By: Shayne Benowitz & Jennifer Agress
An introduction to authentic Cuban cuisine in Miami
It’s been said that Miami has the best and most authentic Cuban food in the world. Cuban food is the flavor of Miami and a trip isn’t complete without trying the most popular specialty dishes at our authentic Cuban restaurants.
The center of the Miami Cuban community, and the best place to taste a bit of the tradition, is in Little Havana. Not unlike Chinatowns across the country and our own Little Haiti, Little Havana is a thriving immigrant community where a culture from afar has made a new home. The streets are lined with signs in Spanish and mom and pop shops in the spirit of Cuba’s capital city of Havana. Neighborhood markets sell specialty vegetables native to the Caribbean area like malanga, a potato-like vegetable that is a close relative to taro and yucca.
The many groups that have come in and out of Cuban history throughout the years have influenced today’s Cuban cuisine. There’s a taste of African, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Chinese, and a major Spanish influence plus their neighbors like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Many of the spices and techniques are distinctly African and Spanish. Like most island cultures, the people make use of the wild seafood that’s abundant in the area.
Appetizers, Sandwiches & Finger Foods
Usually a Cuban meal starts with bread brought to the table. There are a few variations of Cuban bread but generally, it’s a baguette-like white bread traditionally made with lard, giving it a gooey and soft texture. The bread tends to go stale quickly and a popular version served before meals is a crisped, buttered stale bread. But don’t think of average stale bread that you throw out, you’ll be asking for seconds.
Other typical foods to order for the table while you look over the menu or wait for your food are mariquitas, a plantain chip usually served with a garlic dipping sauce, or tostones, another salty, thick smashed, double deep fried plantain variation. One serving is usually made up of 6 or 7 slices.
Try the ceviche for a refreshing start to a big, hearty meal. If you’re looking for something familiar you can almost always find a staple like french fries. Or try some yucca fries, a Caribbean spin on french fries.
The Cuban sandwich is known worldwide, and in Miami we make them just right. The baguette with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, is a sandwich for sandwich lovers; it’s almost like a few sandwiches in one. Don’t skip the mustard, pickles, or Swiss cheese. This delicate combination of bold flavors has been a favorite for decades for a reason. If you’re looking to try one of the lesser known, but equally as delicious and beloved sandwiches, try the media noche or the croqueta preparada. The media noche is just like a Cuban sandwich, but it’s on a sweet yellow bread. The croqueta preparada comes with ham, Swiss cheese and croquettes on Cuban bread.
Cubans are famous for their finger foods. Whether you want to incorporate them into your meals or eat them as snacks, they’re great. Croquetas or croquettes are a very popular dish that have a crunchy breaded texture on the outside and can be filled with ham, chicken or codfish. They are a staple at parties, and perfect for late night munchies, as a side dish or on-the-go. For a light sandwich, try a bocadito, a tiny roll of Cuban bread with a ham paste mixture inside. The familiar empanada, a half moon shaped pastry with a variety of fillings like ham and cheese, ground beef or even spinach, is a popular item. The empanada is on the menus of many Latin cultures, but the Cuban one has the distinct island flavor and blend of simple herbs and spices.
Main Dishes & Sides
Hope you still have room after picking on all the goodies that lead up to the main event – your entrée. If you’re with a group, consider splitting a few dishes so you get a taste of everything; portions are usually generous and cost of Cuban food is very reasonable. It’s a good way to sample different dishes. Also, consider asking your server about the house specialty. Cuban restaurants are usually family run affairs, with a dish they’ve perfected over years and passed down for generations.
Most main dishes, regardless of the protein, come with arroz con frijoles or rice and black beans, and the choice of another side. Rice and beans are a staple Cuban food, but there are a few regional variations. Mostly, you’ll be served white rice with marinated black beans but there is also the option for congri, a slight spin on the dish where the rice and beans are baked together. For your other sides you’ll have the options of sweet plantains, vegetables, french fries, a side salad or other house specialties.
As for the main protein, you’ll usually have many options. Cuban menus are known to be long and there are favorite dishes of fish, shellfish, pork, beef and chicken. Some classics include breaded beef or chicken, bistec o pollo empanizado, or a palomilla, a thin flat steak. Two other classics are paella, yellow rice with pieces of fish and arroz con pollo, yellow rice with pieces of chicken.
Desserts & Coffee
Cuban food is a mix of sweet and savory main courses, but for desserts and coffee they go heavy on the sugar. Try a flan, a tres leches, or the best pastry you’ve ever had, a pastelito. Pastelitos are flaky pastries with either cheese, guava or guava and cheese – savory varieties are also available but for dessert we recommend the guava and cheese.
Order a jolt of java after your meal; Cuban coffee is a strong espresso brew with a high sugar-to-coffee ratio. Whether you order it with milk, in a café con leche, or without, like a colada, you’ll see why every Miamian, Cuban or not, reveres this beverage as a local treasure.
Local Cuban Hotspots
One of the most popular Cuban restaurants in Miami, Versailles is a Cuban diner that serves up breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night cuisine. Covered in wall-to-wall mirrors, with golden chandeliers everywhere you turn, the decor of this famous haunt pays homage to the Hall of Mirrors in France’s Versailles Palace. Along with hearty Cuban plates like ham, chicken and fish croquetas, Cuban sandwiches, rice and beans, and more, a true Versailles experience isn’t complete without a cafecito (a small cup of sweet Cuban coffee) from its ventanita. 3555 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33135
With its characteristic white roof, orange walls and towering palm tree sign, it’s hard to miss La Palma Calle Ocho. This Cuban staple has been in its same location for 37 years, and serves up home-style Cuban favorites. It’s a no-frills West Miami mainstay. When you’re there, order lechón asado, tamal en cazuela con maduro, ham croquetas, and of course, the restaurant’s famous churros y chocolate. The latter is a dessert with four “churros” (fried doughnut-like pastries rolled into a stick and covered with sugar) and a cup of thick, piping hot chocolate. 6091 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33144
The “frita” is a Cuban staple, and no one in Miami does it quite like El Rey de las Fritas. Around since 1976, this hotspot is located in the heart of Calle Ocho. It’s become famous for its fritas (Cuban-style burgers), which includes a beef, pork and chorizo patty with shoestring fries, between two buttery slices of Cuban bread. Now with three locations, El Rey de las Fritas has become one of the most recommended places among Cuban food aficionados. 1821 SW 8th St, Miami, FL 33135
Situated in an unassuming location, Morro Castle boasts some of the most authentic Cuban food in town. Get traditional Cuban favorites like a Cuban preparada sandwich, pan con bistec, hot dogs covered in shoestring fries, Cuban fritas and more. At its core, this is a no-frills Cuban hangout where you go for good food with good company. Offering all the comforts of an authentic Cuban eatery, Morro Castle has featured a traditional Cuban menu and delicious milkshakes for years. 2500 NW 7th Street, Miami, FL 33125
This next family-owned Cuban restaurant started as a quaint 16-seat cafeteria. Due to its popularity, El Exquisito is now large enough to seat 75 guests. Owned and operated by Heliodoro Coro since 1974, the historic El Exquisito serves up everything from typical vaca frita and palomilla steak, to more unique dishes like Italian-style liver with rice and plantains, Delmonico steak and even oxtail stew. 1510 SW 8th St, Miami, FL 33135
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