Beaned!

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

To avoid the embarrassment of further bribery attempts and coffee switching, Dr. Diaz suggested not mentioning the New Times affiliation until after the battery acid had been guzzled. That wasn't necessary at our second stop, El Cofi*al, however, where the counter woman was far less sociable than the folks at La Familia. Without so much as a questioning glance at the presence of such a motley crew at her window, she produced two four-ounce plastic cups, filled to the brim with thick, brown sludge. Thoughtfully, she also provided two similar-size glasses of water to wash it down with. Once again the cost was 30 cents apiece. Once again New Times tipped magnanimously.

This oversize second drink had a noticeable damping effect on Stan's enthusiasm. "This isn't fair. I had a cup of coffee for breakfast!" he whined.

"Oh, shut up!" I snapped. "What kind of reporter starts off his morning with coffee when he knows he's supposed to drink 30 cups of it that afternoon?"

Privately, I was beginning to wonder if Stan had the cojones (right stuff) for a job like this. We shuffled up to the window of a nameless restaurant, whose primary distinguishing feature was a sign advertising Desayuno Completo (complete breakfast) for $1.29. Carmen, the fortyish Cuban woman behind the counter, immediately defused our crankiness with her matronly concern. As she served the cafe in demitasse cups with saucers, she advised us to just take one sip at each place. Who would know how much we really drank?

We were beginning to wonder the same thing.
Carmen stalled to give us time to reconsider. She told us the Italian-made cafe machine cost $4500 new. At 30 cents a shot, that translated to a minimum break-even point of 15,000 cups, excluding water, sugar, coffee beans, labor, electricity, and the like. Carmen estimated that the place sold between 100 and 200 tacitas per day, which meant that the cafe cubano machine was generating from $30 to $60 per day in gross revenue. Multiply those figures by the hundreds of restaurants and cafeterias serving the sticky liquid throughout Dade County and you could easily be talking about an industry generating millions of dollars in gross revenue annually, 30 cents at a time.

Several other customers arrived, so we thanked Carmen and pressed on to our fourth establishment, Rocky Cafeteria. If it weren't for the coffee, this could have been an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon.

"Good morning! How do you feel today?" enthused Rocky's unnaturally perky Honduran waitress in lightly accented English. She beamed at us from behind a display case with a menu offering everything from pastelitos de guayaba (guava pastries) to fileticos de pescado (fish fillets).

"Where are you from? Canada?" she asked as she whipped up a batch. "You look like tourists. Americans don't drink Cuban coffee. Too strong."

Rocky shares a common wall with a shoe store. There is a long plate-glass window between the two. Talk about bizarre ambiance A shoe shoppers and diners munching croquetas eye each other warily through the pane. Initially, Stan mistook the window for a mirror, and was startled when he saw a fat old man in knee socks struggling to squeeze his feet into a pair of loafers three sizes too small.

La Parilla was next. This was the first cafeteria we discovered with what we would come to realize was a standard piece of equipment for restaurants between 10th and 27th avenues A the five-gallon Igloo cooler filled with water so sidewalk cafe cubano drinkers can wash down the magma. The Igloo tanks drastically simplified the task of locating coffee stops A we just looked for the bright yellow or orange plastic tubs in the window.

La Parilla's counter was attended by an attractive young Peruvian woman with an unaffected smile, who engaged Stan in a lively, flirtatious conversation until she spotted my microcassette recorder whirring away. Before she clammed up, Stan was able to elicit the shocking revelation that the real money to be made on Calle Ocho was selling beer during Carnaval.

Dr. Diaz advised us that we were acquiring a putrid green tint to our flesh and insisted that we go inside to relax and check our vital signs.

Johnny Ventura squawked from a jukebox in the corner. Two rough-looking men playing pool at a table near the back door glared at us menacingly. But when Dr. Diaz started taking our blood pressure, their expressions changed to concern. Amazingly, Stan's blood pressure had actually fallen to 130/80; mine had risen slightly to 110/70.

"Hmmmm," said Dr. Diaz, "Could be a bad sign."
"A bad sign? What does that mean?" Stan shot back, clearly panicking. "Could the caffeine in our bodies build up to a lethal level?"

"No, you'd vomit before it got to that point," the good doctor deadpanned.
It took the promise of solid food to convince Stan to continue the mission.
The Restaurant Pescaderia owns a big, blocky desk telephone that looks like it was salvaged from a motel 40 years ago. A sign on the wall reads, "Por favor agradezco profundamente no me hablan de politicas. Deseo felices en este sitio. (I would profoundly appreciate it if you wouldn't talk politics. I want happy people around here.)"

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