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It's easier to find authentic and delicious Cuban food in Miami's Little Havana than in Cuba itself.
Miami isn't just about beach and pools, shopping and clubbing. Sign up for a culinary and cultural crawl around the 140-block area of Little Havana. Even better, get a lay of the land - and your appetite - soon as you arrive: with a foodie tour guide you'll also gain insider knowledge on SoBe (South Beach) architecture, culture and quirkiness. And of course, the best foods served from ventanas, street windows, at Little Havana's mom-and-pop cafes.
We were advised to bring proper walking shoes and an appetite; Corinna Moebius, our culture and culinary guide, should have added elastic waist pants. The next six hours comprised a multi-course menu of food, customs and culture. No matter where you are along Little Havana's main artery Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), the aromas of barbecued pork, slow-roast chicken and cigars fill the air. Not even in Havana, Cuba did I try so many traditional and rustic delicacies, all with a fascinating back-story, thanks to Corinna, the shopkeepers and cooks we met along the way.
Eight foodies, including a few locals, started our edible journey at David's Cafe where owner Adrian Gonzalez informed us that Miami Vice writers hung out here for inspiration. The iconic family-run eatery is frequented by cops drinking Cuban coffee and mingling with all night revellers chow-ing down on Media noche, the 'mid-night sandwich' - Cuban toast packed with ham, pork and pickles.
I almost made the mistake of ordering a latte grande and Gonazalez said that cafe con leche is served to kids, so I opted for a Cortadito, a tiny cup of hot, sweet rocket fuel, guaranteed to keep you shopping for several hours. Or in my case, chatting rapido with my new best friends as we buzzed along the main drag of Little Havana and descended upon El Palacio De Los Jugos, a mini-super-mercado, (an oxymoron but so many items are displayed in such a small space) past shelves stuffed with a gazzilion kinds of pork rind to the aroma beacon at the back counter - hot pastalitos straight out of the oven.
The shape of this Cuban pastry indicates the filling: a rectangle has coconut or guava filling; a round is filled with beef and a tube means cream cheese and sweet corn. The latter was too good; momentarily forgetting my pledge to pace myself I ate two of the delicate flaky morsels.
There are so many ventanas along Calle Ocho to stand at and order like the Cubans do; fortunately Corrina knew the "best windows" and what to order, such as Masitas de Puerco - fried pork chunks. And in the next block we munched on pork rinds paired with guava juice - my brain saying no but my taste buds screaming YES to this ultimate indulgence, or 'Mi-yummy' as one local described this delish combo of fried fat and fresh juice.
(Here's a tip: figure out what you want first before sidling up to a ventana, otherwise mom or pop will likely bark Quien sigue, who's next, to the locals jostling behind you swearing in Spanish; the whole point of the ventanas is fast service.)
For a bit of culture and a respite from food and drink we watched elderly Cuban men in guayabera shirts play, and gamble on, their favourite game and smoke cigars at Domino Park. A blind lady (Corinna tells us she is there almost daily) was the big winner earlier that day. Next up, a short history lesson at the family-owned and operated El Credito Cigar Factory: the deftness of the workers hand-rolling cigars was mesmerizing. I bought a box of cohibas.
Our sixth or seventh stop was the Boteco Copacabana Restaurante, a Brazilian restaurant on Espanola Way, the former red light district that serviced hotels. Another factoid: this historic Spanish village was painted peach when it was used as the first Miami Vice locations, and the pastel colours remain.
We sipped refreshing glassfuls of suco de caju, cashew juice, and scarfed down fluffy pillows of pao de queijo, little cheese-bread balls.
We popped into a little shop that sold quirky religious icons bordering on voodoo, and continued our journey past jaw-dropping Art Deco buildings and walls alive with brightly painted murals, many politically inspired.
Little Havana does seem like its own country, a world apart from Miami. But where would Miami be without the Cuban influence?