Though I’m a Florida native, I haven’t spent much time in Miami, so I was thrilled when I got a chance to go this summer on assignment for a local magazine.
I started the weekend in Little Havana, Miami’s famed Cuban neighborhood, in search of the obvious: a Cuban sandwich and a fine cigar. On Little Havana’s main drag, Calle Ocho, I stumbled upon Versailles Cuban Cuisine, and judging by the crowd and a sign proclaiming it “The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant,” I knew I was in the right place.
Inside the laid-back diner that was just a bit dirty, I ordered the Galician White Bean Soup made with ham, collard greens, turnip and potatoes; the famous Cuban Sandwich; and the essential Café Con Leche. I was not disappointed. The food was simple and delicious, a quick and solid no-fuss meal I would definitely have again.
Versailles Cuban Cuisine
After lunch, I headed to the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co., the oldest cigar factory in Little Havana, to speak with the owners. I wanted to get a sense of this family-owned business so I went straight to the source. After saying hello to Don Pedro Bello who was smoking a cigar next to a wooden American Indian outside the store, I met with his son, Peter Jr., the fourth of five generations in the family business.
He offered me an espresso, gave me a tour of the store, and answered my many questions like why some of the cigars were green. (The answer: it’s a candela cigar which is cured quickly with high heat, preserving the green color of the tobacco leaf.)
Then he told me all about the Bello family history, how they left Cuba for Miami in 1959, and how they fought to keep their family tradition alive. Before I left, Peter Jr. recommended a cigar for me, a mild Bello cigar that was light and smooth, and he introduced me to the v-cut which he says gives better airflow and a more even burn.
Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co.
With my v-cut Bello in hand, I left the cigar store and began walking down Calle Ocho hoping to soak in more of this vibrant neighborhood. But it was mid-July and the heat was just unbearable, so I made it a short tour.
From there, I headed to Miami’s oldest bar to grab a drink and cool down. Established in 1912, Tobacco Road is a hole-in-the-wall with a rich history (it served as a speakeasy during Prohibition!). But sadly, this Miami relic will soon become history itself; the property has been purchased by developers and the bar will be demolished to make way for new construction.
I went in for a beer and about eight glasses of water to battle the heat. Though it was Saturday afternoon and pretty dead, I could tell it was my kind of place: laid-back and unpretentious. I’m glad I got to see it before it’s gone.
After a day of seeking the old and historic, it was time to switch gears. I headed to the South of Fifth neighborhood in South Beach for the chic, shiny and new: The Lord Balfour Hotel and Red, the Steakhouse.
As soon as I entered the Lord Balfour, I knew what all the fuss was about. It is truly the most interesting hotel I’ve visited. It’s artsy, quirky and unique, part hotel and part art museum. Quotes from British Prime Minister Lord Balfour adorn a wave along the ceiling, and behind the hotel bar there are dozens of hands holding mirrors that protrude from the wall. Most famously, each room features portraits of tattooed women on the wall.
After settling into my room, which was a bit small but compensated by a clean, modern design that effectively uses each inch of space, I grabbed a “Tea Time” cocktail at the bar and headed out for the evening.
Lord Balfour Hotel
I was thrilled to enjoy a chef tasting at Red, the Steakhouse by Executive Chef Peter Vauthy who stopped by my table before each course. How many courses? I lost count. He basically threw the menu at me! We started with the tuna tartare, sashimi tuna, and homemade sausage in tomato sauce, all of which I highly recommend, and then moved on to the enormous “main course”: Aged Certified Angus Beef® cooked medium-rare, green beans with pine nuts, Alaskan king crab, corn casserole, fried potatoes with cheese and a fried egg, and my absolute (off-the-menu) favorite of the night: flash-fried burrata with wild berry balsamic and Iberico ham (I’m still drooling over this one).
And, believe it or not, I stuck around for dessert: New-York style cheesecake (the recipe to which the chef received as a young boy) and homemade doughnut holes with three dipping sauces. I have never eaten so much food in my life! Of course, much of it was brought home in doggy bags.
Red also has fantastic cocktails (try the South of Fifth made with Ciroc coconut) and a lovely ambiance with white table cloths and candlelight. However, the lighting did not bode well for my pictures which turned out kinda dark … which is a good excuse to go back and try again the next time I’m in Miami.
Red, the Steakhouse