With the national spotlight on Cuba these days, many people have greater cravings for a Cuban sandwich, “pastelito" or "cafecito.”
“When people come [to Miami], they want to eat at a Cuban restaurant,” said chef Michael Beltran, co-owner of the New World American-style Ariete in Coconut Grove. “It’s like going to New York and getting matzo ball soup. It’s a deep-rooted culture here. You see it on every corner of Miami. Versailles, La Carreta and La Palma are Miami institutions. Versailles does homestyle Cuban to the max.”
Versailles, which opened the gateway in 1971, still makes national headlines. It introduced the traditional cuisine of Spanish, African and Caribbean influences to Americans.
Beltran, a Cuban-American who prefers to eat Cuban at his grandparents’ house, grew up in Little Havana and became a protégé of chef Norman Van Aken, known as the founding father of New World Cuisine.
“It’s the soul food of the Caribbean. It’s peasant food, a lot of stews and rice and beans,” Beltran said. “At its root and its base, it hasn’t evolved, but you see it in fine restaurants now. Chefs such as Norman have done it in their own styles. Chef Douglas Rodriguez is a legend in his own right. They put those Cuban flavors on a national scale.”
Rodriguez is another Cuban-American raised in Miami and decorated by the elite James Beard Foundation. Called the “Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine,” he is leading culinary tours to Cuba and opening the Mojito Bar and Plates by Chef Douglas Rodriguez at Sawgrass Mills mall opening Dec. 1.
“There is no real technique to cooking Cuban food. They just throw everything in a pot,” said Rodriguez, known for OLA Restaurant (Of Latin America) in Miami Beach and the now-shuttered Cuban-centric Yuca in Coral Gables. “So it’s about adding technique and making it better. I’m just taking a modern approach, with freshness and great ingredients—mixing them up differently.”
It’s those quality ingredients that elevate Cuban fare in Miami.
“Actually, Cuban food here is more authentic and better than the food served in Cuba,” he said. “The most consistent thing in Cuba is inconsistency. Sometimes it’s hard to find even bread or sugar and there are power outages.”
Even mojitos are watered down and shy on lime and mint to cut costs.
“The mojito didn’t exist here 15 years ago,” Rodriguez said. “Now everywhere you go on the planet, you can get a drink with muddled fruit or herbs—a mojito. Now it’s the standard behind every bar.”
Indeed, the mojito is a standard that spiraled to a myriad of enticing local flavors, including mango and coconut.
When Beltran is not savoring one of his favorites, “tamal en cazuela,” a traditional Cuban stew, at La Palma in West Miami, he’s crafting sophisticated dishes at Ariete, using a blend of American, classic French and Latin techniques.
“There [are] small touches of my heritage in our food. Our foie gras is the best example; it’s served with smoked plantains, tossed in sour-orange caramel with local herbs—shiso and lemon balm—that give it a nice acidic freshness. It’s the most French-Cuban thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said, laughing.
Still craving that Cuban sandwich? Well, Rodriguez points out, it’s not Cuban; it migrated from Tampa. Neither is tres leches (three milks bread dessert).
“The Cuban coffee window is not a Cuban thing either. It’s a Miami thing,” he said. “I think it was a marketing tool to attract people … what stays true is the culture and the people.”
Miami's Must-Try Cuban Restaurants:
- Versailles Restaurant, 3555 SW 8th St., Miami, Florida, 305.444.0240
- La Carreta, nine locations throughout Miami and Fort Lauderdale
- La Palma, 6091 SW 8th St., Miami, Florida, 305.261.1113
- El Palacio de Los Jugos, nine locations throughout Miami
- OLA, Sanctuary South Beach, 1745 James Ave., Miami Beach, Florida, 305.695.9125
- Ball & Chain, 1513 SW 8th St., Miami, Florida, 305.643.7820