Luis Gonzalez-Castro was born in Puerto Rico but his family relocated to Little Havana when he was seven. In vibrant Little Havana, Luis’s father owned a small bakery, kick-starting Luis’s life-long passion for food. Luis affectionately called his beloved grandmother Cuca, and she is the inspiration behind his regular Cuban-American supper clubs across London. For more details, see @cocinacuca on Instagram.
Pastelitos (pastries) can’t be missed. Found on every corner bakery across Little Havana, you will see them beautifully laid out behind a glass counter. It’s almost as though they are being shown off with true Cuban pride. Getting there early is key so you get them straight out of the oven. You order a café con leche and at least two or three types of pastelito. Fillings include guava with cream cheese, pulled chicken or picadillo (beef mince).
2. Cuban cafecito
Small in size but big on Cuban tradition. The cafecito is a sweetened espresso shot, but what makes a Cuban coffee so unique is the espumita you make to go on top. This is literally whipped sugar made with the first spurt of coffee from the machine. I’m a huge fan of Café Bustelo, which was and still is the coffee of choice for my family. Making the espumita was a ritual that I loved taking part in as a kid because it meant I could stay up longer with the grown-ups. When you vigorously whip the sugar and coffee together until the paste is light in colour, and then stir a spoonful into your tacita (small cup) the result is sensational: a rich and sweet boost of energy for day or night.
3. Tres leches cake
In short, what a dessert showstopper. This beautifully light, fluffy sponge drenched with three different kinds of milk (and sometimes coconut or spiced rum, depending on how adventurous you’re feeling) and topped with whipped vanilla pod cream is just wow, and was always my childhood favourite – and a top choice in every restaurant and cafeteria in Little Havana. The trick to success is folding your cake mix, rather than beating it. Dangerously addictive.
4. Ropa vieja
Literally meaning ‘old clothes’ due to its long, shredded fibres, this is the national dish of Cuba and served in every restaurant in Little Havana. With its fragrant, smoky, aromatic mixture of tender, melt-in-the-mouth pulled beef, olives and other rich flavours, it’s no surprise. It takes a while to cook down, so make sure you can have time for a relaxed cooking session when you make this (see Luis’s recipe for rope vieja). At our supper clubs we make it the day before, then let it rest overnight before gently cooking it again the next day. We serve it with rice speckled with black beans, called moros y cristianos, a traditional and historical rice dish brought to Cuba from Spain.
5. The Cuban sandwich
The sandwich – or, as we say in Miami, sanguich – is a Little Havana classic. Any restaurant or café you go to will serve different types of sandwiches but my favourites include the medianoche – a delicious combination of roast pork, ham, mustard, melted swiss cheese and sweet pickle in a brioche-style bread – and the Cubano, made with the same ingredients but on a crisp Cuban loaf. And I can’t leave out the unique Elena Ruz, grilled turkey breast served in a sweet bun with cream cheese and strawberry jam. These are never a light lunch but then, in Little Havana, there is never a time for a light lunch.
6. Mariquitas con mojo
These moreish deep-fried plantain crisps studded with salt and dipped in mojo are a Cuban snacking staple. They kick off most meals across Miami where they originate from and, when dipped in the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and salt mixture, are a taste bud tingler. There’s this satisfying feeling I get slicing them and seeing these gorgeous, long, golden and crisp curls come out. They’re a bit like British salt and vinegar – a classic combination.
Traditionally from Puerto Rico, mofongo is deeply comforting and very versatile. There’s an excitement as it arrives (served inside a wooden pilón, a pestle and mortar) at your table, often served with a side of crispy pork. It is made by mashing together fried green plantains with salt, crushed garlic, chicken stock and olive oil in a mortar. An all-time favourite of mine.
8. Arroz imperial
This traditional dish is also known as a Cuban lasagne, and it forms the centrepiece of any formal Cuban party. It is carefully made with layers of beer-cooked rice, cheese and pulled chicken, which has been gently poached in sherry, spices and good quality chicken stock. The result is something that guests say is ‘ridiculously good’ – you’ll always want a second slice.
This elegant rum-based Cuban-born cocktail was Ernest Hemingway’s drink of choice and, in Miami, you’ll find it served in several ways. Its simple yet fresh, fruity flavours have made this drink one of the most requested and well-known cocktails across Miami and indeed the USA. At Cuca, we have a few daiquiri-based creations, each with a unique flavour and story. Try olive’ frozen strawberry daiquiri.
Fruit in Miami grows very big, with vibrant colours and abundant juice (jugos). When I was little, we’d always head for El Palacio de los Jugos, a brightly lit restaurant in Little Havana (and now throughout Miami) serving up traditional Cuban food in a kind of fast-casual setting. But it is the juice that brings back locals time and again. With unique tropical fruits such as mamey, guava, papaya, tamarind and the better-known fruits including watermelon, coconut, mango, orange, grapefruit and pineapple, you have plenty of choice. When it’s more than 30 degrees outside, one of these is the only remedy you need.