Cuban Food in Miami (A Tour)

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Nick Calzada is Craig’s film school friend who lives in Miami. Anytime we go to Florida, Craig says: “Let’s go visit my friend Nick in Miami” and inevitably we never have the time. This trip, though, we made a point to schedule a day with Nick; not only to hang out (he and Craig had lots of film stuff to catch up on) but, more selfishly, so I could convince Nick–who happens to be Cuban–to give us a tour of Miami’s Cuban culture. Specifically: the food.

Lucky for us, Nick was totally game. He told us to meet him at Versailles Restaurant on SW 8th Street. That’s where our story begins.

“Versailles is the place,” explained Nick, after we greeted him under the big sign, “where the news always comes to get a reaction from the Cuban community in Miami. It’s a big gathering spot.”

And indeed, the place was buzzing with activity. There was the restaurant proper, which had tinted windows, and then there was the coffee stand which is where we followed Nick.

(Here’s Nick and Craig, outside the coffee window.)

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“Ok,” he said, “I thought we’d start here with some Cuban coffee. Does that sound good to you guys?”

“It sounds great.”

I had Nick write down everything he ordered so I could transcribe it later. Here he ordered there “cortaditos” (Cuban espressos) “con leche evaporada” (with evaporated milk) which Nick drew an arrow next to and wrote “homemade.”

To hear Nick order our Cuban coffee at the window, watch this video:

Now Craig, who gags whenever he sips my coffee accidentally at home because I put sugar in it, seemed like the worst candidate in the world to enjoy Cuban coffee.

“It’s really, really, sweet,” warned Nick, but Craig said he’d give it a go.

Here’s a shot of the woman who made our coffee:

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And here’s the end result:

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As a person who loves everything sweet sweet sweet, I absolutely loved my Cuban espresso. Craig, to his credit, didn’t gag.

“Mmmm,” he said–or was it more like: “Hmmm?” He nodded enthusiastically–or was it nervously–as he sipped. “It’s good,” he said, almost trying to convince himself.

Nick laughed.

Then we got into Nick’s car and he drove us to our next stop: Brazo Fuerte Bakery (which, Nick translates in my notes, means “Strong Arm.”)

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There Nick pointed out the “pastelitos” or Cuban pastries in a room that made me feel, appropriately, like I was in another country (it reminded me of some of the ports of call from Caribbean cruises I took with my family in high school). I imagine it felt that way because it was such an authentic recreation of an actual Cuban bakery.

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Nick took the liberty of ordering, as represented in this video:

The “plate of stuff” we ultimately settled on was a plate that included “pastelito de guyaba” (guava), “pastelito de queso” (cheese), “pastelito de carne” (meat), and “pastelito de guyaba y queso” (guava and cheese.)

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Eating these, various cultures were evoked; first, of course, was France–with the flaky pastry reminiscent of a croissant. Second, though, and rather surprisingly, was China; mainly because of the meat.

“This sort of reminds me of a Chinese bakery in Chinatown,” I said, “with the pork buns mixed in with the sweeter stuff.”

My favorite of them all was the “guyaba y queso” which had the perfect blend of savory and sweet, the cheese and the guava (a pairing that’d return later–you’ll see!)

Nick also ordered us croquettes of ham and cheese:

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These were every bit as greasy and good as you’d want them to be. Which led to the inevitable question: “Is all Cuban food this unhealthy?”

Nick laughed. He didn’t say “no.”

But perhaps it was in response to my question that he took us to our third location, a place with a funny name: “Palacio de los Jugos” (The Palace of the Juices.)

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Here we could heal our bodies with refreshing juices and other nutritious foods like… pork rinds?

First the juices.

You order inside at a counter that’s slightly reminiscent of a Smoothie King, only at a Smoothie King they’re not chopping up pieces of fried pork behind the counter.

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All around us were interesting sights. Piles of fruit:

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This sign:

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This strange, brown, brain-like version of dulce de leche (we asked):

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And this strange sandwich which caught Craig’s eye:

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That’s guava paste with white cheese for the bread. Of course Craig, the world’s most hardcore cheese lover, had to have it.

Nick helped us choose three juices to try and we took them outside where we sat with a large cluster of people in the open air. This was my favorite stop of the day; the breeze was perfect and the crowd was boisterous and entertaining.

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Here are the juices we ordered:

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From left to right, that’s: Guyaba, Guanabana, and Mamey.

How those translate and what fruits they represent is anyone’s guess (if you know, tell us in the comments!) Our favorite was the guanabana which was zingy and creamy and the most mysterious and, therefore, the best.

Of course, these juices were getting to be too healthy, so we also shared a bag of pork rinds (“chicharrones”) which were meaty, fatty, crunchy and all around good:

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We also shared “mariquitas” (plantain chips):

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And, finally, Craig’s cheese sandwich which even he found a little too intense:

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It reminded me of the Spanish pairing of Manchego cheese and quince paste (an idea echoed by Molly Orangette when I told her about it a few days later (we met her and Brandon at Franny’s for dinner (Brandon’s opening a pizza place soon! (how many internal parentheses can I create? (this many!)))))

Certain food writers might’ve cowered at the idea of more food after all this food, but not me. When Nick asked if there was anything else I wanted to try I said I had to have a Cuban sandwich.

I’ve always loved Cuban sandwiches–the best ones I’ve ever had were in California when I worked at a law firm in L.A. I had a copy of Jonathan Gold’s “Counter Intelligence” and it led me to a Cuban sandwich joint in Silverlake that had no air conditioning but some of the best Cuban sandwiches of my life.

Nick took us to a place called “El Pub Restaurant” right by Domino Park which is where many Cubans come to play dominoes, as you can see here:

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Here’s the restaurant:

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And here’s the inside:

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Here’s Nick showing off the Mojo sauce, which he’d been telling us about earlier–it’s spicy and has garlic and Nick prefers it fresh.

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And, finally, here’s the last bites of the day–a traditional Cuban sandwich:

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You can see the layers of ham, roasted pork, cheese, pickles and mustard on the toasted bread. It’s such a satisfying combo, if you’ve never had a Cuban sandwich please do so now. I’ll wait for you to come back before I continue.

You’re back?

Ok. Nick said we should also try a “Croquetta Preparada” sandwich which is essentially a Cuban sandwich with a fried potato croquette inside.

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This is where I hit my wall.

“Ok, ok!” I yelped. “You’ve done it, Nick! You’ve maxed me out.”

And indeed I was so very full, so very sated, it’d take a very long while for me to ever get hungry again.

But look what I had to show for it: a new knowledge of a whole culture right beneath my nose there in Miami, a culture I knew nothing about but which is as vital and vibrant as any other culture in Florida or anywhere else in the U.S., for that matter. That was the most rewarding thing about the day: realizing that with a little gumption, a lot of appetite, and a friend like Nick, you can uncover a whole new world of eating and, more than that, living.

We walked off some of our food on Lincoln Road for a bit and then we parted ways; Nick had a BBQ to go to and Craig and I were meeting my family for dinner (ugh!) after all that food.

But I’m deeply indebted to Nick for being so generous with his time, his knowledge, his vehicle and, mostly, himself. He’s a great guy–I’m so glad I got to meet him–and Craig and I will now make it a set thing that when we go to Florida, there must be time for Nick Calzada. In fact, Nick says the best food in all of Miami is at a Vietnamese restaurant owned by a lesbian couple across the street from the Versailles restaurant where we started. Is that where we’ll meet Nick next? Stay tuned. A tour of lesbian Vietnamese food joints in Miami would make a fantastic follow-up post.

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