You know you're in Miami when "Abuela Maria" (vanilla blended with Maria cookies, guava, and cream cheese) is the most popular flavor in an ice-cream shop. And while there's a sprinkling of shops that have been experimenting with local flavors for a while, none of them has embraced Latino/Caribbean culture as heartily as Azucar! in Little Havana.
Where else in Miami -- nay, the country -- can you find café con leche, mantecado, plátano maduro, dulce de leche, coconut flan, key lime pie, corn, mango, mamey, and avocado under one roof?
"Certainly the flavors say that I'm Cuban," owner Suzy Batlle says. "For us [Cubans], Maria cookies and guava is something we have at 4 p.m. as a snack, and the ice cream definitely shows that tradition. More and more tourists are wanting that -- people want to see the real, authentic Miami. South Beach isn't it anymore. It's pretty refreshing."
During the day, a steady stream of tourists walks into the Calle Ocho mainstay, clamoring for a taste of Miami. They stare at the flavors while whispering to one another and saying things like: "I don't know how to pronounce it, or what it is, but can I try it?" ("It" being mantecado.)
Around 4 p.m., the crowd demographic changes: It's Abuela Maria time. The locals and regulars -- Cubans, Cuban-Americans, Little Havana residents, 305ers -- come out to eat. According to Batlle, the most popular flavors are mantecado, mango, coconut, mamey, and Abuela Maria.
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Part of the beauty of Azucar! is that it's not a gimmick -- you don't feel like Cuban culture is being exploited. That's because Batlle's ice cream uses fresh and seasonal ingredients like guava and mango purchased at local markets, and she has the foresight to take risks. On any given day you'll find the staples, but also surprise ingredients like cherry pie (from Fireman Derek's) and tomato and basil (a reduction from Chef Nick at Cibo).
That's really what makes Azucar such a refreshing idea: Its ice cream is steeped in nostalgia, not stuck in it. Battle remains true to her roots but is constantly churning out new tastes.