Monday, February 18, 2013

Destinations: Little Havana in Miami

Giant roosters welcome you to Little Havana.
On a recent trip to Miami, my mom and I spent a Monday afternoon exploring the neighborhood of Little Havana. Named so because of the influx of Cuban immigrants who moved to the area in the 1960s, Little Havana today also is home to large numbers of Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and other Caribbean and Central American nationalities.

The best time to visit Little Havana is on Fridays during the Viernes Culturales festival when the streets are full of music and dancing, and local historian Dr. Paul George leads walking tours of its history, architecture and interesting places. (If you can't make it out on Friday, Dr. George also leads Little Havana walking tours through HistoryMiami and Miami Culinary Tours will take you to the best places to eat.)

A view of Los Pinarenos Fruteria from Calle 8 (8th Street).
My absolute favorite spot in Little Havana is Los Pinarenos Fruteria, a colorful fruit and juice stand that's been owned by the same family for 47 years. Sidle up to the open air counter and you'll probably see Pedro "Pete" Hernandez and his mother, Guillermina, working behind the bar. Guillermina and her husband Angel both come from a family of farmers and, although they grew up in two nearby towns in an area of Cuba called Pina del Rio, didn't meet until they both moved to the United States in 1958.

We perched up on the Coca-Cola stools and I asked Pete to make me his favorite juice - a "super juice," it turns out, of celery, ginger, beet and carrot, which was delicious and sweeter than I expected. Later I learned it's because the Hernandez family uses pure, raw sugar cane in their recipes. I watched as Guillermina passed stalk after stalk through the presser, four to five times per stalk to get every last drop of natural sweetener.

Playfully hinting to Pete that my mom was slightly pickier, I scanned the menu for flavors I thought she might like - watermelon, mango, grapefruit - and moments later she was happily sipping another one of Pete's concoctions, a green juice made from celery, parsley, pineapple and ginger. We sat there for a while chatting with Pete and Guillermina as people came and went - ordering fresh-pressed juice or Cuban tamales, and always staying to socialize. (Oh, our grand total for the two drinks was $8.)

Sunflowers in the market at Los Pinarenos Fruteria.
Some more goods in the market at Los Pinarenos Fruteria.
For lunch we stopped at El Cristo and took a seat on the street-facing patio. We ordered two pressed sandwiches: the Pan con Lechon ($5.99), roast pork and grilled onions with a citrusy mojo sauce, and a traditional Cubano Regular ($5.99) with ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Besides sandwiches, El Cristo's menu is packed with rice, chicken, pork and fish entrees. Pollo Asado (marinated and roasted whole chicken) and Potaje de Chicharos (Cuban split-pea soup) were some of the listed specials.

Left to right: Invisible North Pole fish for sale at Los Pinarenos and my Cortadito from El Cristo.
It was a warm and humid December day in Miami, and my mom and I finished our sandwiches just as the clouds rolled in and temperatures dropped. We waited for the spurt of rain to pass under El Cristo's canopy, sipping Cuban micro-lattes (called Cortaditos) and watching as a man selling fruit from the bed of his truck hurriedly packed up crates of coconut and pineapple.

El Cubano and Pan con Lechon sandwiches from El Cristo.
Little Havana is an interesting mix of Miami architecture. Its residential streets are lined with homes in the art deco, masonry vernacular, and Colonial revival styles, even some Mediterranean and Moorish designs sprinkled in. On our Monday adventure, the streets were calm and quiet as we walked through Conch Hill and Old Shenandoah - sadly only having time to explore a couple of Little Havana's micro-districts.

Clockwise from top: Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, street art and flags in Little Havana.
I love the history behind Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which was the first place of worship for Little Havana's Cuban refugees. The church's first service was Christmas midnight mass in 1939 and in 1941 they built a school directly across the street. Standing out front, all I could hear was the sound of the breeze and kids at recess.

Calle 8 and Domino Park.
We ended our visit to Little Havana by acting as spectators at Domino Park, where neighborhood men meet daily for games of domino and chess. It's located just off the main drag of Calle 8 (8th Street), so it's a good stop and end point when touring the area. Calle 8 is also where most of Little Havana's events take place and where you'll find the neighborhood's most popular landmarks. Besides Domino Park, take time to explore the Walkway of the Stars, the Tower Theater, and Cuban Memorial Boulevard.

After five days spent in swanky South Beach and cruising the Florida coastline (more on that later), Little Havana was a refreshing, warm, and welcome respite. The next time I'm in Miami, I'll go back for more fresh-pressed juice and will make sure it's on a Friday night!


  1. Nice work Katarina... Miami weather is way more fun than NY right now! :)