SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
When one thinks of Miami, Cuban food springs to mind, but what about Cuban ice cream? Head to Calle Ocho, the main thoroughfare of the Cuban neighborhood, Little Havana, and you’ll find Azucar Ice Cream Company, likely with a deep line of people waiting to get their sugar fix. You can’t miss the larger-than-life ice cream cone hanging above the doorway on the blue exterior. Founded by Suzy Batlle, a daughter of Cuban immigrants, Azucar lures people in with creative flavors. While Batlle and her ice cream shop seem like natural fixtures now, her path to ice cream queendom was an unusual one.
A whip-smart, no-nonsense woman, Batlle found herself out of work as a banker in 2008. She didn’t have a culinary background, but her kids, school-aged at the time, suggested she open an ice cream shop. Batlle’s grandfather had been a sugar mill engineer and her grandmother an ice cream making whiz, so it didn’t seem like such a leap. Batlle studied up on it and attended a two-week program at Penn State where she learned about the chemistry and physics of ice cream and then learned how to make ice cream at the Frozen Dessert Institute in St. Louis. She knew that she couldn’t open your regular vanilla and chocolate ice cream shop; it had to be Cuban. “It’s a Cuban ice cream shop. I’m Cuban, my whole family is Cuban. So we made the flavors as Cuban as possible,” she explains.
Cubans migrated to Miami in the 1960s in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. There are Cuban and Latin American influences throughout the metro area, but Little Havana was the hub of Cuban exiles, and Calle Ocho its main artery. West of downtown Miami, Calle Ocho is colorful with vibrant street art, restaurants with window coffee shops, a domino park where senior citizens play all day and night, and cultural landmarks like the Tower Theater. “That’s really where the Cuban life began, especially for us. I was born here, but my brothers were born in Cuba and my mom came from Cuba. We were all little kids, my mom had to work three jobs, but [Calle Ocho] was the Cuban Mecca for everybody.” It’s not gimmicky like Disney World, but authentically Cuban. That’s how Batlle knew she had to open her shop there.
Even the shop’s design is inspired by Cuba. First are the guayaberas (men’s linen shirts) stolen from her family members to make cushions, the portrait of Celia Cruz, and the Spanish mosaic tile. Then there are the plastic-covered chairs. “There was this phenomena when my grandmother came from Cuba. For some reason all these older people had plastic all over their furniture so I added the plastic, too, because I thought it was funny that my grandmother had it and every time you got up from the seats, especially if you were sweaty, you took the couch with you,” she says with a laugh.
Why is Azucar’s ice cream quintessentially Cuban? Their flagship (and trademarked) flavor is the Abuela Maria, named after her grandmother and a tribute to an afternoon Cuban treat. “Cubans love to have with their 4:00 coffee and Maria cracker topped with guava and cream cheese. So we took that variation of something very Cuban and made it into an ice cream.” It’s a nicely layered flavor with crunch and just the right amount of sweetness. There are more straightforward flavors, too, like guava, plantain, and flan. According to Batlle, the most Cuban flavor Azucar has is the mantecado, an egg-based vanilla ice cream subtly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. She didn’t even know it existed when the shop first opened. “I didn’t know what it was,” she explains. “The guys from domino park kept coming over and asking me, ‘where is the mantecado?’ and I didn’t have any idea.” After digging up her grandmother’s recipe and tweaking it with the guys, she finally mastered the mantecado and it’s been a mainstay ever since.
These flavors, and her ability to create and workshop new ones on a whim, are what Batlle thinks sets Azucar apart from other ice cream shops. Take, for example, a not-so-traditional flavor called Burn in Hell Fidel. When Fidel Castro died in 2016, it was cause for celebration in Miami, and Batlle joined in the fun by creating the special flavor. First, they soak ancho chilies in milk for 48 hours before straining it and making a chocolate ice cream with locally made Exquisito Chocolates. Because that’s not hot enough, they also add cayenne pepper. She says, “When you first taste it you think, oh this is great, it’s just chocolate. And then all of the sudden there’s a burn in your throat. That’s the same burn in the throat we like to say we kicked Fidel Castro with.” The flavor was an instant hit, and has remained on the menu ever since its creation.
In the near decade that Azucar’s been open, Batlle hasn’t once thought about going back to her old career. Instead, she has her sights set on making Azucar the Cuban Haagen-Dazs with a location in every state. Next stop? Dallas this June.
Header image courtesy of Azucar Ice Cream Company.