Inside the Agustin Gainza Gallery, about a dozen hungry voyeurs meet in the heart of Little Havana for the start of a nose-dive into Cuban culture. Grace Della, the group’s tour guide, explains the meaning behind the colorful paintings of Cuban folklore found at both the Gainza Gallery, and the Molina Fine Art Gallery just next door.
Though the art gives insight into the island’s history, it’s once inside Casa Panza that Miami Culinary Tours’ Little Havana Food Tour kicks off. Strangers easily become friends as tapas – traditional Spanish appetizers – sprout conversation and encourage sharing. With papas aioli, chorizo albino and fried garbanzos sizzling on the table, the tour transports you away from Miami into a Spanish-centric sect.
“We believe in promoting the local economy,” said Della, the founder of Miami Culinary Tours. “We try to keep alive the Cuban culture here in Miami, which we love very much.”
Walking out of Casa Panza and onto Calle Ocho, Celia Cruz’s “La Vida Es Un Carnaval,” a classic salsa song, blares around the block and pairs with the columns and balconies of Mediterranean Revival architecture, the style often seen down the historical street. On the floor, dozens of stars are honored as a part of the Latin Walk of Fame, Miami’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The tour makes a second stop at the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company, where Alberto Gonzales wraps a box full of Cuban cigars, a craft he’s mastered over 41 years. He explains how the Honduran, Nicaraguan, Ecuadorian and Dominican roots of the farm-grown tobacco makes the shop the city’s best for a Cuban cigar.
A few steps over, 85-year-old Heliodoro Coro welcomes the group into El Pub Restaurant, one of several businesses he owns on the street. A hot plantain omelet with a side of black bean soup and the choice of red or white Argentine wine are staples at El Pub. Though locals often have the food, visitors devour the worldly cuisine.
Della then points to historic locales – the Tower Theatre, open since 1926, Domino Park, where viejitos (senior citizens) challenge each other to dominos, and a theatre undergoing construction, where Billy Holiday once performed.
For another taste of Cuba, a stop at Exquisito Restaurant is a must. Della presents the tour with a Cuban sandwich, glazed bread on the outside, pork, mustard, pickles, ham and cheese on the inside. Immediately after, the tour tries a pastelito de guayaba (a guava pastry) and jugo de guarapo (sugar cane juice).
Before topping the tour with desert, Della gives a mini-history lesson at the Cuban Memorial Boulevard, where she discusses the Bay of Pigs, U.S.-Cuban relations and Santeria, a Caribbean-based religion.
The tour’s final stop is at El Cristo Restaurant for dessert. Made with condensed milk, sugar, egg and creme cheese, the group is given flan, a soft and sweetly glazed treat similar to custard creme – a delicious end to a Cuban afternoon.
If you go:
What: Miami Culinary Tours Little Havana Food Tour
When: Every Saturday from 12:30 to 2 p.m.
Price: $59 per person
Remember: Wear comfortable clothes. It’s a walking tour of Little Havana, rain or shine.
For more information, visit miamiculinarytours.com