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Heart of Little Havana

Versailles Restaurant in Miami is the culinary soul of the Cuban expat community and a gathering spot for opponents of the Castro regime. Its authentic cuisine and potent coffee has fueled passionate political debates for decades.

My husband and I recently sought escape from winter’s chill by heading south to Miami and quickly gravitated to Calle Ocho (8th Street) for the sights and sounds of Little Havana. We danced to Tito Puente music, watched old men playing dominoes while chomping on unlit cigars (smoking in the Maximo Gomez Park is no longer permitted), peeked into stores full of papayas and pineapples and hot tamales, and marveled at colorful murals full of Cuban heroes. And for lunch, what better spot to feast on the classic Cuban sandwich than Versailles?

We were apprehensive at first (given the fame of the restaurant) that it would be overrun with tourists such as ourselves. That fear quickly subsided. The entrance to the restaurant was crowded with local men enjoying strong Cuban coffee from the takeout window. Inside, past a busy bakery selling pastelitos filled with guava jam, we stood waiting to be seated, and were pleased to hear not a word of English.

A sea of animated faces chattered over heaping plates of savory Cuban cuisine—ropa vieja (shredded beef with tomato sauce), croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes), platanos maduros (fried plantains), yuca de mojo criollo (cassava root with garlic and citrus), and the ubiquitous arroz con frijoles negros (rice with black beans).

Photo courtesy of Versailles Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Versailles Restaurant

A sampler plate was more than enough for us to share. We didn’t even have room for the scrumptious tres leches dessert. We happily feasted, savoring the eclectic energy of the place—the clatter from the kitchen, the hum of conversation, the slightly chintzy décor (etched-glass mirrors, and 1970s chandeliers), and the notable absence of music, such a central part of Cuban culture.

Somehow the clinking of glasses, clearing of plates, and vibrant conversation made music unnecessary. Versailles is its own soundtrack.

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