The Cuban café is to Miami what the diner is to many towns in northern New Jersey and the drive-thru is to LA. It's the kind of restaurant that says a lot about the place where it's located—and a spot where you can get anything from a great cup of home-style coffee to a satisfying dinner and everything in between.
Last month, I spent a couple of days at Las Olas Café in Miami Beach. It's one of the few old school Cuban places left in glitzy, high-rent South Beach. Located in SoFI—that's South of Fifth, meaning south of Fifth Street, almost at the southern tip of Miami Beach—Las Olas is a humble anomaly amidst the soaring multi-million dollar condos and the much more upscale restaurants in the neighbourhood. It attracts local mail carriers, construction workers, and Russian oligarchs alike.
Las Olas Cafe brings to this almost completely gentrified neighbourhood a touch of the past—when the area was a site of the events that underlie Scarface, i.e., the place where thousands of Marielitos washed up on shore thanks to Castro's decisions to open the gates to his prisons, back in 1980. It was a time when a comforting plate of ropa vieja finished off with a cortadito and a pastelito were very much in order. Las Olas Café is a reminder that the Miami of the past—a Miami built on the backs of dispossessed Cubans—still lives beneath the surface.
Ironically, the place hasn't been there that long—only since the early 2010s. In the scheme of the classic Cuban restaurant in Miami—places like Versailles and La Carreta, which were opened by the refugees who came to Miami from Cuba in the early 1960s—that's nothing. Those places are so well known that they feed presidents and have outposts at the local airport.
But Las Olas Café is most certainly legit and has become an unshakable presence in the daily lives of many.
People may differ over what the true test is for an authentic Cuban restaurant. Certain hallmarks, however, are a must: amazing cafecitos, strong and sweet enough to make your teeth sting; a walk-up window where you can procure said coffee and shoot the shit in Spanish with your neighbours, while cursing Fidel to the fullest; a bunch of officious ladies serving guava and cheese infused pastelitos; a menu—with pictures, of course—that continues for a few pages, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks; and a screeching juicer making guarapa, the cloyingly sweet sugarcane drink that's sure to leave you in a sweaty daze.
But above all, a true Cuban restaurant makes a great or Cuban sandwich—the toasted pork, ham, and cheese delight that doesn't taste the same anywhere out of sub-tropical climes. It's the dish that has been endlessly championed for decades and is what most people think of when they see some guy in the kitchen wearing a guayabera.
Las Olas Café makes a great Cuban sandwich. In fact, Michael and Jane Stern of fame, have deemed it to be the best. With fresh roasted pork loin, real butter slathered on the bread before it hits the plancha, and plenty of pickles and yellow mustard, it is, they write, "a single sensational chord of flavour." I've been eating them since I was a kid and I'd have to say I agree. Too many joints in Miami serve their Cubanos half-toasted, with inferior meats, and slathered with margarine. Not Las Olas. I can concur that the Cubano there is beautifully toasted and complex in flavour. It's the real deal.
But a Cuban restaurant can't stand on a Cubano alone. In the name of science, I had to try some more dishes. A kid from South Korea named Sang-Joon approached me and, communicating through a translation app on his phone, he asked me what to order. He had seen the line out the door and decided to come in. I recommended the lechon and the ropa vieja. And platanos and black beans, of course. All were superior.
The guava pastelito was flaky and sweet, sort of like a croissant crossed with a Danish. The ham and cheese were hot and crispy. And the true test—the cortadito, espresso "cut" with a dash of milk—was great. It's the little details that makes Las Olas stand out in the nearly unending sea of pan con bistecs and platanos.
In the end, eating at Las Olas for an almost-sickening total of four times in two days made one thing clear to me: Growing up, a Jewish kid in what is certainly one of the largest hubs in the Latin American world, I could easily have felt like I was on the other side of the looking glass. But unfaltering institutions of Cubano cooking like Las Olas Café can unite us all.