Miami is a city of exceptional things. It's where early-morning coladas are delivered through a ventanita. It's where birthday parties are incomplete without a platter of croquetas de jamón and empanadas de queso. It's where drivers cut each other off by rolling down their car windows and signaling with their hands. Because then, and only then, do Miamians think it's OK to creep up on somebody else's lane.
In other cities, folks are repeating the old adage: Don't discuss religion or politics. In Miami, it's best to keep your thoughts about the best frita to yourself. And if you ever feel like starting a heated argument over a game of dominos, just ask who serves the best moro in town. Or the creamiest batido de trigo.
We don't mind squabbling over preferences for the best pan con bistec. What follows is our list of Miami's top ten Cuban restaurants. (This list includes only restaurants. Joints serving only sandwiches, such as Papo Llega y Pon, El Mago de Las Fritas, and others, did not qualify.) If you take offense to our omissions -- or dislike our inclusions -- let us know. We can always discuss it over a cafecito.
10. Villa Habana
Located on Coral Way, Villa Habana has many respectable attributes. Consider, for example, its fast service, cheap lunch specials, rowdy regulars, and classic Cuban dishes. The menu features old standbys, like ropa vieja, vaca frita, and chicharrón de pollo. So what if they aren't doing anything too special? This mom-and-pop eatery makes the list because it's just downright charming, affordable, and all-around consistent.
Chico's gets a spot in the top ten for several reasons. First, the Hialeah joint sells 25 croquetitas for $4.50. That alone deserves some serious recognition. Then there are other factors. For more than 30 years, this eatery has served chuletas, lechón asado, and, on the weekends, rabo encendido. It also serves a damn good arroz frito. Think a Cuban version of fried rice. It works. Trust us.
Tables at La Rosa Restaurant are topped with white tablecloths. Waiters are decked out in black bow ties. There's a photo of Celia Cruz on the wall too. And there are also many, many tourists. So don't be surprised if you overhear patrons asking questions like "What's in the Cuban sandwich?" You're from Miami, so feel free to smirk. At La Rosa, the fare is solid, the ambiance is classy, and the complimentary mariquitas are always served fresh out of the fryer.
Exquisito serves a mean vaca frita. And if you're well-versed in the offerings of this Calle Ocho establishment, you know to order the dish alongside malanga con mojo -- boiled chunks of malanga doused in a thick garlic sauce. If you're really a pro, there will also be moro. Exquisito is conveniently located across the street from Azucar Ice Cream Company. So if your idea of a perfect afternoon involves tostones at Exquisito and then sweet plantain ice cream at Azucar, well, then, we can hang.
6. Morro Castle
Since 1966, family-owned Cuban cafeteria Morro Castle has been Hialeah's source for good, affordable bistec de palomilla, tostones, and moro. This Morro, which is not to be confused with the other Morro on Seventh Street, fries its shoestring potatoes to-order for its version of a frita Cubana. That's because owner Leo Villalba prides himself in making everything from scratch. And in case you have any doubts about the quality of his ingredients, there's a big sign that says in Spanish: "In this house, we work with the highest-quality products, premium Kraft shortening (cholesterol-free), and pure olive oil." Because everyone knows shortening is just so good for you.
5. Puerto Sagua
For many, many years, Puerto Sagua has been offering locals a late-night refuge -- the kind that's very different from the ritzy, overpriced establishments that populate South Beach. We know the food might get too greasy, and the crowd tends to become quite unruly (particularly if you visit past midnight). But where else on Collins Avenue can you stop by for a sandwich Cubano or hearty picadillo while overlooking an, um, astonishingly beautiful, three-dimensional mural of La Habana Vieja by the Scull sisters? Nope. There just isn't another place quite like it.
North Miami is a bit far from the mecca of Cuban eateries: Calle Ocho and West Little Havana. But we just love tamarind. And North Miami's Little Havana restaurant has pork or chicken tamarind -- thin, juicy cuts of meat served in a vibrant, citric sauce. The restaurant also serves classics: chunks of fried pork, bistec de palomilla, and a mighty fine tamal con mojo. Sure, it's pricier than many of the other joints in town (usually about $11 to $12 per dish). The eatery makes up for it with service and all-around good eats. And the tamarind. Definitely the tamarind.
Sure, the fare at Islas Canarias is delectable. Their picadillo is studded with sliced green olives, layered with rich stewed tomatoes and other all-around mysterious, hearty flavors. Yet it's the smaller things that charm at this eatery near West Flagler. There are old-school cash registers -- the kind that ring every time they are opened. There are loud blenders -- the type that erupt into a whirling fury whenever a patron orders a batido. And there is a worn coffee machine -- the ones that gurgle and splatter for each request for a cafecito. That's why enjoying a meal of bistec and arrocito at Isla Canarias' counter cannot be beat.
At West Flagler's El Palacio de los Jugos, you can pick up torrejas, agua de coco, and fresh peanut butter (manteca de maní). You can order from the readymade section of foods, which typically includes rice, boiled yucca, seafood, sandwiches, and pork, lots of pork. And this is where El Palacio de los Jugos excels. If there are objections to its high rankings on this list, then you have not consumed sufficient amounts of El Palacio's chicharrón. These are, quite simply, the best fried pork rinds in town. So, grab a styrofoam cup of fresh guarapo and a kraft paper baggie full of chicharrón. Then alternate sips of the sweet drink with nibbles of luscious pork. Then, and only then, let us know how you're really feeling about El Palacio.
We know, we know. Enriqueta's name indicates it is nothing more than a sandwich shop. But loyal patrons of this dingy joint on 29th Street can attest to its delectable black beans, cheap breakfasts, and perfectly seasoned bistec de puerco. At Enriqueta's, flavors are fresh, service is kind, and the place just feels like home. Maybe it's because our favorite waitress calls us "mi amor" and splits sandwich orders in half for us. Or maybe it's because the place is just plain good. There is simply a lot of love in the food at Enriqueta's. (It doesn't hurt that the pan con bistec is the best in town.)
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.