Cuban restaurants in Miami come in dozens of shapes and sizes, and you can't walk two feet without tripping over a version of one. You'll find them tucked away in grocery stores or offering little more than an open window on a street corner from which to order. These are called cafeterias, and are best for Cuban toast and coffee, maybe some hot dishes that they specialize in, or a quick sandwich.
One of the most well-known and authentic places to eat Cuban fare in Miami, El Palacio de Los Jugos, is in a fruit market, its main location on West Flagler Street in the "Flagami" neighborhood (with plenty of additional locations scattered throughout Miami). Then there are the establishments that offer different interpretations of the cuisine, such as Havana Harry's - a reader favorite - or OLA at Sanctuary, where the innovations continue on to cocktails.
If you're looking to concentrate your efforts, start with the local hangout Puerto Sagua on the vibrant South Beach area -a restaurant that's been featured in numerous film and advertisement shoots, it's that emblematic - and then head to Calle Ocho. There you'll find Versailles's traditional nearly 24/7 eats, ranging from codfish croquetas (croquettes) for breakfast to shrimp in Creole sauce (tomato sauce with peas, not New Orleans style) for dinner, as well as handfuls of other Cuban-influenced cuisines.
Ola at Sanctuary
Smoked marlin with a rum-vanilla drizzle and a soupcon of pickled jalapenos, all held aloft in a boat made of malanga? Pork crusted milanesa-style with pine nuts, set on a bed of cauliflower-manchego cheese puree, with a coverlet of arugula and mustard vinaigrette?
Yes, this artistically-driven Cuban fusion is not only possible, it's the mouthwatering work of none other than James Beard Award-winning chef Douglas Rodriguez, lauded denizen of Miami's best restaurants for the past two decades. OLA, originally located on Biscayne Boulevard before finding its permanent home on South Beach in this lovely boutique hotel, marked Rodriguez's return to Miami after stints in New York and Philadelphia. (305-695-9125)
No-frills Puerto Sagua is a long-standing institution in South Beach, where restaurants come and go with frequency. This one has continued to please the fickle masses with traditional Cuban comfort food and decor that is fuss-free, with the exception of its awesome murals of Cuba street life. Native Cubans and South Beach residents who miss the days when the Beach was home to dozens of counters and cafeterias savor authentic shrimp in garlic sauce, fried plantains and grilled Cuban sandwiches stuffed with ham, pork and cheese. Late hours also make Puerto Sagua a perfect stop-off after a show or a night of club-hopping, when a media noche or Cuban sandwich is the perfect antidote to too many cocktails. (305-673-1115)
Islas Canarias Restaurant
Since 1977, Raul and Amelia Garcia, along with their two children, Nancy and Santiago, have been dishing up home-style Cuban goodness for their customers. Today, Spanish and Cuban favorites from the island, including oxtail in wine sauce and tamal en cazuela, are offered in a casual ambiance at this family-friendly eatery. Always packed with local devotees and travelers seeking an authentic Latin dining experience, this is a great choice for a crowd or if you are eating late in the evening. The food is comforting, with large portions and a variety that includes moist and tender top sirloin, spiced generously and served with their addictive papas fritas, or french fries.
