Sunday, October 13, 2013

And now for Something Different

If you live in Miami, have you ever had guests from out of town that are here for a short time and want to sample ALL the Cuban food and you don't want to cook it? Or have you ever wanted to play tourist during a staycation?
If you're not from Miami, maybe you'll stop by for a day before or after a Caribbean cruise or drive down after the family trip to Walt Disney World, and want to get an authentic sampling of Cuban food smack dab in the middle of Little Havana.
And maybe soak up a little Cuban culture between all the good food?
If any of those scenarios apply - or may apply some day - have I got something for you!
Last weekend Cris - my partner in Cuban Home Cooking crime - and I took a fantastic culinary walking tour right in our own backyard, my old 'hood, Little Havana!
Miami Culinary Tours' Little Havana Food Tour, offered by Grace Della and her wonderful staff was a lot of fun, with great food and after living in Miami - part of it in Little Havana - for 45 years I learned new things about the area!
We met Saturday in the heart of Little Havana. After our fabulous guide Steven wrangled the group of 17 of us, our first stop was the charming Mildrey Guillot Gallery. The artist herself welcomed us and briefly chatted about her work.
We left the gallery and walked around the corner away from "Calle Ocho" and a into the surrounding residential area where Steven gave us a short but informative talk about the history and architecture of the neighborhood.  From was time to eat!
The first stop was the Little Havana mainstay El Pub (pronounced in Spanglish as "El Poob") Restaurant. At the entrance to the restaurant we were greeted by this handsome fellow
Once inside, amid the bustling lunch crowd, we were seated immediately at a table reserved for our group and prepared to have some appetizers. We had "Tostones Rellenos con Pollo" and "Empanadas de Picadillo".

The "Tostones" are smashed fried green plantains stuffed with a sort of chicken fricassee, and the "Empanadas de Picadillo" are savory turnovers stuffed with Cuban-style ground beef. Both were delicious and served to whet our appetite for more. The vegetarian option at El Pub consisted of Cuban-style Black Beans with white rice and un-stuffed "tostones" with Cuban "mojo" - a delicious mix of garlic, sour orange and olive oil used as a dipping sauce.
On our way to our next stop, we walked on Little Havana's very own Walk of Fame, a Latin-flavored replica of the Hollywood version.

What's a tour of Little Havana if you don't include a cigar factory and store? We stopped by Cuba Tobacco Cigar Factory, where the founder, and reputedly most photographed man in Little Havana, Don Pedro Bello sat outside smoking a cigar. Inside the delicious smelling store, Cuban seed cigars were being rolled.

After a brief stop at the cigar store, and a little shopping by some, it was time to eat again! Off we went to Exquisito Restaurant.  
There were several tables reserved for the group, so we were seated and served immediately. Our main course was half a Media Noche sandwich, which was as Cubans say "con todos los hierros" - roughly translated as "with all the trimmings".  A Media Noche or Midnight sandwich is made with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles (the pickles are, in my opinion, the magic ingredient) inside an egg sandwich roll which is pressed in a "plancha" - a kind of panini press. They even added potato sticks with the sandwich and also served "Mariquitas" which are green plantain chips, again, served with Cuban mojo dipping sauce. The sandwich was excellent. The Exquisito's vegetarian option was a choice between a Fish Sandwich or a Spanish Omelet Sandwich.
To walk off the delicious sandwich we strolled over to Maximo Gomez Park - a.k.a Domino Park - to watch some serious domino playing. This place is definitely one of Miami's must-see treasures.

Next it was time for Dessert - Part 1 at Ysell Bakery where we enjoyed "Pastelitos de Guayaba" or guava pastries and some elixir of the gods - "Cafecito" or Cuban coffee - one of the true pleasures of life.

There's Steven, our tour guide, tending to our culinary and cultural needs.
Since apparently we hadn't had enough sugar with the pastelitos and the wonderfully sweet Cuban coffee, we next went to Fruteria Los Pinareños where we had "Guarapo" which is sugar cane juice. It's not as sweet as you would think and it is a fantastic thirst quencher.

Above is a "guarapera" or guarapo machine. The sugar cane is inserted at the top and the juice comes out the little spigot on the side. It's then poured over ice, and yum! While at the "fruteria" Steven told us about several traditional Cuban fruits and vegetables that were for sale. Some in the group bought some to take home.

Behind the fruteria, we saw some chickens and roosters, adding to the "local color"...

Across the street from the fruteria stands the Bay of Pigs Memorial. We took a moment for Steven to give us a brief overview of that historical misadventure.

From there we walked to Azucar Ice Cream Company, for Dessert Part 2 and the end of the tour.

In addition to having what is arguably the coolest storefront on Calle Ocho, their variety of flavors and originality is amazing. The huge menu displays the huge variety they offer (availability varies), but don't be surprised if they've run out of some of them, as they are made fresh daily.

As part of the tour we were given one scoop of whatever flavor we wanted, I went with Avocado, which was creamy and refreshing, with a subtle avocado aftertaste - really delicious.

The Little Havana Food Tour is a great way to taste the tastes and learn a bit about this uniquely Miami neighborhood. It runs every Saturday at 12:30, but you have to make reservations as the tours fill up quickly. Grace likes to keep the  groups small so that it's a fun and friendly experience. As I mentioned, they happily accommodate vegetarian diets. I also liked that it wasn't only a food tour, participants learned about Cuban culture and the neighborhood's history.

We had lots of fun, ate and drank all kinds of Cuban treats, met some very nice tour-mates and learned stuff! What better way to spend an afternoon?

Check out the Miami Culinary Tours web site for details on the Little Havana Food Tour, as well as other culinary tours in the Miami area.

¡Buen Provecho!