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Cuban Evolution

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Cuban Evolution
Written by By Ana Sofía Peláez | Photography by Alex Markow

Once a haven for homesick refugees, Miami’s ventanitas are changing with the times.

Server from El Pub

Approaching a ventanita in full swing can be a daunting experience. Improvisational by nature and utilitarian by design, the street-facing coffee kiosks attached to Cuban restaurants and bakeries throughout Miami have a rhythm and language all their own. The tempo is set by the women at the espresso machine—and it’s almost always women—serenely pouring out potent, dark roast espresso into pitchers prepped with enough sugar to create the espumita, the caramel foam that rises to the top. Regulars stand elbow-to-elbow at the counter, deep in conversations that veer quickly from the personal to the political and everything in between.

Tinta y Café

If it’s early morning, you might ask for a café con leche, scalded milk with a strong dose of espresso and save your cortadito, a single shot with a splash of steamed milk, for later. The colada is perhaps the most iconic—multiple shots poured into a styrofoam cup and delivered with a stack of plastic demitasse cups to be shared at your next destination. If coffee were music, the colada would be a conga that’s always on the move.

Ideally, you choose a Cuban pastry from the steel warmers displaying sugar-crusted cheese or guava pastelitos, freshly fried empanadas, and ham croquetas. Most recently, Venezuelan tequeños, Colombian pan de bonos, and Argentinian alfajores have found their place on the teeming trays.

It’s a sign that, while Cuban coffee culture has taken root in Miami, the city is growing and ventanitas are evolving along with it. Old school favorites hold their own, and the next generation of Cuban Americans work toward reinventing the format, even while the caffeine-fueled banter and vibrant sense of community remains the same. Once built to evoke a lost world, Cuban ventanitas are ready to embrace a new one.

Exterior of Versailles

Versailles Restaurant

A barista at Versailles’ window pours a colada.

It’s hard to imagine a windowless Miami, but ventanitas took their time getting there. For Cuban refugees fleeing the island en masse in the early 1960s, the coffee stands set up throughout Cuba’s urban centers were one more thing to miss as they rebuilt their lives in South Florida. Felipe Valls, newly arrived from Santiago de Cuba with his young family, saw an opportunity. At a job selling used restaurant supplies, he urged his boss to import espresso machines—but was told they wouldn’t sell. According to his son Felipe Valls, Jr., his father was undeterred. He told his boss, “Well you’re going to sell them now because that’s what Cubans drink.”

Valls was offered a loan instead, which he used to import the machines himself, placing them in small, Cuban-owned restaurants and markets. Many of these markets were equipped with a guillotine window, which Valls incorporated into the ventanita and lunch counter he opened in 1971. Inspired by its faux baroque dining room, the work of Cuban designer Juan Pérez-Cruz, Valls named it Versailles.

Bakery case filled with pastelitos (cheese and guava pastries) and croquetas at Versailles.

Located in the heart of what became Little Havana, Versailles was thought too far from Miami’s commercial center to attract business. But partly because of its late hours, the restaurant quickly took off. For decades, every major sports event and concert, baptism and birthday, wedding and funeral ended at a table in Versailles. The Valls family now owns and operates more than twenty cafes and restaurants throughout the city. Valls, now 84, still reports to work every day and several of his children and grandchildren help in day-to-day operations.

The original restaurant underwent two major expansions, including the addition of a full service bakery. But it’s at the ventanita where politicians pose when they’re looking for the Cuban-American vote and where media vans report when news breaks in Cuba. And for a community wearily waiting for the final chapter in its Cold War history—with the accompanying policy shifts and reversals, hopes and heartbreaks—there’s always something to say.

“[Versailles] has been portrayed as the unofficial city government of Miami and where cameras go to get a Cuban opinion,” Felipe Jr. explains. “The Cuban community has seen it grow, become famous, has seen it become part of the their culture, so they reciprocate by being a part of it.”

A couple at Versailles’window shares a colada.

El Pub

Even on a street built by nostalgia, El Pub stands out. For sun-dazed tourists pouring out of double-decker buses at the nearby visitor center, it fits their idea of what a Cuban restaurant should be—warm, welcoming, and achingly sentimental.

Counterman slicing roasted pork leg at El Pub.

A favorite since it opened in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho in the 1960s, its closing in the early 1990s was much lamented until partners Heliodoro Coro, Enrique Hernandez, and Gregorio Rivera re-launched it in 1996. A map of Cuba dominates the main dining room while fragments of poetry by José Martí and pages from vintage Cuban magazines cover the walls. Photographs pinned along the inside of the ventanita have been donated by family and regulars over the years, black and white pictures with curled edges, reminding you just how personal it all is.

Sandwich Cubano at El Pub.

Since his passing in 2014, Gregorio’s children, Joe and Marina, continue to run El Pub during a transformative time for Calle Ocho. In the last year alone, the street has welcomed a hipster oyster bar, craft beer store, and artisanal Venezuelan chocolate shop.

