10 Best Cuban Spots to Fill Your Stomach and Warm Your Heart and Soul
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.
Others are buffets like Blue Sky, offering "food by the pound," which simply means you load up your plate and pay by how much it weighs. 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 located on West Flagler Street in the "Flagami" neighborhood.
Bakeries shouldn't be overlooked - while they obviously will offer the expected sweet pastries (don't neglect to try guava pastellitos, or turnover-like pastries), they also serve chicken, ham, cheese and fish croquettes and empanadas.
Some Cuban restaurants are the typical-but-nevertheless-delicious, immigrant-run mainstay, like the always popular Islas Canarias, or classier versions that serve similar but pricier fare on tablecloths, such as Las Culebrinas, a place that makes you feel like you should be on your best behavior. This is the grandmotherly answer to the mom-and-pop place.
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.
Cubans also versions to American classics such as hamburgers at the rightly famous Calle Ocho joints El Rey de Las Fritas and El Mago de Las Fritas, where President Obama ate on a 2012 visit to the Magic City. Pizza also gets a Cuban twist at residents' favorite Montes de Oca Orignial Pizza Cubana in Hialeah.
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 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 - even Chinese!
10 Asia de Cuba at Mondrian South Beach
When it comes to Cuban food, you might not think crystal chandeliers, eclectic golden bells and an iconic black staircase courtesy of designer Marcel Wanders. But that's the setting for the fare served in this fusion eatery in the back half of the lobby at the Mondrian South Beach. It's justifiably high fashion when you consider the menu, which includes made-to-order ceviches such as the curry swordfish and passion fruit with lemon oil, toasted coriander seeds and fried capers or shrimp, snapper and "confit" watermelon with Vietnamese red chili, garlic, jalapeño and shaved coconut. High drama continues with appetizers, which bring a little more Cuba to the table with bacalao and oven-roasted tomato with an olive salad with sherry and black Chinese vinegar ($19), and braised oxtail and kimchee steamed dumplings with spiced calabaza threads and mango ponzu. Main courses, such as Cuban coffee-crusted rib-eye with Mandarin orange, gingered sherry butter and yuca mojo fries, and the panko-crusted 'Bistec Empanizado' with sofrito of peppers, onions and Japanese eggplant and a watercress salad with orange oil, may not thrill the runway crowd, but certainly leaves an impression on the palates of food impresarios. As will, 10Best should note, the cocktails: At the adjoining Sunset Lounge, Mixologist Angelo Vieira crafts distinctive quaffs that reflect the "Nuevo" Asia de Cuba ethos. The Cuban Missile, a combination of brown, aged and honey rums, Cherry Heering liqueur, freshly squeezed orange and lemon juices, a cocktail "for two," is indeed "da bomb." (3055141940)
9 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? Maine lobster enveloped in dusky squid ink dough, dabbed by a wave of avocado salsa? 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 name-making stints in New York and Philadelphia (the latter city of which still sees a Rodriguez restaurant, Alma de Cuba, as does Scottsdale, Arizona). Along with OLA, Rodriguez and his wife Nelly run De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean, a seafood-oriented take of Nuevo Latino and Cuban fusion (think dozens of ceviches and tiraditos!). Visit both for the maestro's complete vision, and a very satisfied palate indeed. (305-695-9125)
8 Puerto Sagua
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 unfussy, 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)
7 Islas Canarias
Since 1977, Raul and Amelia Garcia, along with their two children, Nancy and Snatiago, have been dishing up homestyle Cuban goodness for their customers - many of who came from the same homespun beginnings and rose to prominence here in Miami. Today, Spanish and Cuban favorites from the island, including oxtail in wine sauce and tamal en cazuela, are offered in a casual ambience 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 home-style and comforting, with large portions and a variety that includes moist and tender top sirloin, spiced generously and served with the addictive Latin version of French fries, papas fritas. 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)
