Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Little Havana, Miami

Exploring Little Havana
A Neighborhood in Miami, Florida
March 30, 2013

Yesterday, my parents and I decided to go see the Little Havana section of Miami.  During our fun day exploring Little Havana, I was not surprised to find that Spanish was the predominantly spoken language.
Cigars are a well-known Cuban product.
No, I did not buy any because smoking is gross.
I was surprised to find that very few people there were able to also speak English.  Fortunately, I speak Spanish, so this was no big deal.  Actually, it was pleasant to chat with the people working in the stores since I haven't had much of a chance to speak Spanish since returning from Madrid last summer.  What confused me about it though, was that it seemed that even the younger people had not learned English in school or in the areas outside of Little Havana.  How do the students take those "exciting" standardized tests US children are subjected to if they cannot understand, speak, read, and write in English?  Or more importantly, how do they communicate with people outside of tiny Little Havana?  I totally understand that you grow up speaking the language your family and community speak, and that Spanish is widely spoken all over Miami, but I was surprised to find English was almost completely not spoken in Little Havana.  I felt like I was no longer in the US, although, I guess that just emphasizes that US residents are not homogeneous.  Different people live in different regions with different ideas, cultures, languages, etc.  But still, I have a hard time letting go of my surprise that speaking English was insufficient for communication within the US.  Regardless, even when communicating with my non-Spanish-speaking padres, everyone we met in Little Havana was tremendously helpful, smiley, and friendly.

Perhaps this language thing surprises me because when I lived in Madrid, I put forth a great effort to improve my Spanish-speaking skills.  I took note of the grammar structures that were most commonly used, I learned the idioms, and I tried with moderate success to improve my accent.  Truly, I don't think I personally would feel comfortable living in a country where I did not speak the main language.  Even when my great-grandma moved to the United States from Poland, she went to extensive classes to learn English.  I think she even attended some classes at school with her daughter, my grandma, in order to learn.

Colorful Buildings in Little Havana
Anyhow, we had a wonderful day exploring a part of Miami we had not seen before.  Looking around, we saw that the paint colors on most of the houses and buildings were bright, loud, and dramatic.  This extra presentation of color contributed to the feel of the neighborhood and was very appropriate for the tropical climate.  Such bright houses would be out of place in a colder place, but looked great here.  Our first stop of the day was lunch.  (We spent the morning catching some sun at the hotel's pool!)

Cuban food is huge in Miami, and we realized that we had not tried any, despite our numerous visits in recent years.  For us, the comida típica is a key feature of travel, so we started with lunch at a restaurant called La Carreta.

I'm pretty sure La Carreta, on Calle Ocho, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Cuban restaurants in the area.  Customers can either walk up to the window, order food, and eat outside, or they can sit inside for table service.  We ordered three plates to share that had been recommended to us: la vaca frita, la medianoche, and la milanesa con carne.

Vaca Frita at La Carreta
Plantains at La Carreta
My favorite, la vaca frita, was a plate of shredded and fried beef.  It was just the right amount of crispy without feeling greasy, and it came with mora and plantains.  Mora is a traditional mixture of black beans and rice, and plantains are super-delicious fried bananas.  The medianoche sandwich is served on a Cuban sweet roll and contains pork, ham, mustard, swiss cheese, and pickles.  (Perfect for Passover...)  We ordered it without pork, but it still showed up with two layers of ham.  Así es la vida.  The third dish we ordered, la milanesa con carne, is like a giant, flat hamburger that is breaded and has a layer of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese.  It's sort of like chicken parmesan, but with beef instead of chicken.  The dish also arrived with beans and rice and some plantains.  Everything was delicious, and it was great to finally try the food that is so popular in Miami.  La Carreta's plantains were probably the best I've ever tasted.  Additionally, the service was great - everyone was very friendly and attentive.  During our short meal, I think our water glasses were refilled about five times.  I recommend eating here.

Medianoche sandwich at La Carreta 
Another popular restaurant, a bit farther down the street, is Versailles.  It's pronounced as if it were a word in Spanish, not like the Versailles palace in France.  Maybe we'll try that one next time we're in Miami.

Mural at Sentir Cubano
After lunch, we went to a shop called Sentir Cubano (Feel Cuban/Feeling Cuban), where we were greeted in Spanish.  One of the shopkeepers noticed me looking at some prints by a Cuban artist, Noniska, and explained to me that this artist paints symbols that remind her of Havana as she knew it in her childhood.  The artist uses bright colors and lots of patterned detail filled in with pen, and designs doves, butterflies, hearts, palm trees, and women from Havana who she calls Las Habaneras.  The shop also has lots of Cuba memorabilia including flags, sugar sacks, and tiny espresso cups with matching spoons.
Art by Noniska

One thing we noticed in this shop, in the restaurant, and all over the town was the art.  Many of the neighborhood's walls are covered in festive murals, which commemorate the Cuban culture, dancing, and music.

Mural at La Carreta
Sugar at Sentir Cubano

A Game of Dominos at Domino Park
Our third stop of the day was Domino Park, which is actually called Maximo Gomez Park.  At this park, visitors can watch heated games of dominos and chess.  I've never seen anything quite like this before.  Old men gather in Cuban-styled attire and slap down their dominos with passion and energy on the tables with domino boards.  Who knew dominos could be so exciting?  Every so often, someone wins someone else loses, and a new player joins the group.  I know the basic idea of matching the numbers on the ends of the pieces, but I'm not sure how they decide with so many people who has won and who has lost.  This is really a site to be seen, and you should check it out if you're in Little Havana.
Calle Ocho near Domino Park
Flan de queso
We also stopped at a bakery to check out the classic pastries.  Here's we split a cake roll with dulce de leche sauce and un flan de queso (cheese flan).  Normally I'm not a fan of flan, but I really enjoyed this one!  The dulce de leche roll looked better than in tasted.

After this, we strolled down Calle Ocho a bit farther, browsed some windows, and then drove back to Coral Gables to see Marissa's junior recital, which she shared with Alissa.  Their performances were fantastic!  I had not heard Marissa sing since last summer in San Francisco, and don't have the opportunity to hear her sing in person very often, so I especially enjoyed this recital.  I'm looking forward to next year's senior recital!

Junior Recital at the University of Miami in Coral Gables
Marissa and Alissa
Dinner at Vilaggio in Merrick Park after the recital

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