I have always felt that one of the truest forms of culture lies in its cuisine. Food is the universal language through which we are all connected. You can tell a lot about a country’s suffering, survival, and adaption from the dishes they prepare. And while I feel I may never master salsa dancing or speak Spanish any other way than the way I know how, I know I can eat. I can taste almost any meal with an open heart and an open mind. That is why I recommend that anytime you are trying to learn about a new culture in a new place, you take a culinary tour.
Chasing this very perspective, I went on Miami Culinary Tours’ Little Havana Tour which is a walking tour of historic Calle Ocho in the predominantly Cuban Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. I wasn’t wrong in my assessments of the unifying power of food. Tourists from Los Angeles, honeymooners from Belgium, and foodies from Denver, all converged with the same purpose: to glean as much perspective as possible from this vibrant and unique Miamian subculture.
The Food Tour
The tour began at Agustin Gainza Art Gallery, a place I have walked past thousands of times, ignorant to the fact that besides serving the block’s best guava mojito, it is operated by an ex-prisoner from Havana with an amazing story. Since his arguably unjust imprisonment, Agustin Gainza, has become a renowned artist who has mastered the art of stimulating the senses through visual art. There, served on top of his own masterpieces, the tour began with a simple appetizer: plantain chips.
After making a mental note to return for tapas and wine, we arrive at El Pub Restaurant, a real institution in the heart of Calle Ocho. Not without first stopping to admire two carbon fiber roosters created by the late Pedro Damian, a small selection of the many art pieces he left behind on Calle Ocho. At this traditional Cuban-American restaurant, we are greeted by waiters wearing guayaberas bringing out empanadas made of ground beef and traditional Cuban sandwiches.
Then, after walking a couple of steps towards Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. where we meet Mr. Bello, we head towards the ventanilla of El Exquisito Restaurant. Sharing a colada made with Café Bustelo, we discuss the customs surrounding the culture based out of these small café windows. There, people of all walks of life congregate to discuss politics, history, and life. Custom dictates this is done over shared shots of Cuban espresso, which once offered are never rejected.
Now that that the group has re-fueled, we cross the street and head towards the iconic Ball & Chain bar and lounge. This is my favorite part of the tour! As true to the legacy of the dirt road on which it originally stood, this saloon, turned tavern, turned lounge, has a history that commiserates with the locals. It originally opened its doors in 1935 and is worth visiting for two very distinct reasons: the live music and the mojito Cubano.
Tired from the dancing, we take on the Domino Park where you will find several intense chess and dominoes matches going on at the same time. We co-mingle with the senior citizens who are way too engrossed in their game to even look up, and head towards Los Pinarenos Fruteria, for a traditional guarapo, or sugar cane juice. And, what is a meal without dessert? Before calling it a day, we have flan from Yisil Bakery and homemade Cuban ice cream from Azucar.
How to Best Experience Calle Ocho
The best way to experience the vibrancy of this historic neighborhood is on foot; which is why taking a walking tour with Miami Culinary Tours is a great option. Additionally, once a month, on the last Friday of the month, the streets come alive at night for Viernes Culturales and you can experience live music, dancing, street vendors, and the galleries stay open till late in the evening. My weekly ritual has become walking and talking to any of the locals, whom I warn you, will impose their broken English and extra-thick coffee on you. It’s part of the experience, embrace it.
You must understand, the beauty of Little Havana lies in its locals. They are a humble yet passionate majority population of Latins who have all immigrated to Miami with the same dream: financial or ideological prosperity. To taste their food is to open your heart to their story. On Calle Ocho you can share a colada with survivors of Operation Peter Pan, play dominoes with Cuban refugees, or dance un son with ex-political prisoners. In the end, your mood will always end the same: hopeful.