Next time you have out-of-town visitors who insist on cruising Calle Ocho (invariably a disappointment as a sightseeing site since tourists, not getting that it's just a normal working neighborhood, always expect some sorta cute Disneyworld: Cuba!), or next time you get the 2:00 a.m. desire for something a bit out of the ordinary, here are the words to remember: Cuban pizza -- specifically the Cuban pizza at Montes de Oca.
This pizzeria/restaurant is located down the street from a section of SW Eighth Street that also contains many motels usually described in terms not quite appropriate for a food review. Let's just say if you eat at one of Montes's outdoor tables with a full street view (under festive tropical murals of people beach-partying on Cuba's Varadero), you might glimpse what a working neighborhood Calle Ocho is, at all hours.
As for the pizza, it comes in two sizes: the self-explanatory "personal" or family size. What makes it Cuban? Well, it's difficult for an Anglo to get an explanation, since little English is spoken. But I believe the long string of Spanish delivered in answer to this question during my first visit years ago basically boiled down to, "It's the crust, stupid." The crust is thicker than those of Neopolitan, Roman, or generic American pizzas but differs from similarly thick so-called Sicilian crusts in its relative lightness; Montes's pizza bases are like bouncy dense bread with a crunchy, pleasantly greasy outer crust: Cuban focaccia.
Probably the most characteristically Cuban topping comes on the pizza mixta: meat, including piquant beef picadillo, spicier ground Spanish chorizo, and squares of Virginia jamón, plus some tiny shrimp and a sparse sprinkling of onions and bell peppers. My personal favorite, though I'm a carnivore, is the pizza de vegetales: double-treat layers of juicy fresh tomato slices on top of very full-flavored tomato sauce, plus cheese, onions, sliced mushrooms (canned, unfortunately), and lots of red and green peppers. Among the fifteen selections, there's also a pizza de plátano, but the one time I'd worked up the courage to try it, Montes had run out of bananas.
There's domestic and imported beer to wash down pies and, considering how humble-looking the place is, a few pretty impressively esoteric wines, like a Sosa red from a small Spanish vineyard near León. But there also are fantastic fresh juices. Introduce your visitors to a true Miami-Cuban experience by getting a glass of guarapo; the hefty sugar-cane stalks are squeezed in front of your eyes. (You might not think something sweet as sugar-cane juice would be refreshing enough to balance out pizza, but it does.)
Montes de Oca does offer a few items other than pizza, some pretty good. Thanks to real roast pork instead of supermarket pork roll, the Cubano and medianoche sandwiches are better than many in town (though not those at Versailles down the street, when the roast has just finished cooking). Croquetas are tasty, if heavy. Jell-O is ... well, if you don't want to eat it, just looking at the eye-popping colors will keep you awake on the drive home. But the hands-down winner is crema de queso. This intensely rich yet light cheese soup may make you forget about pizza entirely.
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