Miami's historic Eighth Street, known locally as Calle Ocho, is America's Cigar Central
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The signs say Eighth Street, but the locals all say it in Spanish as Calle Ocho, which could also be translated as "the heart of Florida's Little Havana." Tourists come to the historic Miami district to taste Cuban culture, whether it's sampled as a sweet, small shot of café Cubano bought from cafeteria windows, a belly-busting lunch of pork roasted in plenty of garlic or a heated contest played out with tiles in Domino Park.
If you're a cigar smoker, Calle Ocho offers even more. In a way, it's America's cigar central, and there is no other place quite like it in the world of cigar making. The vast majority of the world's premium cigars are made behind the walls of free-trade zones, off-limits to tourists. On Calle Ocho, not only can you buy cigars in a host of places, you can also watch such renowned cigars as La Gloria Cubanas and Tatuajes being rolled right in front of you.
Any cigar aficionado staying in a hotel near one of Miami's beaches or great golf courses should drive into Little Havana for the day, stock up on his favorite smokes and sample a lunch of great Cuban cuisine. We spent a few days in the area to get the lay of the land.
CIGAR FACTORIES & SHOPS
El Credito Cigar Factory
1106 SW Eighth St. (corner of 11th Ave.); 305-858-4162
El Credito Cigars is a pilgrimage in itself. This is the very space where the non-Cuban La Gloria Cubana cigar was born. Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Sr. first rolled it here in 1968, and since 1980 the brand has been shepherded by his son, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr., a master of the art of making complex, flavorful smokes. In 1992, the company's cigars went from a well-kept local secret to a must-have for enthusiasts countrywide. Now the lion's share of the cigars are made in a much larger facility in the Dominican Republic, but La Gloria still has its original (although considerably reworked) galleria in the heart of Calle Ocho. About a dozen cigarmakers work in the main room, which is open to tourists, who can watch firsthand as a world-class cigar is made. Adjacent to the rolling area is a posh cigar shop with a few chairs, where smokers can buy the entire El Credito line and maybe see Perez-Carrillo Jr.
Ernesto Perez-Carrillo Jr. still makes some La Gloria Cubanas in Miami.
El Rey de los Habanos
1120 SW Eighth St. (between 11th and 12th aves.); 305-858-0001
One of the tiniest cigar factories in the world also produces amazing cigars. El Rey de los Habanos (King of the Cuban cigars) is the home of Jose "Pepin" Garcia and his family, makers of Tatuaje and Don Pepin cigars, among others. Walk in the factory and watch a dozen cigarmakers slowly craft cigars in the Cuban style: working only by hand—no bunching devices—using two small binder leaves, and finishing each cigar with a triple-seamed cap. This is truly a family business: odds are you will see Pepin working in the back, rolling diademas.
El Titan de Bronze
1071 SW Eighth St. (corner of 11th Ave.); 305-860-1412
The interesting name translates to "The Titan of Bronze," a colorful nickname given to a very tough Cuban general named Antonio Maceo Grajales, who fought Spain for Cuba's independence in the second half of the nineteenth century. A century ago, before there were national cigar brands, most smokers bought their cigars at corner cigar factories like this one. Unlike El Credito, this workshop creates cigars that are only sold locally. The factory was created by Carlos Cobas, and he and his family run the business. All the cigars sold here are made on the premises, by eight rollers working with various blends.
900 SW Eighth St. (between 9th and 10th aves.); 305-860-3230
Brand owner Philip Wynne, a lover of fine wines as well as great cigars, has recently opened a showcase for his product that will combine his passions. His cigar factory/wine shop/cigar store was scheduled to open as this issue went to press. As well as selling his full line of cigar brands, including the Felipe brands, plus Pelo de Oro, Wynne's plan is for four cigar rollers to make cigars that will only be available at the shop.
Sosa Family Cigars
3475 SW Eighth St. (between 34th and 35th aves.); 305-446-2606
After a hearty meal at the nearby Versailles eatery, walk a block west and head to Sosa Family Cigars (once known as Macabi). All 1,000 square feet of this shop are humidified, and it's well stocked with cigars. "I probably have 350 open boxes," says Junior Sosa, who runs the shop for his family, makers of Sosa Cigars in the Dominican Republic. The Sosas made cigars here during the boom, but no longer. In addition to the large cigar selection, Sosa has a smoking lounge and a well-used dominoes table. The shop is also a wine store, stocking some 80 different selections, most of them Spanish, the favorites of family patriarch Juan Sosa.
Art District Cigars
1638 SW Eighth St. (between 16th and 17th aves.); 305-644-0444
La Luna cigars were once crafted at this address. Since La Luna Cigars changed its name to Art District last July, the location became a building that combines the finer elements of a cigar shop, bar and a smoking lounge. But the heritage of production is kept alive by a few rollers making the company's house brand, called 1638. You can, however, still buy La Lunas here (they are made in Honduras) and listen to music, plus take advantage of a bar serving beer and wine.
RESTAURANTS & COFFEE SHOPS
La Carreta (Cuban)
3632 SW Eighth St. (between 36th Ave. and 36th Court); 305-444-7501
Behind the statue of a rooster with a cigar clamped in his jaw that stands in front of La Carreta (Spanish for The Wagon) is a no-nonsense Cuban restaurant that serves food to fill the belly. Several presses on prominent display through a window open to the kitchen are testament to the eatery's devotion to the Cuban sandwich, that most marvelous of creations combining sugar-cured ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles, heated and pressed on Cuban bread. Don't expect ambience—just plenty of good food. The churrasco steak is a solid option, and for those who aren't afraid of a hearty meal, La Carreta serves a delicious lechon asado, or roast pork. Be sure to order it with black beans and rice, and don't forget the maduros, sweet, ripe plantains fried in oil until they are caramelized and impossible to resist. The place is open 24 hours.
