Beaned!

Two brave men take an afternoon stroll down Calle Ocho -- with a coffee break at every single cafe cubano joint along the way

Because it was there.
Some men climb mountains. Some men sail around the world in papyrus boats. Some men cross the Atlantic in hot-air balloons. Some men drive on the Palmetto Expressway at rush hour in Toyota Tercels. And when you ask them why they did it, what madness or passion or desire possessed them, they invariably shrug and say, "Because it was there."

Which is as good an explanation as any why New Times decided to send out a crew to attempt a death-defying exploit: to walk through the heart of Little Havana along Calle Ocho, from the Brickell Pontiac dealership at Seventh Avenue to La Carreta some 30 blocks west, imbibing a cafe cubano at every possible stop along the way.

If you're not cringing right now, you've obviously never tasted Cuban coffee. It's a little like espresso, in the sense that they're both warm and brown, and they're both made with coffee beans. However, scientists generally agree that espresso is a liquid. They're still undecided about cafe cubano, which has a consistency more akin to roofing tar. They have, however, determined that tar is less toxic and tastes better.

But you don't drink cafe because of the flavor. You drink it because it is a stimulant. Molten caffeine with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. The preponderance of Cuban coffee joints is the main reason there are so few coke addicts in Little Havana.

Dr. George Diaz, a resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital, agreed to supervise the excursion and monitor the vital signs of the participants, proving that even doctors suffer lapses in judgment. An eager new arrival to the New Times staff who had recently transferred to Miami from Bogota, Colombia, and who for purposes of this article I'll refer to as "Stan," was quickly duped into participating: I told him it would be a great way to get to know Little Havana. I would be the second guinea pig, the "control." Stan had never tasted Cuban coffee but (prior to this excursion) enjoyed a good cup of java with breakfast now and then; my lifetime consumption of the hard stuff amounted to two or three fluid ounces, and the only coffee I've ever cared for is a flavor of ice cream at Haagen-Dazs.

The adventure began on an otherwise perfect Saturday afternoon A sunny, breezy, cool. On the shaded steps of Brickell Pontiac, Dr. Diaz checked our vital signs. Stan's blood pressure registered 140/90 and his pulse rate was 80. My initial readings were 105/70 and 60. Dr. Diaz deemed all of these "normal."

Vernon, an employee of the dealership, asked the doctor to check his blood pressure, too. The result was alarmingly high A 200 over 120 A and Vernon revealed he had just run out of Procardia, his blood pressure medication. Dr. Diaz strongly recommended that he get his prescription refilled immediately. We hadn't even begun our serious research and we'd already saved a life!

Fred, a curious Pontiac pusher, joined the group to find out what was going on. When told of the scientific inquiry about to commence, he offered the following prediction:

"You'll be dialing 911 before you reach 27th Avenue."
Thanking Fred for his encouragement, we made our way across Calle Ocho to La Familia Cafeteria for our first cafe cubano.

Like most of the family-run cafeterias in Little Havana, this one has a small lunch counter and a smattering of tables inside. A window opens onto the sidewalk for walk-up traffic. A "se necesita empleada" (help wanted) sign was taped to the door -- the first of many we would encounter. Recession? What recession? The Cuban coffee business is booming. Plenty of work to be had in the restaurants and bodegas of Little Havana.

We ordered dos cafecitos and the waitress was about to pour the ooze from a tiny stainless steel pitcher into a pair of traditional three-quarter-ounce white plastic cups (part of cafe cubano's mystique derives from the tradition of elegantly sipping it from these petite vessels) when we mentioned that we were reporters from New Times. The woman abruptly tossed out the old coffee and brewed a fresh batch. The power of the press!

Stan lost his cafe cubano virginity at La Familia. He described the experience as intense and emotional, maybe even a little painful. He sipped it tentatively, ignoring the advice he had been given before we'd left the office A to knock it back in one quick slug. I watched him shudder. I took mine like cough medicine, without inhaling. Dr. Diaz wisely declined a shot.

We had to persuade the staff at La Familia to accept payment. They had somehow reached the conclusion that we were reviewing the mud. (As if anyone could pay us enough to do something that foolhardy for a living!) We judged it best not to risk compromising the integrity of our work with the appearance of impropriety; we insisted on paying. Besides, I explained, the paper was picking up the tab.

The waitress quoted a price of 30 cents apiece. Such a deal! What else can you buy for 30 cents these days? I handed the lady a single and motioned for her to keep the change, recklessly leaving a 67 percent gratuity.

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