In Bello’s Cigar Shop in Little Havana, I admire the largest cigar I have ever seen with the appreciative gaze of one who values a fine art, as a hand rolled cigar is clearly art, regardless of the size.
“Is it real?” a tour participant asks the tour guide. “Can you smoke it?” he pushes playfully as only an American can think to derive pleasure from the destruction of something that undoubtedly took days or weeks to create.
“Yes of course it’s real. They made it to smoke the day Fidel Castro died.” She said with a certain distaste as she spoke Castro’s name that was distinct even with her strong Siberian accented English. “When he died, they had a big celebration in the streets here in Little Havana. They took the cigar out to smoke it, but they didn’t smoke the whole thing. That’s too much!” She laughed, a clear twinkle of pride in her eye. “My husband is Cuban,” She explained. “We met in Cuba when I was on vacation. Cuban and Siberians travel to each other’s countries because we do not need visas.”
“So why are you in Miami?” someone in the tour group asked, since neither of them were American.
“Cubans have a saying: ‘all Cubans end up in Miami’, so here we are,” She says laughing. We leave Bello’s and walk down Calle Ocho. Along the way we stop at a ventanita (little window) serving colada, a sweet Cuban espresso served in a tiny cup. Meant to be drank standing at the window and with friends, my uncle and I embrace the tradition and discuss the coffee and the tour so far. The empanada we ate just before this was filled with a minced meat-tomato sauce mixture simmered for hours and baked in a firm crust to my idea of perfection in a hand held treat (although my uncle would have preferred a few more minutes in the oven for extra crispiness). Through the delicious but mild spiced taste of the empanada, I learned that Cubans actually don’t eat particularly spicy food.
Croquettes and Medianoches
After percolating our systems with caffeine and sugar, the tour group infiltrates a patio with reserved seating, as if they knew we were coming. They did know we were coming, this is a culinary tour. Our tour guide gets excited as they bring us first croquettes, then medianoche sandwiches.
She bites into a croquette and says “Cubans go crazy for these things. They are addicted. I can’t keep them in the house; these are my husband’s favorite food in the whole world.” I’m not sure I agree with the addiction part, but they are quite tasty little fried shredded chicken-filled snacks.
The medianoche, basically a ham sandwich with Dijon mustard on a sweet bread, is served with crispy little fries on top. And the portions aren’t small, we each get a full sandwich.
“The difference between a medianoche and a Cubano sandwich, which by the way, we just call a sandwich, is just the bread. The Cubano is on crustier bread, while the medianoche is a sweet egg bread,” she simplifies, perhaps reading our minds as our mouths are too busy to comment.
Heading back down the Calle, we stop at the Ball and Chain, toward reverberating live Cuban music; I couldn’t resist a little extra hip sway in my walk with the beat. Infamous in the history of Little Havana and Miami, the Ball and Chain was a popular gambling spot and often violated the terms of the liquor laws. Its pineapple stage saw some of the first African American performers in the area. Mojitos, served with an iconic green plastic palm tree stir stick embellished with the bar’s name, were passed around and sucked down. I admired the pineapple stage while enjoying the minty lime flavors, imagining simultaneously the legends that performed there and what it would be like to sing on that stage myself. Jazz icons and their famous songs floated through my mind and out my mouth in a hum; Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Count Bassie. The sucking sound of the straw in the empty cup pulled me out of my daydreams. I deposited the cup on the bar and rejoined the group, ready now to head to Yisell Bakery to try a common Cuban afternoon snack, the guayaba pastelito, or guava pastry.
“You can tell the filling by the shape of the pastry,” announced our guide as we scrutinized the contents of the glass. “The guava pastelito is a rectangle, guava and cheese is a triangle, coconut are square, and meat fillings are round,” she points at each. The sweet guava pastelito looks like jam but actually isn’t near as sugary sweet; the bread adds a subtle savory note. “The pastries are not typically eaten for breakfast, like Americans eat pastries for breakfast. Cubans like eat these in the afternoon,” our guide articulates and smiles over our appreciative “yummy” sounds.
Guarapo at Los Pinarenos Fruteria
After our napkins are thrown away and the last flakey bit of crust is brushed off our shirts, we go next to a small fruit stand where a woman is taking large stalks of sugar cane and feeding them into a pressing machine. A cup placed below catches the juice being extracted, and is portioned into plastic cups and passed around to each of us. The sweet nectar has the consistency of water and a few pieces of the sugar cane still floating on top of the ice. Shrugging, I drink it anyway, a little extra roughage never hurt anyone, right? While sipping we admired the tropical fruits, from ones we recognized like papaya, mangos, coconuts, and bananas, to ones we didn’t like mamey and guanabana.
On the way toward our last stop, we pause in Maximo Gomez Park or Domino Park, where many have gathered for over 35 years in foursomes to beat each other at dominoes. Our tour guide tells us that Cubans are very passionate about dominoes and it’s not unusual to hear some shouting or see dominos being thrown down on the table. But this time all we see and hear are focused eyes, laughing Cuban Spanish conversations, and the click-click-click of dominoes being played on the tabletops. Observers float from table to table, drinking coladas, and chatting with each other and the players.
“I hope you have room for ice cream!”
I don’t think I’ve ever said no to that question in my life. Next door to the Ball and Chain is the ice cream shop, a giant multicolored ice cream cone adorns the entire length and width of the façade. A true family owned shop, all of the recipes were developed personally by the shop owner’s abuela. The flavors are said to rotate and are never all the same each time. A tribute to the singer Celia Cruz, the Queen of Latin Music, decorates the wall, and inspires the name of the shop as she used to shout her most famous catchphrase in each song “¡Azúcar!” We chose our ice cream, and were generously allowed to choose two flavors to fill our cups. Mamey, a tropical fruit much like sweet potato and an area favorite, and Abuela Maria, full of guava, cream cheese and galletas, overflow onto my spoon. Only the cold of the ice cream and my full belly could slow me down from inhaling the contents. Such rich, unique flavors that I’ve never tasted anywhere else. With reluctance we ended the tour and left Azucar. We were only feet outside the door when we decided not to end our Little Havana adventure just yet and turned back into the Ball and Chain for another mojito …