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 that might come to pass.
It’s a mile and a half west of downtown Miami, on the far side of I-95 from the Intracoastal Waterway. Little Havana is an easy walk out Eighth Street, a one-way headed toward the skyscrapers. The iffy, semi-industrial area just west of the interstate gives way to a working-class neighborhood built in the 1920s with low-slung storefronts on Eighth and bungalows on the side streets.
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 motorcycle shop, or the amazing multi-artist pieces on the side of the Goodwill store at 10th. Their styles range from clearly Latino 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 blocklong 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 memorial honors the men of Brigade 2506, Cubans trained in the Miami area by the CIA 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.
The plaza was a wistful place on a Saturday morning in April, deserted except for a long-haired man in his 30s looking at the Cuba map monument. A fenced front yard to the right held a late-model Ford Ranger, and in the back of the driveway was a derelict fiberglass motorboat. A rooster crowed in a backyard nearby.
A block east on Calle Ocho, away from the melancholy, 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, a large iced tea is only $1.50. Grab a lunch-counter stool or a table. Of various dining recommendations I received on Calle Ocho, this was the best.
Given the half-century trade embargo, Little Havana shopping is problematic. 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.
SOUNDS OF CUBA, 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 like something from an old Warner Bros. flick, with a high ceiling and quartet of belt-driven fans hung from dark wooden beams. It has the vibe to match: old Latin jazz on the sound system, framed posters of the long-ago appearances there by jazz greats Chet Baker and Count Basie. 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. The Friday evening I was there, a Latin-flavored rock band was playing onstage.
There was better stuff across the street. The last Friday of the month in Little Havana is Viernes Culturales — a Cubano arts/music event. For April, the back part of Domino Park was tricked out with a wide portable stage for Marlow Rosado y La Riquena, a top-flight Miami salsa band. Shaved-headed keyboardist Rosado stripped his “usual” band down to three horns, three percussionists, a bass player and two singers for a couple sets of fast Caribbean throb. Accounting for churn, maybe 800 to 1,000 people caught parts of the slick performance.
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.
And Little Havana is a colorful square in Miami’s quilt. The cars are too new, the buildings and streets too well tended to mimic Cuba. Those who work in the district live more like the busloads of rubberneck tourists than the Habaneros living in grinding poverty 222 miles across the straits.
The woman in the Little Havana to Go souvenir store at 14th and Calle Ocho said the rooster was partly selected for the community’s street symbol because “gallo” — rooster — is also Cuban slang for “money.”
She had what sounded like a New York accent.
Grammy-winning Marlow Rosado is of Puerto Rican extraction; if you hear his slick salsa in Cuba, it’s likely on a Key West radio station.
Prados, who looks quite a bit like American author William Burroughs, is a Spaniard who married a Cuban-American; they live miles west of Little Havana. The chef at Casa Panza, who spoke no English, is from Argentina.
Many Cubanos moved out when they moved up — Hialeah, north of Miami International, is now more of a Cuban-American enclave.
Residential Little Havana is increasingly populated with immigrants from Central America, so it remains a Latino 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.
WHEN IN LITTLE HAVANA ...
▪ Stroll over to the Cuban Memorial Plaza; head over to Domino Park.
▪ Load up on great, inexpensive Cuban food at El Christo, 1543 SW Eighth St. elcristorestaurant.com
▪ Buy a fistful of Cuban cigars; Little Havana Cigar Factory, 1501 SW Eighth St., is among the places to go. 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 if Marlow Rosado’s salsa band is playing. ballandchainmiami.com
▪ Pay the $10 cover for the live weekend flamenco show at Casa Panza, 1620 SW 8th St. casapanzacafe.net