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On a trip to Havana, it becomes immediately apparent just how limited Cuban food is there. With the state controlling access to many ingredients, a considerable amount of traditional recipes have become bastardized versions of themselves, if they haven’t disappeared completely. In Miami, many live on.
Cuban menus in Miami are the closest you will find to what food was like in Havana prior to 1959. Many restaurants specialize in just a single dish, be it a croqueta or pan a la minuta. While some recipes have naturally adapted to the ingredients found in South Florida, many others remain unchanged.
While there are hundreds of Cuban restaurants in Miami, the following list are the ones that stand out.
More of an open-air prepared food market than a restaurant, El Palacio de los Jugos has three primary sections: a juice bar, cafeteria style hot foods counter, and a sandwich stall. Open since 1977, it has expanded to nine locations around South Florida. It’s original location at Flagler and 57th street is close enough to Miami International Airport that you can Uber there on a layover. While you can find just about any Cuban food or sandwich served in Miami at El Palacio de los Jugos, their chicharrón (fried pork) and fresh mamey juice are the highlights. 5721 W. Flagler Street, Flagami; elpalaciodelosjugos.com.
Open since 1973, this seafood market crossed with a restaurant is famous for its pan con minuta, a fried yellowtail snapper sandwich served in a standard Cuban roll. The tail is left on and sticks out of the bun and it’s just topped with some white onions and a squirt of ketchup. They also sell a variety of other Cuban seafood dishes like camarones fritos (breaded shrimp) and cangrejo moro (stone crab). 1952 W Flagler Street, Little Havana. 1952 W Flagler Sreet, Little Havana; Facebook page.
Chances are you have probabaly seen the mediocre Café Versailles prepared food stands at Miami International Airport, so have skipped the Little Havana version. That’s a mistake. The kitschy, mirror lined dining rooms of the original location, open since 1971, have one of the best all around menus of Cuban food in Miami. There’s not a signature dish, but you’ll find a decent Cubano and an even better Calle Ocho (a club sandwich crossed with a Cubano), as well as classics like vaca frita (crispy, shredded beef), pulpeta (meat loaf), and tasajo (dried, shredded beef). The adjoining bakery sells sandwiches and pastries, while there’s also La Ventanita, a walk-up window where you can order coffee or a media noche (a Cuban sandwich on yellow, egg bread). 3555 SW 8th Street, Little Havana; versaillesrestaurant.com.
At the edge of Wynwood (but not the hipster part), is this run-down corner diner with slow service. Yet, it has one of the best croqueta preparadas in in Miami. This sandwich is essentially a standard Cubano that is layered with croquetas: fritters filled with béchamel and chopped ham. Additionally, in the mornings, Enriqueta’s fills up for the Desyauno Especial: eggs, bacon or ham, Cuban toast, orange juice, and café con leche. 186 NE 29th Street, Wynwood.
Serving a menu of original family recipes like tamal en cazuela, ropa vieja (stewed beef), and ajiaco, Islas Canarias has expanded into a mini-chain of Cuban restaurants since the owners of Caribe Café purchased the landmark original in 2015. You can argue about the quality since, however, their specialty, the croquetas, are filled with cumin-seasoned ham and béchamel and are still made daily from fresh ingredients. 13695 SW 26th Street, Little Havana; islascanariasrestaurant.com.
The frita is a Cuban-style hamburger with sautéed onions that has been around since the 1930s, but came to Miami in the 1970s. It’s topped with papas fritas a la juliana, crunchy, thin shoestring fries. At El Rey de las Fritas, a simple lunch counter, order it a caballo, with a fried egg on top. 1821 SW 8th Street. Miami, Little Havana; elreydelasfritas.com.
Started by an ex-employee of El Rey de las Fritas, El Magio de las Fritas is arguably the better of the two for the Cuban-style hamburgers. On Saturdays, come for their ajiaco (beef, pork, and vegetable stew) and chicharrón. 5828 SW 8th Street, Flagami;elmagodelasfritas.com.
One of the few reasonable Cuban options in Miami Beach, Puerto Sagua has been around since 1962. You’ll find standard takes on classics like Cubanos and ropa vieja, plus it’s open until 2am every night. Don’t miss their masitas de puerco fritas: chunks of mojo marinated fried pork, usually served with yuca and rice. 700 Collins Ave, Miami Beach.
Amidst the tourist traps on Calle Ocho, the Ball and Chain was once a famous gambling den and cabaret in the 1930s-1950s before changing names and eventually closing. It reopened a decade ago with the original name. Come here for snacking on things like Congri fritters (rice and black bean fritters) and pastelitos de guayaba while listening to Cuban music. 1513 SW 8th Street, Little Havana; ballandchainmiami.com.