The coffee ventanilla is as quintessentially Miami as traffic and humidity. It's our Starbucks, political town hall, and fast food counter rolled into one. But not every window is created equal. The perfect ventanilla, like a precisely measured cafecito, requires the right ratio of flawless brew, adequate pastry selection, and thrilling environ. Here're our picks for top five places to get your caffeine jolt with a side of local drama.
We may be biased because Enriqueta's (186 NE 29th St., Miami) is across the street from our offices, but the frothy, not overly sweet or bitter, but just right espresso with a dash of milk at this Wynwood neighborhood mainstay really hits the spot. Last time we stopped by for our mid-morning fix, we waited ten minutes while the lady behind the counter chatted up two firemen. But that was our fault -- like driving, maneuvering a true ventanilla takes assertiveness. There's no line, no expectation that the person in front of you should move out of the way, and no designated area that separates those drinking coffee from those ordering.
Carlito's, located in a strip mall (9045 SW 107th Ave., East Kendall), is only a window. There're no seats, no restaurant, no place to eat other than standing around outside talking politics or last night's novela shocker. The coffee is good, but the pastries from countries all over Latin America are the real draw. It might be home to the best Colombian pan de bono ever, a fluffy ball of cheesy, doughy, yucca-y bread perfection.
This open-air institution with a bazillion locations is the Disneyworld of ventanillas. There is a counter for coffee, food, produce, and fruit juices, and an equal mix of chitter-chatterers eating at benches, and standing around drinking coffee and juice. And, perhaps as a sign of its true ventanilla-like qualities, getting the attention of the person behind the counter requires incredible skill, or the desperate flailing of dollar bills.
4. La Carreta
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Several years ago, a supporter of Miriam Alonso, the former county commissioner who did jail time for public corruption, had his arm broken after getting into a heated political discussion-turned-brawl at a La Carreta ventanilla. That pretty much sums up what to expect at this indomitable franchise -- the coffee is okay, but the scene couldn't be more colorful if we made it up ourselves. Political fights, scholarly discussions, uproarious comedy shows -- it's all likely to go down at any time of day if you park yourself beneath the unmistakable oxcart signs that adorn city corners from Hialeah to the airport.
We know, we know. Cliché. It's a freakin' coffee window featured in tourist guides, and a requisite photo op/soap box for any elected official passing through town. According to all television news channels, it is also the only place in the entire city where Cubans congregate (Seriously? Have they ever been to...well, anywhere in Miami?) Still, we can't help that it really does have the best café con leche in the universe, utilizing a formula (we expect it has to do with a mixture of evaporated milk and regular milk) so magical it immediately causes visions of sparkling dolphins carrying loudmouth-media circus-politicians away into the sunset.