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 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 which might come to pass.
It’s a mile-and-a-half west of downtown Miami, on the far side of Interstate 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-slug storefronts on Eighth and bungalows on the side streets.
Colorful walls, Cuban sandwiches
Get there with your camera early in the day, before 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 multiartist 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.
A safety island at 13th Avenue widens a bit into Cuban Memorial Plaza, a block-long 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 honors the men of Brigade 2506, Cubans trained in the Miami area by the CIA and 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 monument. A rooster crowed in a backyard nearby.
A block east on Calle Ocho, older Cubanos filled chairs at the tables shaded by Spanish tile roofs at concrete-and-brick Domino Park. 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 Cristo 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 ice tea is $1.50. Of the 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, but 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.
The sounds of Cuba and Miami
Two iconic buildings in the 1500 block predate Little Havana: the Tower Theater, an art-house cinema, and the Ball & Chain, a club 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 here, a Latin-flavored rock band was playing on stage.
There was better stuff across the street. The last Friday of the month in Little Havana is Viernes Culturales — a Cubano arts and 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. Keyboardist Rosado offered a couple sets of fast Caribbean throb. Accounting for churn, maybe 800 to 1,000 people caught parts of the slick performance.
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 rubberneck tourists than the Habaneros living in grinding poverty across the straits.
Many Cubanos moved out when they moved up — Hialeah, north of Miami International, is now more of a Cuban-American enclave.
A mixture of tradition and tourism keeps Little Havana Cuban. Some say the city’s most authentic mojito is mixed at 1465 Eight St. It’s the bar inside the Cuba Ocho Art & Research Center.
When in Little Havana …
Stroll over to the wistful Cuban Memorial Plaza; then head to Domino Park.
Load up on great, inexpensive Cuban food at El Cristo, 1543 S.W. Eighth St. ElCristoRestaurant.com
Buy a fistful of Cuban cigars; Little Havana Cigar Factory, 1501 S.W. 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 S.W. Eighth St.