Travel

Try Miami’s Little Havana until the real thing comes along

Marlow Rosado Y la Riquena, a top-flight, Miami salsa band, stokes the crowd at Viernes Culturales – a monthly Cuban-American arts/music event in Miami’s Little Havana. The band also appears across Calle Ocho at the Ball & Chain .
Marlow Rosado Y la Riquena, a top-flight, Miami salsa band, stokes the crowd at Viernes Culturales – a monthly Cuban-American arts/music event in Miami’s Little Havana. The band also appears across Calle Ocho at the Ball & Chain . jbordsen@charlotteobserver.com

Calle Ocho is a street of dreams. The Miami thoroughfare formally known as Southwest Eighth Street is the heart of Little Havana. It’s the next-best-thing to visiting Cuba for many Americans; the lodestone of the large Cuban-American community that settled in Miami in waves after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Stroll the heart of Calle Ocho, from 12th Avenue west to 17th, past small bars, cafes and tiendas (stores), and you’re rarely beyond earshot of loudspeakers airing percussive Latin music. The street hints at a Havana that was, that isn’t, and which might come to pass.

It’s a mile and a half west of downtown Miami, an easy walk out Eighth Street, a one-way headed toward the skyscrapers.

Here’s what you need to know to make the most of a visit.

Colorful walls, Cuban sandwiches

Get there with your camera early in the day, in advance of the tourist waves, to see the murals – like those worked into the front and side panels of the Sazon Latino restaurant/cafeteria at the corner of 11th Avenue, on a wall facing the bikes at the La 8 a motorcycle shop, or the amazing multi-artist pieces on the side of the Goodwill store at 10th. Their styles range from clearly Hispanic folk art to millennial graphic novel.

Check the tiles inlaid on some of the storefronts along Calle Ocho. Note the sidewalk stars of the Latin Walk of Fame and the brightly painted, hydrant-size roosters – emblems of Little Havana.

The safety island at 13th Avenue widens a bit into Cuban Memorial Plaza, a block-long stretch of pavers and grass. Ceiba trees, tropical giants with exposed roots as thick and long as anacondas, shade memorials to the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Jose Marti and Cuba itself.

The first honors the men of Brigade 2506, Cubans trained in the Miami area by the CIA and whose 1961 invasion of Castro’s Cuba was a disaster. Marti was the Cuban poet/writer and nationalist leader killed during a disastrous 1895 invasion of what was then a Spanish colony. Marti today is revered by the government of Cuba and those who fled it.

Marti is buried in Havana. Bay of Pigs exiles are in their mid-70s now.

A block east on Calle Ocho, older Cubanos filled chairs at the tables shaded by Spanish tile roofs at concrete-and-brick Domino Park. It is like an open-air VFW gathering. Players come and go, chatting in Spanish and clicking down oversize game tiles; over their shoulders, quiet tourists click their photos.

Little Havana is flush with eateries, but try El Christo at 1543 Calle Ocho – a small, big-window place with an extensive menu. There are five varieties of Cuban sandwiches ($7.99-$8.49); the full-tilt Cuban Platter is $11.99. Grab a lunch-counter stool or a table. Of various dining recommendations I received on Calle Ocho, this was the best.

There are Cuban-American art galleries (notably Futurama at 16th Avenue), but for something easier on your suitcase, stick to music and cigars. Casino Records, in the 1500 block of Calle Ocho, is packed with all styles of Latin music. The variety is astounding, the prices aren’t.

Among the tobacconists along Eighth Street – open early and late and often busy – is Little Havana Cigar Factory, with “Cuban cigars made in Miami.” The merchandise is fresh, varied and well-tended; consider package deals. As at Casino Records, service is attentive and helpful.

The sounds of Cuba – and Miami

Two iconic buildings in the 1500 block predate Little Havana – the Tower Theater, an art-house cinema, and the Ball & Chain, a nightclub that’s packed most nights. Try the Ball & Chain in late afternoon. It looks something from a old Warner Bros. flick, with a high ceiling and quartet of belt-driven fans hung from dark wooden beams. Old Latin jazz plays on the sound system; jazz combos often start to play near the front door around 5. Out the breezeway in back, a parking lot has been retooled into an outdoor Latin music room. Desi Arnaz would be comfortable crooning “Babalu” to young lovers seated in the reserved banquette area.

Latin music is a highlight of nights at the Ball & Chain backroom, but the music ranges far afield. If you’re lucky, Marlow Rosado Y la Riquena, a top-flight, Miami salsa band is onstage.

An unusual weekend stop on Calle Ocho is Casa Panza. The food was so-so; go for the flamenco show in the adjoining La Cueva room for a kind of ’50s style variety show built around the Andalusian music and dance that’s a Spanish taproot of Caribbean culture.

Classical guitarist Emilio Prados, 78, has played for various heads of state and was recorded by Smithsonian Folkways. Here, he solos and accompanies dancers and big-voiced singers Regla Cumba and Juan de Alba. There’s an element of Buck Rogers on the stage, which is done up like a bat cave: de Alba, also the emcee, wears a flowing gown, a Moorish looking pirate headscarf and what look to be goggles. Only in Miami, a city that has change in its DNA.

Many Cubanos moved out when they moved up – Hialeah, north of Miami International, is now more a Cuban-American enclave. Residential Little Havana is increasingly populated with immigrants from Central America, so it remains a Hispanic blend.

A mixture of tradition and tourism keeps it Cuban. Some say the city’s most authentic mojito – the signature cocktail of both Cuba and Miami – is mixed in Little Havana, at 1465 Eight St. It’s the bar inside the Cuba Ocho Art & Research Center.

Bordsen: 704-358-5251

When in Little Havana...

Stroll over to the wistful Cuban Memorial Plaza; head over to Domino Park.

Load up on great, inexpensive Cuban food at El Christo, 1543 SW Eighth St. www.elcristorestaurant.com.

Buy a fistful of cigars at Cuban cigars; Little Havana Cigar Factory, 1501 SW Eighth St., is among them. www.lhcfstore.com.

Get in 1940s Havana mode at Ball & Chain; cool off in the afternoon with a drink and classic jazz on the sound system; or go at night for live music – especially of Marlow Rosado’s salsa band is playing. www.ballandchainmiami.com.

Pay the $10 cover for the live weekend flamenco show at Casa Panza, 1620 SW 8th St. www.casapanzacafe.net

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