Sauntering through customs at Ottawa International on a February Sunday, we were excited to be heading south for some much needed vitamin D. And Cuban food. Rob and I know little or nothing of Cuban cuisine. The American official asked our business in Miami. We told him we were looking for some sun and some Cuban food. “I’m Cuban! “ he says. “Make sure you have a midnight sandwich! It’s the best. Addictive.”. His eyes got a far away look and you could tell Ottawa in February was a hardship post. Even if you are from here. Especially if you are Cuban.
South Beach is a cool enclave of Miami, right on the ocean. Unfortunately you can see little of the ocean from the dining areas and cafes. Even rooftop bars offer little view in the historic Art Deco area where we made our home for seven days. Ocean Boulevard is lined with quaint cafes but the view to the water is obscured by dunes. Other areas of the beach have their frontage taken up by resorts and the ocean is only available for viewing by their guests. You could walk to the water easily, but we found you were not able to sit and enjoy a beer and watch the waves unless you drove to the Keys or Fort Lauderdale. South Beach offers good shopping in the historic district and dozens of street side restaurants offering excellent fare from a variety of cuisines.
Cuban food was our first priority. Just down the road a bit from where we were staying, was an iconic Cuban establishment, Puerto Sagua. We headed over for lunch. The buzz on this joint was that the food was authentic and the place was crusty and a bit rough around the edges and proud of it.
We were seated immediately and brought plastic tumblers of ice water. As we perused the menu, Rob noticed a dark object in his water: an expired cucaracha. What to do? We had not ordered yet. Decision time. We are here, and probably a cockroach never killed any one, probably. Blind-eye time. Let’s go for it. Rob asked the waitress for a fresh glass of water, pointing out the cockroach. She was horrified and a very good actress, because I would put money on this not being the first she had seen…that day even.
We had to order a few classics we were curious about including a midnight sandwich (medianoche) named for its role in many a late-night snack, ham croquettes, and tostones with garlic mojo, to round out our first Cuban experience.
The ham croquettes arrived first, hot, crisp and well made. Not greasy. The croquettes, made of minced smoked ham, onion, nutmeg, parsley and rolled in bread crumbs before deep frying, were excellent dipped in hot sauce.
Tostones are green plantains that are twice fried. After the first frying, they are squashed flat and refried. They are served with a thin, tasty, garlic mojo. The sauce has good flavour but the tostones themselves are extremely bland.
The star of this lunch arrived next. The famous Cuban sandwich. Basically a ham and cheese sandwich, the Cuban is served on a long, toasty egg bun. Spread with yellow mustard, layers of ham, roast pork and cheese, and finally pickles complete the ensemble. Don’t get me wrong. This is a good sandwich. The bun is warm, chewy and eggy, ham and cheese is a classic combo, and the mustard and pickle are a simple but excellent accompaniment. Would really hit the spot as a late night snack or light lunch. But I’m not sure it is anything that would make me desperately home sick or be the first thing I would want to tell a visitor to my culture “This is it. This defines us. If you have nothing else, have this.”
It seems we chose poorly. On a trek to the washrooms in the rear, I passed diners who were eating amazing looking food, mostly with large portions of shredded pork. Cuban food deserves more investigation.
If you have followed us on our journeys before, you know we are big fans of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, (Triple D) with Guy Fieri. On this trip we headed into Little Havana to a place recently featured on Triple D, La Camaronera. It is in a working class neighborhood and was packed with diners belly up to the counter where you ordered and ate standing up. Service is fast and friendly. Again we are headed in for lunch.
Both Rob and I were excited to try their feature fish sandwich, a lightly breaded, deep fried yellow tail snapper, dressed and served tail on in a soft bun. As well as being attractively presented, the lightness of the batter allows the freshness of the snapper to shine. The simple, soft white bun is a perfect choice to host the delectable piece of fish.
To round out our all-fried meal, we had the fried lobster with with spicy remoulade sauce. They take fresh-caught spiny lobster (no claws, all tail meat), cut it in pieces, dip in ketchup (yes, really!) and then in a spiced flour mixture and deep fry. It is tangy and spicy but the sweet luscious lobster flavour shines through.
Next: Miami, Part 2
All content and photography copyright (c) 2011 by Robert and Maureen Rose. All rights reserved.