16th June 2015
When asking what I should get up to in Miami there were a ton of suggestions to experience Cuban food. In fact, Jonathan on Twitter challenged me to ‘eat as much Cuban food as I can’… So I booked myself into one of Miami’s Culinary Tours around Little Havana.
Little Havana is a neighbourhood of Miami. Named after Cuba’s capital, it is home to a vast Cuban population and has become a rich hub of social and cultural beauty.
Our tour lasted 3 full hours and although we barely walked half a mile we covered a lot of ground in food and drink terms. Led by Ralph, who likes to consider himself an ABC (American-born-Cuban) we were in for a real treat… he is quite literally a fountain of knowledge! What that guy didn’t know about Cuban culture, food, art, politics and history wasn’t worth knowing… he kindly shared it all with us.
We ate and drank so much that to make this digestible I’ve split it into food in this blog and drink in one that will follow.
Beef Empanada & Chicken Toston Relleno
With over 800 Cuban restaurants in South Florida to choose from I’m glad Ralph picked for us. Our first was at El Pub Restaurant… A mom ‘n’ pop place that had been open 52 years. The layout of the place was much like any other (a cafeteria/diner like bar around a Cuban sandwich counter in one half and a sit down restaurant in the other). But the decor had one point of absolute brilliance. They had taken a century old family Cuban cookbook (where most of the items served in the restaurant came from) and had plastered the pages onto the wall. It looked great and was a constant reminder of how traditional the food and culture here was.
We ate two things here. Firstly, a fried plantain cup (called a Toston Relleno I believe… Ralph’s Spanish was perfect, mine lacks somewhat) filled with chicken breast cooked in a sauce. The sauce had the holy trinity of Cuban cooking (onion, garlic and bell pepper), a little tomato and some sour orange to it. Like so much of what we tried today it was possible to eat it hand-held. The casing acted as one of the only non-wheat things we ate on the tour. Crispy and golden it made a decent shell for the hot, chicken filling.
Secondly a beef empanada. Now, we’ve just recently cooked some of our own… With an Argentinian twist. In Argentina they are often baked… whereas in Cuban, always fried. The filling was incredibly similar to our recipe… It add beef, the holy trinity, cumin, tomato and pimento-stuffed olives. It’s frowned upon to eat your empanadas with cutlery, although you’re allowed to cut them in half. This was delicious… Rich, meaty, moreish with the fried dough and awesome with a little fiery kick from the hot sauce.
The Cuban sandwich is held in high regards in Little Havana. Every place showcases them pride of place in the centre of the bar for all to see. We tasted one at Exquisito and they weren’t shy on the filling. Traditionally it’s layers and layers of glazed ham, plus roasted pork in a Cuban baguette with just melted Swiss cheese, dill pickles and a scraping of mustard, and that’s exactly what we got! If I’m honest, it’s not a sandwich that gets me excited… we’ve had a lot of amazing sandwiches on this tour… but there is something very satisfying about it. Talking of the traditional Cuban sandwich… I learnt that it should NEVER have mayo or Italian salami in it… Which you often find in some varieties, especially in Tampa. I’ve only got Ralph’s word to go on, but adding those two into it would upset him and, by the sounds it, a lot of Cuban’s in Little Havana!
A brief pause in the Yisell Bakery was all it took to take in the smells of freshly baked Cuban bread and to drool over the dozens of pastries and desserts they have in the counter units. Ralph selected a square of puff pastry for us stuffed with a guava preserve… vey iconic… and something that Rebecca Rosen on Facebook had suggested I try. A vibrant pink, very sticky fruit jam that had the gorgeous tropical flavour of guava without being (believe it or not) too sickly sweet. No time to stop though, so we ate it on the way to the next place!
Cuban Ice Cream
The tour ended with a visit to Azucar ice cream parlour where they fuse together incredible flavours that encapsulate Cuban food and the seasonal South Florida produce. You can pick between lychee, mamey, Key lime pie, sweet plantain, sweetcorn, papaya, sugarcane and pineapple or Cuatros Leches (4 milk). I opted for a cup of their best seller… The Abuela Maria… Cuban vanilla ice cream with cream cheese, nuggets of ruby red guava and Maria biscuits (much like our English Rich Tea) broken up into it. It was heavenly… Made with a gelato machine and local, seasonal fruit it was the perfect way to round off a tasty and informative food tour of Little Havana.
There’s lots I’ve missed out on this blog (because I’ve kept the drinks separate) so go and see what else we tried HERE! Big thanks to Ralph for opening my eyes to so much Cuban food in the space of a few hours and to Jonathan (@bluedrummajor) for giving me the go-ahead to eat as much Cuban food as possible!