6 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 ambience and hip clientele are worth every penny. Reservations recommended. (305-532-9577)
5 Bongos Cuban Cafe
For Cuban cuisine set to a pop beat, don't miss this cafe owned by singer Gloria Estefan and husband Emilio. Vivid colors, Latin beats, and plenty of bongos (of course!) get you in a festive mood, and the authentic, robust Cuban cuisine is served with creative aplomb. Come early to enjoy a satisfying meal of roasted chicken marinated in orange and lime or the traditional Cuban strip steak. Wash it down with an exotic tropical drink, and then prepare to hit the dance floor, which starts hopping around 11pm. This is a great place to make a night of it. Reservations recommended. (786-777-2100)
4 Las Culebrinas — Coconut Grove
While the dining scene at Coconut Grove doesn't lack for its share of options, it's difficult for many tourists to find a place that serves up good food but doesn't wipe out the trust fund in the process. 27th Avenue's Las Culebrinas is one of these places. Live calypso and salsa music filters through the restaurant, whose sophisticated decor bears a distinct tropical lilt. Upstairs, patrons may sit at the upscale bar and enjoy a little bi-lingual interaction with the band. Meanwhile, the smartly clad waitstaff swarms around the main dining area, bringing delightful offerings of sautéed shredded beef and onions, fried pork in avocado sauce, and rabbit in garlic sauce with deep-fried green plantains. Reservations are accepted. Note: For an authentic, more rustic experience, the original location of Las Culebrinas, on West Flagler Street in Miami, is a smaller, less-stylish version where the fare is just as delicious. Dishes range from goat to alligator in addition to the typical, and crema catalan desserts are blow-torched tableside. The place, which doesn't offer bilingual servers as a rule, is frequently filled to capacity - especially after Sunday mass. (305-448-4090)
3 Havana Harry's
A Coral Gables favorite, Havana Harry's is a locals' favorite, 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 - ladies, businessman and more - 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 and everything from palomilla steak and yucca to plantains and grilled dolphin. The atmosphere, warm and friendly, has changed little over the years even as their digs have improved, and a second location in Kendall has debuted. Tables are usually hard to come by, but do yourself a favor and wait it out -- your taste buds will thank you. (305-661-2622)
The decor may be French, but the name is pronounced Ver-say-ez, as in, 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 Hialeah. Want to know what's going on politically in the exilio community, or maybe just in your Latino teenager's life? Grab a cafe cubano, a guava pastellito and have a seat, then keep both ears open. (305-444-0240)
1 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 is responsibly farmed, fished or picked, says chef-owner Douglas Rodriguez, a.k.a. Godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine. Rodriguez received raves when he was a mere youngster of 24 when he manned YUCA (Young Urban Cuban Americans) in Coral Gables, which is not related to the current Yuca on Lincoln Road. He then left the city to make his name in New York. After receiving a James Beard Award or two, opening additional restaurants in New Philadelphia and Scottsdale, Arizona (both of which still thrive), and publishing a couple of cookbooks, Chef Rodriguez returned to Miami to concentrate his life and efforts here with 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; Maine lobster enchilado served with a tomato pepper sauce, green rice and crispy salad; and boneless oxtail prepared with tomatoes, capers, olives, spicy red wine sauce and served with cauliflower purée and congri rice. (3056733763)
About Jen Karetnick
Jen has lived and written in Miami for more than two decades. She works as the dining critic for MIAMI Magazine, part of the Modern Luxury Group; a columnist for the newspaper Biscayne Time; and the Creative Writing Director for Miami Arts Charter School. The author/editor of nine books, including Mango: Tour de Force (forthcoming from University Press of Florida) and three poetry collections, Jen has work appearing widely in publications including Florida Travel & Life, Southern Living and Vegas Player. Jen lives in Miami Shores with her husband, two children, three dogs, four cats and fifteen mango trees.
Read more about Jen Karetnick here.