Cubans know how to make food better. Period. At least that’s what they’ll say in Miami, where Cubans make up nearly half of the total population share. That said, it’s no wonder that pastelitos and vaca frita remain so firmly embedded in the Magic City’s culinary scene. Miami is home to countless Cuban bakeries, cafes, and restaurants that run the gamut––from hole-in-the walls that have been feeding the community for decades, to spiffy kitchens building upon past traditions.
It was no surprise to Miamians back in 2010 when president Barack Obama bought five hefty Cuban hamburgers on a Monday night before leaving town. Under one condition, of course, “We can’t tell the first lady.”
From fritas decked with egg and shoe-string fries, to classic pan con bistec, here are five cuban restaurants you should know about.
All photos by Greyceli Marin
El Mago de las Fritas
Address and phone: 5828 SW 8th ST (305-266-8486)
Good for: Tasting 31 years of frita craftsmanship.
Fritas are the result of what happens when Cubans try to tinker with a hamburger—and succeed in doing so. El Mago has perfected the art form of fritas, which are made up of ground beef, pork, and sometimes chorizo patties, topped with shoestring potatoes and spiced sauces on Cuban bread. The annual “Frita Showdown” brings together South Florida’s best fritas on a grand stage, and this year the family-owned El Mago de las Fritas won the People’s Choice for “Best Frita in the World” with its “Frita Confundida”: a special occasion-only frita prepared with roast pig and wine-cured ham on a garlic butter Media Noche bun. For the remainder of the year, El Mago, or “The Magician,” offers delicious pastelitos and the a Caballo option, which lets you top any frita favorite with a fried egg. El Mago is equally loved by first-generation Cubans, their third-generation foodies, and the POTUS himself.
Order this: Frita a Caballo
Note: Mago prepares 70 strips of Chicharrón (fried pork rind) Saturdays only. First come first serve.
Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co.
Address and phone: Little Havana, 541 SW 12th Ave (786-420-2672); Coral Gables, 2330 Salzedo St (305 442-9622)
Good for: Instagram-worthy sandwich porn.
It’s no surprise that Jon Favreau’s character in the movie Chef constructed a business plan based on Miami’s signature dish: the Cuban sandwich. This glorious 1800’s Key West transplant made its way to Miami after years of feeding early Cuban immigrant communities. In its most traditional state, it’s prepared with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and mustard on pressed Cuban bread. Little Bread embraces the purist form of the sandwich, but isn’t afraid to push the envelope either. Modern riffs on classics include the “Reubencito,” built with house pastrami and crispy belly on Cuban rye; bacon wrapped plantains; black truffle Yuca fries; and passion fruit macaroons.
Order this: Classic Cuban and the bacon wrapped plantains.
Address and phone: 1081 Sunset Dr. (786-464-0744)
Good for: Real Cuban cafeteria food in a non-traditional cafeteria.
This fast-casual spot serves up all the classics: vaca frita (shredded steak sandwich), pan con bistec (steak sandwich), guava flan, croquetas, plantain chips, steak and chicken rice bowls, all day breakfast, and, of course, Cuban coffee. The throwback 50’s feel and touch-screen soda dispensers gives this place a Cuban-tinged Johnny Rockets vibe. Cuban Guys was co-founded by Enrique Santos, a well-known Miami local and host of his own satirist radio show. But there’s nothing to mock here—the food at all four locations is legit.
Order this: The Vaca Frita rice bowl
Ball & Chain
Address and phone: 1513 SW 85th St. (305-643-7820)
Good for: Historic Miami setting with live music.
Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood is home to the historic Ball & Chain, a bar and nightspot that first opened in 1935 back when Calle Ocho was nothing more than a dirt road. Back in the day, the venue featured the likes of Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Chet Baker on its commodious center stage. Through the years, Ball & Chain adapted to the growing influx of Cubans and now proudly boasts a heavily Cuban-influenced menu of guava pastelito cocktails, Cuban spring rolls, chicharrones, queso frito, and a Medianoche wrap.
Order this: Cuban spring rolls and the guava cocktail (white Bacardi rum, guava marmalade, lemon, honey and a tiny pastelito).
Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop
Enriqueta’s name may suggest it specializes in just sandwiches, but in the wee hours of the morning locals trickle in for breakfast and Cuban coffee. Enriqueta’s suffered an electrical fire two years ago, and after four months of the city’s (arguably) best pan con bistec withdrawals, it opened its doors once again to a completely remodeled space. This Cuban cafeteria is a homey locale in the otherwise hip and artsy neighborhood of Wynwood, where folks brew their own beer and every wall boasts a mural. It continues to serve daily specials of Cuban favorites like lechon asado (Cuban grilled pork) in a tamale, filete de cherna (broiled grouper), and bistec a la milanesa (breaded steak smothered in cheese). Watch your coffee be made in record time through the take-out window, or sit inside and eat a plate that can probably serve three.
Order this: Whatever the daily specialty is. Plus a cortadito.