as well. Regardless, it was very good ice cream.
We were now getting a tad thirsty, but fortunately, just next door to Azucar, we could hear some formidably grooving sounds of Cuban jazz coming from Ball & Chain, a legendary jazz club that predated the Cuban influx into the area, but had been closed since the late 1950’s until being re-opened in September, 2014.
The house cocktail list was intriguing with many Caribbean flavored cocktails vying for attention including a Mojitos, Daiquiris and more. The one that called to me the loudest was the Calle Ocho Old Fashioned, a combination of Bacardi 8 year old rum, demerara sugar, tobacco infused bitters and tobacco leaf. It was a smokin’ cocktail!
The music and the cocktails revved up our appetites enough for one more afternoon foray into food. This time we headed over to the original El Palacio de Los Jugos on West Flagler.
Built up seemingly haphazardly over time, the space is a jumble of rooms with a variety of food stations including one for sandwiches, another for seafood, several for meats and strewn throughout a wide assortment of intoxicatingly perfumed tropical fruits, such as the guavas that seduced my nostrils from across the room.
I was also seduced by the freshly milked coconuts situated right next to the guavas. A gallon of freshly tapped coconut water was only $10, a price well worth it just for the experience of having it prepared as it was. The water itself, though was the essence of the tropics, refreshing and delicious and a total bargain just for that.
We opted for land proteins in lieu of more seafood, with a variety of roast chicken, lechón, and pork ribs to share along with maduros (fried sweet plantains) and rice and beans. These were all obtained from large volume serving areas. Though a number of us spoke Spanish, the communication wasn’t easy. The end results, though, satisfied.
The remainder of the first day was spent outside of Little Havana, but the next morning, we were right back to it, traveling back over the Causeway to El Brazo Fuerte, a Cuban bakery strongly recommended by Norman, who could not join us this day. The quality at this small strip mall bakery was superb as we sampled not only the baked goods, but even some savory croqueticas, which were excellent and the rival of anything in Spain.
The biggest standout amongst the pastries was the guava and cheese pastelito, a sweet and savory confection that made me ratchet up my insulin delivery. In younger days I would have personally devoured several of these extremely tasty, flaky delights, but now I was happy to settle for just a taste.
Though we had big food plans for the rest of the day, Norman gave us another suggestion. He told us to check out a seafood market, Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill, then go next door and have a “snack” upstairs at Garcia’s Seafood Grille and Fish Market.
The market at Garcia’s was not as large as the one next door, but what it lacked in size was more than made up for in quality and personality. What made both seafood counters particularly impressive was that this was a Sunday yet all of the product looked immaculately fresh and pristine. Luis Garcia, an owner of the family run business explained that they have their own fishing boats that bring in a fresh catch every day. Peering into the clear eyes of the fish told me that was true. Indeed, a number of the fish were so fresh that they hadn’t even been gutted yet!
In addition to the massive grouper that Garcia held up for me, he showed us some colossal stone crab claws. These claws are one of the most sustainable delicacies of the sea. When the crabs are trapped, only one claw is taken from each crab before they are sent back into the sea with the ability to regenerate the lost claw. This is truly a gift that keeps on giving!
With seafood of such fine quality, I was able to forgive Garcia for his KC Royals cap, and we headed up to the upstairs outside dining room overlooking the Miami River. In keeping with our idea of having just a snack, we ordered some of the colossal stone crab claws and a whole grilled fish. Garcia had other ideas and sent us up a bunch of dishes. He thought that he would test us to see how serious we were as seafood eaters, starting with huevas fritas or fried mahi roe, a dish that he prefaced “was not for everyone,” though it was a dish appreciated by Cuban fisherman.
An additional friendly challenge was raised by the whole grilled octopus that he brought out to us. They usually serve just the tentacles, but this one showed the full monty along with some exquisitely grilled local shrimp. It was an awesome combination! I would not have expected the octopus to have been so tender and delicious throughout, but it was. I couldn’t stop eating it, and yes, I ate a good portion of the head, which was every bit as delicious as the rest of it.
Clams with garlic and parsley were certainly not a challenge, but the clams were fresh and wonderful. It was a standard dish, but one I never tire of, especially with this kind of fresh quality.
