When college students study abroad, most come home raving about the local cuisine they were able to experience while enjoying their international adventures. While not everyone can afford to study abroad, all students can experience the excitement of cultural Cuban food that waits just outside their front door. With dishes like the classic Cuban sandwich or the lesser-known ropa vieja, Cuban cuisine has made Southern Florida its home-away-from-home and brought an unexpected international vibe to an already lively area.
The Spanish introduced rice to Cuba in the late 16th century, and Cubans quickly put their own spin on the grain by creating one of their most famous dishes: arroz con pollo. Consisting of chicken and rice accented by onions, tomatoes, and pepper, the dish is a simple yet delicious classic. Another dish centered around rice is ropa vieja. The dish is made of shredded beef soaked in a simple tomato sauce and served over yellow rice. Another traditional favorite is the Cuban take on steak, bistec de palomilla. The surprisingly filling meal consists of a thin cut of steak slathered in a garlic and lime marinade and lightly sprinkled with parsley. The most famous of all Cuban meals happens to be the one most linked to Miami: the Cuban sandwich. The sub, made of ham, roasted pork, swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, was actually created by Cuban exile communities living Southern Florida and quickly grew in fame as the exiles cemented their place in Florida’s history and culture.
Cuban entrees are accompanied by a variety of sides, but the two most common choices are plantains (tostones or maduras) and moros y cristianos. Tostones are the Cuban version of French fries. Green plantains are sliced and flattened, then dipped in a saltwater mixture and fried until the outsides are golden brown and crispy. Maduras are a sweeter version of plantains. “In general, Cuban food rocks,” said Mariana Teran, a junior at UM. “But sweet plantains are the real deal. I love them.” When served this way, ripe brown plantains are sliced in small chunks, rolled in sugar and fried. Rice and black beans is a staple dish in many Latin-American countries, but only Cubans call them Moros y Cristianos, a reference to the Islamic conquest of Spain. Moros refers to the black beans, and Cristianos refers to the white rice. The two central ingredients are mixed with onions, bell peppers, garlic, and oregano, and the resulting dish is considered one of Cuba’s most famous contributions to the culinary world.
When it comes to Cuban desserts, perhaps the most famous of all is flan, a soft caramel custard often accented with a fruit sauce. Another favorite is tres leches cake, a light, airy sponge cake that’s typically garnished with strawberries. Regardless of what dessert you order, it is sure to be paired with a petite cup of Cuban espresso. Don’t be fooled by its size and sweetness; the Cuban cafecito is famous for being one of the strongest coffees in the world.
So where can you find these dishes and other Cuban specialties? The closest Cuban restaurant to campus is Casa Larios, located right in Sunset Plaza. Just a three minute car ride away, Casa Larios offers authentic Cuban meals at reasonable prices. Another local favorite is Havana Harry’s, a Cuban fusion restaurant right on Le Jeune Road. Open until midnight, this restaurant serves the classic dishes along with lesser-known Cuban seafood plates such as traditional baked snapper. For those who don’t mind a drive, the true Cuban dining experience can be found at Versailles. The Miami restaurant is lauded as the best Cuban restaurant in the world, including those located in Cuba itself. “I’ve had good Cuban food before, but Versailles is on a different level,” said junior Julia Van Etten. “It’s so good. And the mojitos are amazing; they have actual sugar cane in them.”
While the most authentic Cuban food can undoubtedly be found in the homes of Cubans who have passed down recipes through the generations, the Miami area offers great options for both newcomers to Cuban food and lifelong enthusiasts of the cuisine.
words_christinaoddo photo_melissa mallin