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Everything You Thought You Knew About Cuban Coffee Is Wrong
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Everything You Thought You Knew About Cuban Coffee Is Wrong

Erin Meister
Published 3 months ago

Just like there's no one style of music that can be called “Cuban music,” there's not one drink that embodies “Cuban coffee,” and it doesn't stop there: “Cuban coffee” is almost as much a lifestyle or philosophy as it is a cup of something hot and strong. It's an irreplaceable part of the culture, and an important link among the community of Cubans and Cuban-Americans in Miami.

The foundational Cuban-style coffee drink is a Cubano or cafecito, espresso sweetened with sugar during the brew, but there are even variations on how that sweetening happens: Some shots are pulled with sugar mixed in with the grounds, others (more traditionally) are poured directly onto crystals sitting in the bottom of the demitasse and mixed intensely enough to create a kind of emulsified foam, called espuma. The frothy drink is perfectly bittersweet, hot, and creamy enough to feel like a hug wrapping around your tongue. If you have a couple friends along, order a colada, which is simply a pull of several cafecitos poured into a styrofoam cup, with several smaller plastic cups on the side so you can divvy and share.

“A lot of offices, including my parents' family business, have as a tradition a little 'coladita bell' that is rung around 3 p.m. by the daily 'office barista,' and the whole staff runs to line up for a shot of thick, syrupy and extremely sugary espresso,” says Debbie Rabinovici, owner of Cafe Curuba in Coral Gables, a third-wave coffee bar that serves Counter Culture Coffee beans as well as house-made pastries and to-die-for egg sandwiches. “The colada tradition in particular appeals to me because, beyond getting people caffeinated, it also brings people together because it is meant to be shared.”

From that Cuban-style espresso base, you can order a cortadito, a small drink made from equal parts espresso (sometimes unsweetened) cut with a more or less equal amount of steamed, texturized milk, sometimes evaporated or condensed milk—about 4–5 ounces total, served in a small cup. Café con leche is another Cuban-style standard: This “coffee with milk” differs somewhat from the Italian café latte (“coffee milk”) or the French café au lait (“coffee with milk”) in that the two ingredients, espresso—sweetened or not—and frothy steamed milk, are sometimes presented separately and mixed by the customer.

“It's undeniable that Cuban coffee culture in Miami is rich, strong, and charming,” Rabinovici says, insisting that she didn't return to her hometown to open her coffee shop in spite of the local Cuban coffee heritage, but rather in part because of it. “I didn't open Curuba to try and compete with traditional Cuban coffee establishments. I respect and like what they do. But in NYC I was exposed to specialty coffee, and was truly enchanted by the dedication and love that was put into coffee as an ingredient to be honored and treated with care. I think there's space and time for both. It's a unique part of our landscape, and one that I embrace. I actually find it a bit annoying to hear out-of-towners coming in with third-wave coffee businesses and completely dismissing Cuban coffee as 'bad.' That is just not cool!”

Now that you know what to order, it helps to know where. Miami is a pretty caffeinated city—how else could all that late-night dancing possibly sustain?—and there are spots to order coffee almost everywhere you look. Whether you go the old-school route and stroll up to a ventanita (takeout window) or sit down in a café or restaurant for your pick-me-up, here are a few of the spots that are keeping things clásico, as well as a couple neuvo options.

“At Curuba,” says Rabinovici, “we make the specialty-coffee version of a cortado: a double ristretto shot that's 'cut' with three ounces of frothed milk. No sugar is added unless the clients wants. We use CCC Apollo blend [for the espresso], which is almost always 100 percent Yirgacheffe [Ethiopian beans]; its citrusy quality provides an interest contrast with the milk. I love it so!” In contrast to the dark and heavy flavors of most standard Cuban-style espresso blends, Curuba's lighter, brighter coffee brings a new element to an old favorite—like a warm cup of tropical sunshine.

Cafe Curuba – 2626 Ponce De Leon Blvd., Coral Gables, FL 33134; (786) 703-9183

While other coffee tourists are lining up outside standby classics La Carreta and Versailles, the cafeteria Las Olas in Miami Beach is churning out stellar cups of cafecito and cortadito to wash down tasty bites like pastelitos, Cuban pastries stuffed with deliciousness like meat, cheese, or guava, and, of course, excelente Cuban sandwiches. Stand at the window and split a colada with friends (or strangers who will become friends), or sit inside and relax over your coffee and one of the daily specials.

Las Olas Cafe – 644 6th St, Miami Beach, FL 33139; (305) 534-9333.

For a taste of what it might feel like to sit in the sun in Havana sipping cortadito, Más Cuba in the Riviera South Beach has a relaxed topical vibe, full of antiques straight off the island and full to the gills with colors, patterns, light, and plants. Guests have the option to stick with the classics and soak up the 1950s style, or try a health-conscious twist on the standard: a Cuban-inspired iced coffee that uses soy milk and agave.

Más Cuba – 318 20th St, Miami Beach, FL 33139; (305) 534-2270

If you're used to lovely rosettas and tulip designs poured into your coffees, don't fret all this talk of “tradition”—there are plenty of places bringing specialty coffee and Cuban style together in Miami. Tinta y Café does exactly that, marrying high-quality coffee and beautiful presentation with the heart and soul of Cuban caffeinated heritage. Your cortadito here will be as lovely to look at as to sip, and you can order it with or without evaporada. (Don't sleep on the sandwiches, either.)

Tinta y Café – 1315 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables, FL 33134; (305) 285-0101

The adventurous world traveler would do well to grab their morning joe from Pasion del Cielo, a unique café with a globe-trotting approach to coffee. At Pasion del Cielo, guests can choose beans from several different coffee-growing countries—including Cuba—to act as the base in any drink on the menu. Mix and match drinks with origins for a full passport-stamping experience, and just try not to get overcaffeinated in the process.

Pasion del Cielo – 100 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134; (305) 448-0007

If there is a standard-bearer for the growing culture of high-quality coffee in Miami, it's undoubtedly Panther Coffee, with a few locations throughout the greater Miami area. Owners Leticia and Joel Pollock changed the game when they opened their first shop in Wynwood in 2010, and they continue to push the envelope while also showing love to the kind of emotional and nostalgic connection that their customers have with different profiles of flavor and beverage. Not only do the couple's shops offer two different approaches to espresso—East Coast and West Coast blends that speak to those regions' general coffee preferences—but they also have a classic cortadito on the menu not far from the high-tech BKON-machine brewed flash-iced coffee, or individual hand-poured brew methods like Chemex and V60.

Panther Coffee – multiple locations.

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