By Josie Gulliksen and Yours Truly
The revival of the Little Havana neighborhood has been drawing plenty of attention lately, thanks to a variety of businesses that kicked it off a year or two ago, and the others that have followed suit recently. You can get your sweet fix, enjoy a craft beer, dine al fresco in a garden setting or dance the night away in front of a pineapple shaped stage. Most of the spots you need to visit are the result of a love and passion that Miami’s Cuban-American community has to bring the neighborhood an injection of new life.Here are some of the new spots and other classic favorites. Any others you’d recommend?
A perfect example of that is the husband and wife team David and Cici Rodriguez who brought the Union Beer Store to the area. The two have extensive experience, having honed their skills as former owners of the popular Miami Brew Bus. Their Union Bar Store is all things to beer lovers, billed as a neighborhood taproom, beer market and growler bar. The interior fits that crowd well too with a whale mural drawn by local street artist Krave and a few throwback video games old school gamers will love.
Doughnut aficionados are loyal to their favorite brand and those who love glazed doughnuts are partial to Velvet Crème’s and now Little Havana has a shop that opened in October. It’s been a labor of love for business partners Robert Taylor and Jorge Rios for more than nine years. Wanting to give the place a vintage feel, the interior’s adorned with diner style red stools and matching red top counter and stacks of doughnut boxes ready to be filled. The exterior’s just as welcoming with a red and white striped awning and vintage “Donuts” sign.
Black beans and rice, sweet plantains and roasted pork are all staples on restaurant menus in Little Havana, but oysters? Absolutely, thanks to Ella’s Oyster Bar. The only similarity Ella’s shares with other eateries is the colorful rooster statue that greets diners at the door. Otherwise, inside it’s all about the freshest oysters from East, West and Gulf Coast along with crispy calamari and sake steamed mussels or clams as some of the many seafood options. And they didn’t forget they’re in Little Havana so playful items like surf ‘n turf Cuban frita or the Calle lobster roll served on eggy medianoche bread.
Because this is Little Havana of course guayaba is appropriate in any business name but when you pair it with chocolate well, that’s a winner. Cousins Alejandra Bigal, who also owns Romanicos chocolate on Coral Way and Maria Waleska create handmade chocolates that resemble works of art. Packaged in beautiful boxes and wrappers, the tabaquitos are chocolate dipped ladyfingers shaped like cigars and wrapped in gold paper and they also make domino pieces made of white chocolate and dark chocolate and filled with guava and cream cheese. The latter are boxed with bonbons made of café con leche chocolate. Note if you’ve been there before they recently moved.
A must do in Little Havana is a stop in at Ball & Chain at really any time of the day. That’s because a three- or four-piece band is always playing inside closest to the sidewalk, almost as to entice passersby to stop and listen. Then in the evening the place really heats up with crowds flocking to sip on a mojito, pastelito daiquiri or a Miami mule and listen to a variety of different bands play in the back patio inside a pineapple shaped stage. They’ve restored this place to its glory days of the 1940s and 50s and it’s worth a visit. A stroll along Calle Ocho wouldn’t be complete without it. Note there’s a very good happy hour, 4 to 7 pm.
If the colorful ice cream cone sculpture that adorns the front of the building doesn’t grab you then certainly the unique flavors and Cuban Miami sayings emblazoned on t-shirts sure will. That’s Azucar’s allure and it’s been drawing ice cream lovers in since 2011. Sure their Abuela Maria ice cream is their signature flavor, filled with bits of guava and Abuela Maria cookies (it’s even trademarked), but there are plenty of other Miami-inspired flavors. They pride themselves on buying their mamey fruit from the nearby Los Piñarenos fruit stand and other fruits from local farmer’s markets and Redland growers. They actually have a platano Maduro flavor and you bet those sweet plantains are local, as well as the mango and avocado flavors.
Of course, the list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the Tower Theatre, one of the top places for foreign and art films. This list is by no means comprehensive, and with places like Museo de Little Havana and El Jardin yet to open, another guide to Little Havana is not far behind. So stay tuned.