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Traditional Cuban meets Nuevo Cubano

So much of what we think of as Miami cuisine is really our spin on traditional Cuban food. So how did Cuban cuisine come to have such a profound impact on Miami?

In the second of our two-part series, we’re exploring the spots that keep Little Havana connected to the past, and the new influences slowly changing the cuisine, and the neighborhood, for the next generation.

As Sue Mullin wrote in New Fusion Recipes from Florida, “Nuevo Cubano cuisine could only have developed in Florida, and more particularly in Miami, where the way of life is heavily influenced by its immigrant and exile communities. Nuevo Cubano fuses updated Cuban cuisine (itself a mixture of Spanish, African, and indigenous Indian cooking) with influences from the Caribbean and Central and South American.”

 

Mangos and the Mango Gang

The concept of the “new Cuban” has taken many names and sprouted numerous comebacks, but don’t try to pigeonhole it, and especially don’t confuse it with Pan-Latin or Floribbean cuisines. Nuevo Cubano places a high emphasis on Cuban cuisine, above all others. At the forefront of this is chef Douglas Rodriguez, who cropped up in the late 1980s with the Mango Gang. The dishes behind the concept are lighter than traditional Cuban fare, and have proven extremely popular with Miami folks, who are on the whole pretty health conscious. Part of the growth of Nuevo Cubano comes from looking for new ways to incorporate more fruit and vegetables in their diets, while learning how to cook lighter fare.

Of course, not everyone is a fan. Ana Quincoces, chef and TV personality, decries mangos and the use of them in newer Cuban recipes in her book, Sabor!: A Passion for Cuban Cuisine:

“We didn’t have mangos growing up. Then there is the newer generation of Cuban cookbooks: the ‘we are reinventing the wheel’ genre of cookbooks. Some call it nouveau or is it nouvelle? cuisine. Or I know, better yet: fusion! I still can’t figure out what they’re fusing. Oh yeah, I forgot MANGO! Yup. That seems to be the mindset with regards to Cuban cuisine these days. In a nutshell, if you add mango sauce to anything, it’s Cuban. I’ll let you in on a little secret: real Cuban food contains absolutely, positively, no mango of any kind. No sauce, no purée, no chutney, no infusion, no reduction, and no coulis. I promise.”

Which is actually a pretty funny stance to take. A 2008 FAS/USDA report on Cuba’s Food & Agriculture Situation specifies that mangos are Cuba’s third most important tropical fruit after bananas and plantains. As the noted in the report, “Mango production is tied to Cuba’s reforestation efforts, with mango trees regularly inter-planted with fast-growing Caribbean pine trees.”

Little Havana traditions meet Miami innovation

In past years, many will remember La Bodeguita del Medio, which began in Cuba in 1942 and moved to its new home Little Havana after the Revolution. The original version of this restaurant still exists in Cuba under different ownership and serves as a relic of pre-Castro Cuba. Other popular Cuban transplants included Badias Restaurant, king of the palomilla, and Ayesteran, which began as a grocery store and slowly expanded to one of the classic mainstays serving ajiaco, tasajo, and boniato. There’s also La Esquina de Tejas, which famously received a visit from Ronald Reagan in 1983.

These days, restaurants like El Exquisito and El Pub are the most famous Cuban restaurants, serving the classics in Little Havana. There’s also El Rey de las Fritas reigning the frita regime, and Los Pinareños Fruteria, an open-air market selling fresh fruit, sugar cane juices, and produce with an old world feel. Even mojitos, daiquiris, and ice cream are experiencing a spirited revival. At Ball & Chain, a reincarnation of the former watering hole popular from the 1930s through the 1950s, now features a Cuban twist and serves both traditional and updated versions of the cocktails, including a daiquiri that has been infused with guava and served with a whole guava pastelito garnish, compliments of Cuban cantineros Julio Cabrera and Danny Valdez. Next door at Azucar Ice Cream, Suzy Batlle is harkening back to the traditional culture of ice cream consumption from the pre-Castro days, due in part to the country’s balmy climate. The ice cream flavors are reminiscent of childhood, often with a grown up twist, like Abuela Maria (vanilla ice cream, guava, cream cheese, and Maria cookies), Café con Leche (Cuban coffee and Oreo) and Willy Chirino (bourbon ice cream and black and maraschino cherries).

For the most part, the traditional Cuban food in Miami doesn’t stray from its classic roots. But there are local chefs changing what it means to eat Cuban in South Florida. It’s can seem too easy to take what you know or what you grew up with for granted, and that’s why in Miami, you don’t see quite as many young chefs going the Cuban route anymore. It takes guts and perseverance, but some chefs like Eileen Andrade of FINKA Table and Tap and Alberto Cabrera have continued to push Cuban cuisine to the next level.

Cuban-American chef Alberto Cabrera has not betrayed his roots. He is one of the few chefs in town really championing modern Cuban cuisine with a twist. At both the former Bread + Butter and the current Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co., Cabrera is on a mission to not only educate, but remind people just how great Cuban food really is. And that sandwiches are a really big part of that food tradition.

However, his sandwiches are not entirely traditional. For example, he does a combo of the Tampa and Miami Cuban sandwich, using pork belly rillettes, ham, salami, pickles, and mustard aioli. The medianoche is on Pullman bread, with ham, crispy porchetta, Emmental cheese, pickles, and mustard caviar. And finally, the Elena Ruz is made with Malta-glazed turkey, goat cheese, bacon, and berry compote. The tweaks are small, but significant. “I see this as a way to break down the barriers of Little Havana,” says Cabrera.

The premise of Cuban food is that it’s homey and almost artisanal. But the traditional techniques can take time that people just don’t have these days. As Cabrera admits, “My grandmother used to render the pork fat and make little chicharrones because my grandfather liked it with his rice. Now, people want convenience.”

That’s why the most popular dishes at Bread + Butter were the bistec palomilla, chuletas with onions, and masitas de puerco. “Those are simple dishes that anyone could make, but no one wants to anymore,” says Cabrera. “At least I’m keeping the eating tradition alive.”

Cuban, and more

It’s important to remember that nearly every company that exists here existed in Cuba before the Revolution. Without that Cuban influence, Miami might be a vastly different place. The Cuban immigrants who fled to Miami each brought a piece of home with them. “Havana was very much like a tropical Madrid, a beautiful city that continually challenged itself,” notes Cabrera. “We would be doing the same thing we’re doing now, just in Havana.”

Cafe Cubano

And Little Havana has become the new home for many others besides Cubans, a hub for Latin American peoples in exile. And while it remains on a whole Cubans, since 1980, that population has decreased due to an influx of Central and South Americans, predominantly Nicaraguans and Hondurans. Now, you can find fritangas and baleadas alongside croquetas and lechon. Not only is the area a sustainable Latin American hub, but it is in a central location, right next to downtown Miami. And after all, that is the American dream, no?

In the course of approximately 100 years, the area has been home to many immigrants, from Bahamians to Jews, to Cubans, and now to a growing population of Central and South Americans. Every wave has dramatically changed the profile of the neighborhood.

And with its central location right next to Downtown Miami, the area has attracted a new wave – real estate developers looking for the next big thing. As Miami continues to reinvent itself, and new influences come in, Little Havana may transform itself again. But the influence the neighborhood has had in creating a cohesive Miami culture, and cuisine.

By Mandy Baca
Mandy Baca is a Miami native and freelance writer, who is obsessed with her city. She is also the author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, Discovering Vintage Miami, and the upcoming Cuban Cuisine from South Florida.