BY NORMA DAVIDOFF | SPECIAL TO NEWSDAY
One day in Miami’s Little Havana, I squeezed onto a bus whose passengers, all animated, all speaking Spanish, were debating some issue with great excitement.
“How authentic!” I exclaimed spontaneously to my husband.
Hearing that, a youth announced to the other passengers that American tourists were aboard. A hush immediately fell over the crowd. Then, in idiomatic English, the smiling young man related the story of his arrival in Miami 11 years ago through a family reunification program.
The incident typified the fun of visiting Hispanic Miami, a city where more than a million people of Latin origin live and work—the American city with a distinctive Latin beat, whose sunny charm, Cuban cuisine and multi-facted history are often overlooked.
Little Havana is the place to be. From the moment I entered the streets of that district, between Fourth and 27th avenues, I felt I was in a foreign country. Its signs are in Spanish, the aroma of freshly brewed cafe con leche wafts through the air, and catchy Latin music blares from the stores. Rustic reminders of the South American fondness for feathered creatures adds to the district’s charm, even in its residential areas, where I was greeted by cooing doves, screeching parrots, singing grackles and clucking chickens.
Affectionately dubbed Calle Ocho, which is Spanish for Eighth Street, Little Havana is a common first stop for immigrants from Latin America. A mile from Miami’s posh Four Seasons Hotel, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and the Brickell Financial District, Calle Ocho is separated from the glittering towers of downtown by the Miami River.
Half a century ago, the street became a refuge for Cuban exiles. Soon after landing, they took any jobs they could find or established small businesses. Over time, some have moved up and on from Calle Ocho, their places taken by later arrivals from Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay. Whatever their country of origin, they eagerly share with visitors the colorful stories from their past. Just as willingly, they provide tourists with suggestions or directions about what to see, where to eat and how to negotiate public transportation.
I soon discovered that the most efficient way to get around in Calle Ocho and absorb its catchy Cuban beat was by foot and by bus. Before long, I began to explore, rather than walk past, the stores. When I engaged several owners in conversation, the fun would begin.
Pages of history
But sad stories abound as well. One of the most touching reminders of Cuba’s relationship with the United States is a memorial dedicated to those who died in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles. Just off Eighth Street at SW 13th Street, an eternal flame burns at the Brigade 2506 Monument to commemorate the men who died for their homeland.
A must stop for history buffs and anyone interested in the complex U.S. relations with Cuba, is the Bay of Pigs Museum. This small house provides visitors with an in-depth look at Cuba’s Freedom Fighters of 1961. West Pointers often visit to study historical American military policy and the errors of the Cuban invasion. Fittingly, Cuban veterans proudly run the museum and lead tours.
Nor are Cuban residents of Little Havana silent about current Cuban-American relations. A touching memorial to the personal tragedies that have marked our relations is the Elian Gonzalez House. In 1999, at age 6, Elian Gonzalez was rescued from the sea after a boat loaded with Cuban refugees sank. Many drowned, including Elian’s mother. When his Cuban relatives in Miami “adopted” the child, Castro sent the boy’s father to recover him, and Elian was returned to Cuba by U.S. Marshals. Today, the modest home where he lived is tended by his great-uncle as a shrine to the child he had come to love.
Dominos and chess
To lighten things up, stroll through Domino Park, at 14th Street and Eighth, named for its painted domino tables occupied by older Cubans and other Hispanics, who play chess there, too. Aside from a colorful mural featuring the presidents of the New World (among them Bill Clinton), the park looks as if it had been airlifted directly from a park in pre-Communist Cuba. Watching los viejos (old men) play dominos and chess, matching wits in their daily ritual, is electrifying in its excitement. Stay to watch a game or two, and, before long, you’ll be invited to join in.
Dinner at Versailles
A trip to Calle Ocho would not be complete without trying its distinctive Cuban cuisine. One of my favorites was the legendary Versailles Restaurant, run by Cuban immigrant Felipe Valls and his son. A wry play on the famous French palace, Little Havana’s landmark, which has served the Hispanic community for 34 years, is adorned with mirrors, chandeliers, and Formica and chrome tables. An older woman at the adjoining table asked what was on my plate. It was the house specialty: roast pig with black beans and white rice.
Sprinkled throughout the area are Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and Dominican restaurants offering specialties such as mofongo or mashed plantains (they resemble green bananas), which are mixed with everything from salami to chicken or goat. Entrees, in keeping with the Latino menus, often are accompanied by plantain chips rather than bread.
For more upscale Latin dining, try Tete, on Eighth Street next to Domino Park. This intimate restaurant, with its handsome Mexican-tile floors and white tablecloths, features soft guitar music on Saturday nights. Paris-trained chef-owner Caprice Tassinari admits trying to be “everything to everybody. ‘No’ is never on the menu here.” Each dish is artfully served on colorful pottery; contemporary oil paintings by local artists enliven the walls. I tried not-too-sweet guava mango cheesecake, a superb finish.
A cigar after dinner
No Cuban meal would be complete without a good cigar—or at least an understanding of how they are made. Several authentic cigar manufacturers, such as high-end Moore and Bode, allow tourists to watch the men and women roll the leaves and, of course, purchase the final product. (Closer to home, you can buy Moore and Bode products at Blue Train Cigars in East Hampton or Tobacco Plaza in Great Neck.)
Sharon Bode spoke to me about cigar making as an art form. She and her Cuban husband do more than manufacture the makings of a good smoke; they return emigres to their traditional employment, while supporting the embargo on Cuban tobacco.
Nearby, stop for fresh coconut juice—drinking it through a straw from the shell—for $2 at Los Pinarenos Fruteria. Los Pinarenos also specializes in natural fruit juices, such as papaya and guayaba and another Latin staple, sugar cane juice. The Cuban family that runs this fruit and flower stall cooks one pot of stew daily. Go early to be one of the lucky few who savor it, at $4 a portion. You can eat in the informal garden where a pet rooster may stroll over.
Roosters, a universal symbol, often are pets of Calle Oche residents, and statues of roosters abound in the district. They stand outside businesses, advertising the wares or services offered inside. Bacardi Rum has one. There even is a “doctor” rooster outside a medical facility.
Within walking distance of Calle Ocho is a unique bed-and-breakfast, the Miami River Inn, a National Historic Trust Property that owner Sally Jude spent five years restoring. Today, it has a pool and Jacuzzi, and each pet-friendly room is furnished with antiques. Its tree-shaded, clapboard buildings form an oasis near the Miami River and the surrounding city and are only 15 minutes from the airport and beaches.
This non-Latino New Yorker came home with a new Latin beat. Salsa anyone?