Little Havana Enlivens the Miami Scene

Men line 'em up in Miami's Domino Park.
Men line 'em up in Miami's Domino Park. (Bill Brubaker - For The Washington Post)
By Bill Brubaker
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 26, 2009

I'm a gringo, but I've always felt a bit Cubano, having grown up in Miami in the 1960s when the city became a haven for exiles from the communist island.

Hey, it was on the outdoor basketball courts of St. Mary's Cathedral School in the working-class neighborhood of Little River (now known as Little Haiti) that my pals Manny, Julio and Raúl taught me my first words in Spanish. Words such as -- oh, never mind; this is a family newspaper.

Living in Miami as a young adult, I wore traditional guayaberas and ate (way too much) lechon asado. And when I visit the city today? My routine hasn't changed much. I still feel at home on Little Havana's Calle Ocho (SW Eighth Street).

For the moment, at least, Little Havana is as close as most Americans can get to experiencing Big Havana (the real Havana) since traveling to the Cuban capital is still a no-no. Although President Obama recently cut restrictions for Cuban Americans visiting relatives on the island and signaled that he'd like to improve relations between the two countries, the 47-year United States embargo remains firmly in place, limiting travel by most U.S. citizens.

No worries, though. Here are 10 ways to experience the distinctive Cuban vibe without crossing the Florida Straits:

1. Chow down. There are lots of places to sample Cuban food in Miami, but there's only one Versailles (3555 SW Eighth St., 305-444-0240), a meeting place for exile families for more than 30 years. Don't come to this sprawling restaurante for a romantic, candlelit dinner. Do come to savor the buzz of Little Havana and such affordable specialties as ropa vieja (shredded beef in a tomato Creole sauce, $10.50) and lechon asado (roast pork, $9.95). Dishes are typically served with rice and fried plantains. Wash it all down with a Presidente beer (from the Dominican Republic, $4.35) and save room for a creamy flan Cubano ($2.95). No reservations are necessary, but expect a 15-minute wait on weekend nights.

2. Buzz up. After a meal at Versailles, head to the restaurant's outdoor counter to sip a dark, lethally strong cup of cafe Cubano. I usually order a double ($1.35) so I can linger. Late on a recent night, I shared counter space with caffeinated members of the Miami police, fire and rescue squads.

3. Look the part. No one has a better selection of guayaberas, the pleated four-pocket men's shirts that are worn untucked, than Ramon Puig's La Casa de las Guayaberas (5840 SW Eighth St., 305-266-9683). This strip-mall shop boasts that Puig has been making "the best guayabera in the world" for 63 years, and I'm not one to argue. Prices range from about $25 for a short-sleeved cotton and polyester blend to several hundred dollars for an elegant long-sleeved linen shirt.

4. Buy a trinket. Snag a large Cuban map towel for $15 or a calendar showing scenes from the island for $10 at the small souvenir stand of 87-year-old Nicacio Machado (SW Eighth Street and 35th Avenue), across from Versailles.

5. Play dominoes. Or at least watch the regulars (typically older Cuban American men) flaunt their stuff in tree-shaded Maximo Gomez Park (better known as Domino Park), at SW Eighth Street and 15th Avenue. Don't leave without checking out the colorful 1994 mural showing leaders from seemingly every nation in the Western Hemisphere -- every nation, that is, except Cuba. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

6. Get spiritual. Miami is home to dozens of botanicas, shops that cater to followers of Santeria and Voudon, religions that blend traditional African and Roman Catholic beliefs. La Negra Francisca Botanica (1323 SW Eighth St., 305-860-9328) is typical, with its impressive stock of candles, incense, books, potions and statues of saints. Be respectful and the store's co-owner, Roberto Fontan, will answer your questions. Trust me: You'll have some.

7. Lighten up. After pondering good and evil at the botanica, put on a smile and head to the best costume and magic shop this side of Oz. La Casa de los Trucos (The House of Tricks, 1343 SW Eighth St., 305-858-5029) offers such must-have items as an "I Love Lucy" wig ($24.99) and a ball cap topped with brains ($14.99).

8. Listen up. Miami is a mere 200 miles from the coast of Cuba. It's so close that Cuban radio stations can be heard on an ordinary AM radio, especially at night when signals travel farther. Radio Reloj (Clock Radio) is known for its fast-paced, government-sponsored newscasts, always with the sound of a clock ticking in the background. There's a Radio Reloj in every part of Cuba, so the Spanish-language station can be found on multiple frequencies. (Be patient if the signal fades in and out a bit.) Try AM frequencies 570, 820 and 860.

9. Roll on. I don't inhale (anything, actually), but a trip to Little Havana isn't complete without a visit to a cigar factory. El Credito (1100 SW Eighth St., 305-324-0445) has been making hand-rolled cigars with Dominican and Nicaraguan tobacco for 41 years. Best to visit on a weekday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the rollers are busy at work, making up to 150 cigars a day on their traditional mahogany desks. Cigars of all qualities can be bought in the adjoining shop.

10. Relive the past. The most unusual attraction in Little Havana, hands down, is the two-bedroom house where 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez lived after surviving the 1999 crossing from Cuba to Florida that left his mother and 10 others dead (2319 NW Second St.). The tragedy became a telenovela (soap opera) that climaxed when federal agents raided the house to seize Elian so he could be reunited with his father in Cuba. After the boy returned to the island, his Miami relatives turned the Little Havana house into a museum. Display cases show some of the toys the boy was given during his five-month stay. The museum is officially open on Sundays, but a caretaker told me it is possible to visit any day he's around.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company