A second restaurant, Islas Canarias Cafe Restaurant and Bakery on SW 137th Avenue, takes these Cuban roots and updates them for a community that longs for green salads, modern grilled dishes, pastas, an extensive wine list and plenty of sweets. (305-649-0440)
Larios on the Beach
This is Cuban done South Beach-style -- that means with glitz, bright color, and ultra-chic decor. Young Cuban-Americans and trendy folks of all colors, creeds, and ages make this restaurant a mob scene on weekends. If you want to commune with the elbow-to-elbow crowds, Friday and Saturday are ideal. But if you want to dine on Cuban specialties in relative peace, come earlier in the week. The beans and rice, mixed together as congris, is flavorful and hearty, as are the roasted chicken and the Palomilla steak. As befitting a place owned by the Estefans, the prices are a bit higher than at many Cuban eateries, but the party crowd says the ambiance and hip clientele are worth every penny. (305-532-9577)
Havana 1957 Cuban Cuisine
Located in South Beach, Havana 1957 offers traditional Cuban cuisine combined with the finesse of 1950s Havana. This uber-classy, throwback restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, along with a fine selection of wine, beer, and spirits at their full bar. Take a look at their fully bilingual menu and you'll find fresh-squeezed juices, traditional Cuban breakfasts, staple Cuban entrees like pollo a la plancha (grilled chicken with onions and parsley), vaca frita (grilled, shredded beef), plus the usual sandwiches like croqueta preparada (a ham, cheese, and pork sandwich topped with croquettes), and mouthwatering desserts, all of which will please your palate. ((305) 503-3828)
A Coral Gables favorite since 1995, Havana Harry's is a locals' joint, thanks to the innovative take on typical Cuban fare: tostones guayberos is fried plantains covered with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, for instance, while chicken "tamarimango" is poultry in a tangy tamarind and mango sauce. A nod to Americans who lunch - Harry's also offers large main plate salads and plenty of less-fattening options than the usual Cuban restaurant. Still, the traditional stuff, such as black beans and fried pork, is as good here as anywhere
Thanks to those something-for-everybody sensibilities, Harry's is often packed at lunch and there's frequently a wait at dinner, with happy patrons enjoying tropical cocktails prior to being seated. The atmosphere, warm and friendly, has changed little over the years, and a second location in Kendall has debuted. (305-661-2622)
De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean
De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean--a combination of the former De Rodriguez Cuba from the Astor Hotel and De Rodriguez Ocean--is a sustainable seafood and nouvelle Cuban restaurant. This means all seafood, meat, and vegetables the staff uses are responsibly farmed, fished or picked, says chef-owner Douglas Rodriguez, a.k.a. Godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine.
After opening additional restaurants in Philadelphia and Scottsdale, Arizona; and publishing a couple of cookbooks; Chef Rodriguez returned to Miami to concentrate his efforts at OLA in the Sanctuary Hotel and this establishment in the Marriott, which is known for its quality ceviches, tapas and main courses including tuna loin skewered with sugar canes and served with creamy quinoa, Catalan spinach and squid ink; and boneless oxtail prepared with tomatoes, capers, olives, spicy red wine sauce and served with cauliflower purée and congri rice. (3056733763)
Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop
Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop is a small Cuban cafetaria-style eatery feeding hearty breakfasts and lunch specials to the hungry working class citizens of Midtown and Wynwood. You'll find the usual morning staples like tostadas (buttered Cuban toast), empanadas (chicken, guava and cheese, and thensome), and cafe con leche (coffee with milk) along with interesting varieties like a sweet plantain omelet and cream cheese toast. Media noches (ham, pork, and cheese) and pan con lechon (roast pork with onion) sandwiches are served alongside BLTs and french fries. Try a batido (milkshake) while you're at it, in flavors like mamey, papaya, and trigo (wheat), that are part of Cuban tradition. (305-573-4681)
The decor may be French, but the name is pronounced Ver-say-ez, Spanish style. And Versailles's cooking is Cuban all the way. Patrons swoon over deliciously authentic food and the dining room's opulence, complete with candelabras, gilt-framed mirrors and tuxedo-clad waiters. Still, everything's not as upscale as it sounds -- the vibe is relaxed and dishes are happily affordable. Ropa vieja, made with zesty shredded beef, is a fine introduction to the bold cuisine, and arroz con pollo may forever change your opinion of chicken and rice.
Keep in mind that the restaurant stays open until very late, until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 3:30 and 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights respectively, making it the Jersey diner of Little Havana. Want to know what's going on politically in the exilio community? Grab a cafe cubano, a guava pastellito and have a seat, then keep both ears open. (305-444-0240)
El Palacio De Los Jugos
Since opening in 1977, El Palacio De Los Jugos has embodied Latin American Miami in its most authentic form. It's not fancy, doesn't have a dress code, and everyone is welcome--so long as they enjoy delicious food and won't ask for a copy of their "nutrition facts".
The name of this popular eatery translates to "the juice palace" as it serves freshly made, exotic juices in mass volumes. El Palacio also cooks down-home Latin fare; generous, juicy pork sandwiches and classic Cuban rice and bean variations fill the outdoor air with enticing aromas. After ordering, purchase tropical produce or sip cooling coconut water, chopped on-site by a man with his machete. ((786) 523-3325)
About Priscilla Blossom
Pris Blossom is a freelance writer and feminist mama with a love for travel, writing, music, film, craft beer, yoga, museums, cultural anthropology, and her awesome kid.
She spent the bulk of the past decade taking trips on a whim, falling in love with and in such places as New York City, New Orleans, and a large portion of Nicaragua.
In 2011, she took off on her own and traveled around the U.S. via bus, bunking with strangers thanks to the power of CouchSurfing. She is currently writing a novel about this.
Read her words at PrisBlossom.com.
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