Food & Drink

A Miami Local's Guide to Cuban Coffee

Down any given street in Miami, you’ll pass at least a dozen ventanitas, walk-up windows with Cuban-style coffee, pastries, and other small bites for sale. If the delicacies alone don’t pique your interest, the ubiquitous nature of these historic stands will at least have you wondering, “How the hell did these places become so popular?”

The history of Cuban coffee in Miami is as rich as the beverage itself and has roots planted as deep as the Arabic plant from which it’s made. The coffee, at once intense, bold, passionate, and bittersweet, echoes the personality of not only the city, but its people.

Courtesy of Javier Ramirez

Coffee took its maiden journey to Cuba in 1748 thanks to Don José Antonio Gelabert. Due to Cuba’s high humidity and rich virgin soil, the beverage soon became the drink of choice throughout the nation. Subsequently, in the 1800s, Cuba became the world’s largest sugar producer, and the cafe con azúcar was born.

Cubans revolutionized the way Miamians drink coffee

During the ‘60s and ‘70s (the Cuban Revolution), many people -- and companies -- abandoned Cuba for a new life in Miami. Places like La Esquina de Tejas and La Milagrosa Supermarket were established and became pillars of the community. In Little Havana -- where 76,000 people reside -- coffee was obviously the drink of choice. The only problem? It wasn’t, and still isn’t, real Cuban coffee.

Unfortunately, due to Cuba-US relations, the Cuban-style coffee -- traditionally served as espresso -- consumed in Miami is not actually from Cuba, but from myriad other coffee producing countries. Coffee was one of the products included in the embargo of the 1960s that’s still in effect today. And even if the markets are opened, don’t expect Cuban Miamians to jump on board. Many Cubans left their native country seeking political asylum or better economic conditions, two things just not possible under communism. So as long as the Cuban coffee industry exists under that political system, it’ll find very few supporters in Miami. This is only compounded by the fact that Cuba’s coffee industry is struggling to survive due to a number of factors like harsh climate, out of date technology, and lack of experienced work force.

Courtesy of Daniel Korzeniewski

Most of the coffee that is produced is exported to countries like Japan, France, Spain, and Italy -- just to name a few. And it’s not the same as the pre-revolution elixir. Subsisting on the monthly allotment rations, Cuban residents are provided just half a pound of coffee per month. Any serious coffee drinker knows that just isn’t possible... so Cubans add chicory to the blend to make it last longer.

Go to a ventanita. Everyone has a Pitbull story

Cubans revolutionized the way Miamians drink coffee. While the Starbucks experience can be stale and homogenized, ventanitas provide a sense of community. Sure, there are no couches or Wi-Fi, but it provides short snippets of time to disconnect from technology and actually connect with fellow Miamians, even if just to rant about the Marlins or the never-ending rain. Spend a day at any ventanita, and you’ll learn a lot. You’ll get up-to-date on Miami slang, hear about how VapoRub works for every ailment, catch up on domino champion rivalries at nearby Maximo Gomez Park, learn the best recipes for ajiaco or flan, and get insider information on where to play bolita. Someone will also probably tell you about how they met Pitbull. Everyone has a Pitbull story.

And where would one go to be regaled with tales of Pitbull? The most iconic spot is Versailles (pronounced ver-sigh). Made up of three buildings, one can have three completely different experiences (traditional sit down restaurant, bakery, and ventanita), but if you only have the time for one, opt for the ventanita, where you can grab a café and pastry. It’s one of the 29 things to do in Miami before you bite it. Inside, you’ll find one of the most ironic signs in Miami: “We ask all people that come to have a conversation to please go outside.” Have you ever tried telling a Cuban to be quiet? While drinking brain-energizing caffeine?! Good luck with that.

Whether it’s in Cuba inside their homes, cut with chicory, talking about how their nephew in Miami knows Pitbull, or outside of Versailles exchanging stories about how Pitbull crashed a friend of a friend’s birthday, coffee (and Pitbull) continues to be a unifying and communal experience among the Cuban population. So if you find yourself in Miami and are looking for a glimpse into Cuba’s history and culture -- or just a cup of coffee -- stop by Versailles, order a café Cubano, ignore the sign on the wall, and listen closely... you just might hear a story about Julio Iglesias... what? There are other celebrities in Miami, you know.

Courtesy of Phillip Pessar

Cuban Coffee glossary

Café - Spanish for coffee

Café Cubano or cafecito - Cuban coffee with sugar. It is very strong and sweet. You can ask for no sugar (sin azucar) or extra sugar (más azúcar).

Café con leche - Latin latte. Shot or two of black Cuban coffee drowned in milk and sugar. This is often referred to as the gateway coffee. Usually drank at breakfast, it is normal for people to dunk Cuban bread or other pastries in it.

Cortadito - Short café con leche. You can also cut your coffee with evaporated milk (leche evaporada) or condensed milk (leche condensada), which yields a higher viscosity and slows down the receptors reaching your tongue and makes the coffee more intense, lowering the overall sweetness.

Colada - Café Cubano or cafecito served in a large Styrofoam cup. It is accompanied by small plastic cups and meant for sharing.

Café Americano - Black, American coffee. If you’re ordering this at a ventanita, you have no business being there. It’s guaranteed to get you side eye.

Espuma or espumita- Froth created by mixing sugar with the first drops of coffee. The froth eventually rises to the top when the coffee is poured in.

Pastelito- Baked phyllo dough pastry that can be savory or sweet. The most popular are filled with guava.

Barato- Spanish for cheap. Cuban coffee at ventanitas will always be cheap. As much as the craft coffee scene continues to flourish in Miami, the ventanita will never go away. For the older crowd living on fixed incomes and used to prices in the old country or ‘60s and ‘70s Miami, these locations provide not only a sense of place and familiarity, but a cheap place to convene.

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Miami native and freelance writer Mandy Baca wrote this after drinking a whole colada. She didn’t sleep for 3 days straight after. Follow her on Twitter at @mandybaca.