The freshly grilled yellowtail was juicy and perfectly done and presented with beautiful grill marks. It wasn’t a huge fish, but plenty to share for our rapidly filling stomachs.
Lastly and the most impressive dish of a very impressive first lunch were the incredible colossal stone crab claws.
We only ordered two to share amongst five of us, but that was plenty as each was at least as large as a large hand and cooked as wonderfully as they can be, requiring nor even benefitting by any addition. These were simply the finest stone crab claws that I or any of the others at the table had ever had. If we hadn’t just had a lot of food and weren’t facing the prospect of much more for the rest of the day, we would have ordered more, but as it was, these were sufficient to satisfy.
Garcia’s was more than just a pleasant surprise. It was the kind of serendipitous meal that one remembers for a lifetime and helps to make everything else beyond it glow in its wake. While the food was not overtly identifiable as belonging to any particular ethnicity (it could fit a broad “Mediterranean” definition), it belongs in this particular discussion largely because of its heritage. The place, the seafood and the cooking is the product of the Garcias, a family of fishermen in Cuba, that came to Miami in the wake of the revolution. They brought their experience and their know-how and have built a tremendous family business (the afore-mentioned La Camaronera is owned by another branch of the same family). They have their own fishing boats and are dedicated to quality, both in product and on the stove and grill. There wasn’t anything fancy about the cooking, but as a result, it served to highlight the exquisite nature of the fresh seafood – and on a Sunday, no less! This meal was as close to what I experienced at d’Berto in Galicia and Kaia Kaipe in Getaria as anyplace I have been to in this country. So much for a snack!
The rest of the day was spent non-Cuban culinary experiences, but we returned to the cooking heritage of the island nation the next day when we met up with Javier Ramirez and Steve Plotnicki at El Mago de Las Fritas, a legendary Cuban “burger” place in Little Havana. Like many smaller restaurants in the area, it is located in a small, nondescript strip mall, that looks like so many others. Once inside, however, though nothing fancy, it becomes apparent that this is a place with a lot of pride and history. Evidence abounds, not the least of which is a picture of President Obama there with “El Mago” in the restaurant for a frita, the Cuban style hamburger with beef, chorizo, shoestring potatoes and onions on a Cuban roll.
Our sandwiches were brought out by El Mago himself.
I had my frita “a caballo” with cheese. That is, it came with a fried and egg and cheese, making it a breakfast sandwich (this was our breakfast). Between the bread and the potatoes this was a carb-loaded wallop that I would not ordinarily eat, but when in Miami… I was glad that I tried it. In younger days, I would have gobbled a few of these tasty bombs down. Here, I left caution to the wind and finished this one.
We still hadn’t had a Cuban sandwich, the ubiquitous sandwich known the world over. We headed on over to Latin American, a nearby restaurant serving supposedly the best in Miami. We ordered a couple of Cubanos Especiales to share and taste, but they weren’t all that impressive, lacking flavor and texture, hardly candidates for the best Cuban sandwich anywhere, let alone Miami. The sandwich in South Florida typically contains swiss cheese, boiled ham, fresh pork, mustard and pickles on griddled Cuban bread. The first batch appeared to have omitted the mustard!
Despite our fullness, we communicated our displeasure and discovered that one must ask for the mustard! Really? Well, we ordered another one, this time making sure that everything that was supposed to be there, would be there. The difference was astounding. Now this was a really good sandwich! Not sure if it is the best in Miami, but at least I could now see how it might be in the running.
Cuban culture is a major force in southern Florida, especially in Miami. The food that we experienced is a delicious and interesting mix of familiar and less familiar – Euro (especially Spanish), Caribbean, American, tropical and African influences. It has many similarities to other Latino cuisines, though retaining distinctions in much the same way that different regions of a country like Spain or Italy maintains regional disparities with an essentially unified cuisine. The best part is that one need not overthink the relationships. Cuban culture is an essential part of contemporary Miami and nowhere more so than in its food. We did our best to experience a broad overview of this culinary culture in a relatively short period of time. It was a fun ride and I hope that you enjoyed it too. Next up will be a look at the greater international nature of this crossroads city.