Ventanitas: The Burger Beast's Guide to Cuban Coffee Culture
No matter what part of Miami you visit, there’s one thing you can’t escape, and that’s Cuban coffee. If you’re not ending your meal with it at a restaurant, then you’re probably sipping some at one of the hundreds of ventanitas throughout the city that serve the liquid gold. It’s a way of life down here and if you grew up in the 305, then you were more than likely indoctrinated into it from a young age.
The earliest memories I have of the intoxicating smells of freshly made Cuban coffee are when I was about 4 or 5 years of age. My grandparents were always first to rise and that meant getting some coffee going in the morning. Their method to make the coffee had more in common with using a French press to make that perfect cup. Abuelo Gollo or Abuela Maruca would start by boiling water in a saucepan and then adding the ground coffee beans. After stirring, they strained it through a cloth filter that kinda looked like a smaller version of a butterfly net. The filter was mounted on a stand, and the coffee would drip down through it into a cup. No, not done yet. You can just add sugar and stir, but if you’re a real deal, hardcore espresso drinker, espumita is an absolute necessity. The few extra steps to adding espumita to your coffee are a game changer, but that’s a story for another day.
These days it’s common to use the familiar silverish Italian stovetop espresso maker at home to get your fix, but a press works just as well, if not better.
Cuban coffee is the gateway drink to moving from a single cafecito to a colada, which is meant for a few folks to share. The colada is exactly what you need when you need to stay up, but your body is telling you otherwise.
Now, going back to the whole morning thing. A cafe con leche is the quintessential way to get your motor running when you wake up. It’s Cuban coffee with steamed/warm milk. If you don’t need a full mug, the smaller cortadito is more your speed. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll start customizing by asking for your cafe con leche to be oscuro (dark), which means you’d like it heavy on the coffee. Personally, I prefer my cafe con leche oscuro with very little sugar. Remember, sugar is added to the coffee when it’s made and then again when mixed with the milk. If that’s the case, you want your Cafe con Leche “Dulce” or sweet. Cubans tend to be heavy-handed when it comes to sugar, so be careful with the last option.
You could make Cuban coffee at home, but there is nothing like the experience of sipping it at a ventanita outside of a restaurant or cafe. You’ll find yourself engaged in great conversation and possibly make a new pal. This is the Miami equivalent of breaking bread.
Eventually, you will find your ideal spot for Cuban coffee. It may take days, weeks or maybe years to locate.
Every restaurant has an expert in the art of making Cuban coffee. My favorite cafecito and cafe con leche is made by Maria at El Mago de las Fritas in West Miami. It really is magical.
His real name is Sef Gonzalez, but you can call him by his nom de plume, Burger Beast. He’s committed to keeping a spotlight on locally owned mom-and-pop restaurants in overlooked areas of South Florida and anywhere his road trips take him.