3555 SW Eighth St. (between 35th and 36th aves.); 305-444-0240
The name suggests the French court of Louis XIV, but Versailles is all about eating Cuban food. One part restaurant, one part meeting place, this is also a fine spot to hear the politics of the day. (Or the night, as it is open extremely late by Miami standards, closing at 4:30 on Sunday mornings.) The same family owns La Carreta and this iconic Cuban restaurant. In addition to the long list of Cuban mainstays such as Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians, or black beans and rice), the Cuban pastries are highly recommended. Perez-Carrillo says the croquetas are the best examples of these batter-fried, meat-filled treats that he's ever had. A walk-up coffee window serves Cuban coffee.
El Rey de las Fritas (Cuban fast food)
1821 SW Eighth St. (between 18th and 19th aves.); 305-644-6054
Imagine a hamburger. Now imagine it loaded with spices, moistened with copious amounts of sauce and topped with a mound of thin and crispy fries. What you would have is a frita, or a Cuban hamburger, and the best place to eat one is at El Rey de las Fritas. The zippy burgers pack a spice punch and are quite addictive. The ultra-casual restaurant, like many, also serves a fine cup of syrupy Cuban coffee, and local cigarmakers swear by the batidos, or milkshakes.
Flamenco dancing at Casa Panza.
Las Tapas de Rosa (Spanish)
449 SW Eighth St. (between Fourth and Fifth aves.); 305-856-9788
Calle Ocho is more than just Cuban. Elements of the pan-Latin community are also represented here. The Spanish tradition of serving food in small samples known as tapas is practiced at this comfortably cozy, clean and brightly lit restaurant. The grilled octopus with pimentón (smoked paprika) is a great starter, as is the chorizo done in cider. The Serrano ham, manchego and chorizo sandwich, served on a crusty, flaky roll, prepares the stomach for a long day of smoking strong cigars.
Casa Panza (Spanish)
1620 SW Eighth St. (near 15th Ave.); 305-643-5343
Live flamenco dancing comes with the experience at Casa Panza. This vibrant restaurant and nightspot features Spanish fare such as paella and sangria. According to Janny Garcia of El Rey de los Habanos, the owner is a lover of the leaf.
El Pub (Cuban)
1548 SW Eighth St. (between 15th and 16th aves.); 305-642-9942
Decorated with Cuban memorabilia, El Pub specializes in some of the country's favorite dishes such as ropa vieja, a long-cooked beef dish that tastes far better than its English translation (old rags) sounds. It also serves Cuban sandwiches and some fans say it has the best café con leche (coffee with copious amounts of warm milk) in all of Miami. Bargain prices.
Taquerias al Mexico (Mexican)
521 SW Eighth St. (between Fifth and Sixth aves.); 305-858-1160
Another Latin cuisine that is represented on Calle Ocho is Mexican. If your idea of that country's food is Taco Bell, prepare to be astounded by Taquerias al Mexico. Cigarmaker Philip Wynne, owner of Felipe Gregorio cigars, calls this little eatery "the best Mexican restaurant in Miami."
Forget Starbucks when you are on Calle Ocho. This street, which seems fueled by caffeine, teems with coffee counters, little restaurant windows that serve bracing shots of Cuban coffee to customers who needn't bother coming indoors. Ask for a café Cubano, the syrupy espresso-like concoction that is slurped back in one or two gulps, just the right amount to get you started for a day of cigar smoking. No need to add sugar: the tiny coffee is loaded with it. You can get one in just about every restaurant in town and at several counters, including one just across 11th Avenue from the El Credito Cigars entrance. For some variety, you might try a cortadito, a small shot of Cuban coffee with a touch of steamed milk, or a café con leche. Expect blank stares if you order a half caf, skim, venti, doppio...you get the point.
OFF CALLE OCHO, WORTH A DETOUR
Although many headquarters of premium cigarmakers are located in or near Miami, only a few are geared to handle visitors.
1575 SW First St., Miami; 305-643-2117
When Padrón more than quadrupled its space with its headquarters, the company kept its customers in mind, with a posh cigar lounge and retail store that stocks all of the company's fine cigars under one roof. Peruse the wall of photographs spanning the family's more than four decades of making cigars. Family members are often there—all the more reason for a visit.
The nearby Padrón Cigar headquarters.
Puros Indios Cigars
114 NW 22nd Ave., Miami; 305-644-1116
This is one part cigar factory outlet, one part smoking lounge (complete with issues of Cigar Aficionado), located next door to the sales office and warehouse. The company, now called Reyes Family Cigars, also makes Cuba Aliados cigars, and president Carlos Diez claims the HQ lounge makes the best Cuban coffee in Little Havana.
Tabacalera Perdomo Headquarters
5150 NW 167th St., Miami Lakes; 305-627-6700
Grassy and suburban Miami Lakes is home to Tabacalera Perdomo, where you can sample and buy its Nicaraguan-made cigars in a cozy smoking room. You may even run into owner Nick Perdomo.
La Camaronera (fish and seafood)
1952 West Flagler St., Miami; 305-642-3322
This hard-to-find fish restaurant is small but acclaimed. Local papers have ranked it a top fish spot, and cigarmakers come for the fried fish. A few dollars gets you a simple and memorable lunch: a fresh piece of fish, breaded and fried on a bun.
La Rosa (Cuban)
4041 NW Seventh St., Miami; 305-541-1715
"It's one of the best Cuban restaurants," says Jorge Padrón, president of Padrón Cigars. If you're hungry, go for the masitas de puerco fritas, or fried pork chunks. For something lighter, there's the Cuban staple of camarones al ajillo, or shrimp in garlic and oil.
Photos by Amy Eckert
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