While some are concerned that the street is losing its distinct Cuban character, Marina thinks her father would have embraced the changes, a vindication of the faith he put into restoring El Pub to the neighborhood. “It’s amazing and I wish my father was here to see it,” she says.

Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop

One of the remarkable things about ventanitas is that if you stay still long enough the world comes to you. As the re-development of Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood goes into hyperspeed, José Luis Pla knows Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop isn’t going anywhere. On any given day, you’ll find city officials, firefighters, and off-duty medics alongside visiting celebrities, gallery owners, and selfie-seeking tourists. If Miami were to wash away in a flood, this could be its ark.

A master baker trained by his father in Matanzas, Cuba, Pla crossed the Mexican border with his wife and two daughters in 1981. Finding work in Miami’s Cuban bakeries until he could open his own, he fell victim to his own success. “I had three bakeries. I’d buy them, fix them up, and raise the business up,” he said. “When it improved, the owner of the building would raise my rent to something unconscionable.”

In 2001, he learned Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop was up for sale and made an offer on the entire building. “I didn’t even argue the price,” Pla recalls. “I said ‘this is mine.’”

Window at Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop

 

It may have seemed like he got the worse end of the deal at the time. Surrounded by shipping containers and closed factories, the neighborhood would take a dangerous turn at night. Pla expanded the menu and developed a following with employees at the nearby courthouse and hospital. The ventanita, filled with the pastries he’d make himself every morning, became a draw. “Gimme a pastelito, gimme a cafecito, gimme a cortadito,” he laughs. “They like what they’re having and it brings in customers.”

Everything changed again when developers set their sights on the neighborhood in the mid-aughts. In 2009, Tony Goldman invited artists from all over the world to create large scale, public works among the abandoned warehouses. The shipping containers went away and galleries, theaters, shops, restaurants, and cafes populated the area.

Asked about the massive towers going up all around him, he’s confident he’s in the right place. “It’s beautiful, twenty-eight floors and another one just started,” he says. “They can’t move me.”

Tinta y Café

Ventanitas are so ubiquitous in Miami that you’d assume they’re always welcome. Apart from cafes and restaurants, you find them in major supermarkets, gyms, doctors offices, banks, and even funeral homes. So it was surprising when the popular Tinta y Café met resistance when it moved its entire operation from Brickell to Coral Gables last year.

Dessert case filed with flans and pudín diplomáticos (bread pudding with dried fruit) at El Pub

“They heard there was going to be a ventanita and thought it would draw a crowd,” explains co-owner Carlos Santamarina. “Technically it was against code. The city has accepted it but the neighbors started complaining.”

Having set out to elevate the ventanita, the Santamarina family is used to pushing boundaries and their new location is no different. Dominated by an enormous, glass storefront, the light filters through floating bookshelves weighed down with art books, and the mismatched mid-century furniture feels as nostalgic for Old Florida as it does for Cuba. The pastries are sourced from the family-owned El Gran Paris Bakery and they rely on local roaster Tu Café for their beans. While offering the usual line-up of Cuban coffees, they’ve become known for el pecado, espresso layered with condensed milk, steamed evaporated milk, and kissed with foam.

While many welcomed the addition, the ventanita was a deal breaker and they had to make their case at a community board meeting before they were allowed to go ahead.“It takes time for them to realize what we’re doing here,” explains Santamarina. “But the coffee and the flan win them over.”

All Day

Barista at All Day.

All Day is not your typical Cuban ventanita. Set on a porticoed street in downtown Miami, the large open window gives way to a cavernous, tropical modernist interior filled with tufted olive-green banquettes, pink marble table tops, and a sleek wrap-around coffee bar dominated by a customized La Marzocco Strada machine.

It’s a lovely world to step into and the vision of Camila Ramos who, together with partner Chris McLeod, opened the coffeehouse in 2016. Until then, Ramos was known as the award-winning barista and head educator of Panther Coffee, a local roaster she’d been working with since they opened their first retail store in 2011.

Shot of espresso at All Day

Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, she discovered specialty coffee at the University of Florida when she took a job at Volta Coffee, Tea and Chocolate. A microbiology major before switching to business, the thought and care applied to specialty coffee caught her imagination.“Coffee is a really delicate resource. It’s very easily screwed up along the chain and the chain is very long with a lot of manual labor and variables—it’s a living thing,” explains Ramos.

Ramos features a revolving roster of coffees and teas from around the world. Beyond espresso, the menu includes single-origin pour-overs, cold brews, and nitro infusions. There are ham croquetas but the pastry is a French brioche feuilleté filled with lemon curd.

What hasn’t changed is the window. “I always thought that the ventanita was a really romantic way to serve coffee,” Ramos says.

“You go to Versailles and you have this large window and this walk up bar on the inside and it’s dynamic and exciting and there’s interaction. I always thought that’s really great and it’s part of Miami coffee culture, and Cuban coffee culture certainly. I like the marriage of the two.”

Barista at All Day doing a Kalita pour-over.