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Cuban Bartender Julio Cabrera's Guide to Miami’s Little Havana

Master cantinero and co-owner of Café La Trova, voted one of the world's best bars, gives his top tips on how to explore Little Havana.

A Cuban American’s Guide to Miami’s Little Havana
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Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

One of the most influential bartenders in the world, Cuban-born Julio Cabrera has tended bars across the globe, from his home country, to Mexico, Italy, and the United States. He’s lived in Miami for almost 15 years where he's helped to transform cocktail culture. Today, he is master cantinero and co-owner of Café La Trova, a Cuban-inspired bar and restaurant located in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana.

In partnership with the James Beard Award–winning chef Michelle Bernstein, Cabrera opened La Trova in January 2019. Named after a style of music developed in Santiago de Cuba, La Trova pays homage to the atmosphere of pre-revolution Cuba and its traditional cantinero culture with its handcrafted cocktails, including classic daiquiris and Papa Dobles, and authentic Cuban cuisine. Though relatively new on the Little Havana scene, La Trova has become the place to experience authentic Miami Cuban culture, which makes Cabrera the perfect person to ask for tips on how to explore Little Havana.

A statue of a rooster on Calle Ocho, Little Havana, Miami
Calle Ocho is the heart of Little Havana.Foto: Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock

The real Miami

Little Havana “is the real Miami,” says Carbrera, “not South Beach.” Unlike the glossy South Beach, Little Havana has a far more relaxed and down-to-earth vibe where you’re more likely to mix with locals than only other tourists. Its vibrant Latin culture is most prominent on Eighth Street—better-known as Calle Ocho and home of Café La Trova—which is filled with colorful murals, the sounds of Latin music seeping out of buildings, and the aroma of strong coffee and cigars. Cabrera loves the neighborhood for its “authenticity, my roots, the music, and the cigar shops.”

Best foodie spots

One of Cabrera’s favorite spots to grab something to eat is Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina, also on Calle Ocho. This lively Cuban eatery serves up traditional dishes and Cuban cocktails in a retro-themed setting soundtracked by Cuban classics and live music amid retro-themed decor. Wherever you eat, Cabrera recommends trying “croquetas, vaca frita ... everything.”

Exterior of Azucar Ice Cream Company in Little Havana, Miami
Cabrera recommends stopping at Azucar's for ice cream.Foto: Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock

International tastes: Beyond Cuba

Though it may move to a Latin beat, Calle Ocho offers more than Cuban food—you can eat Vietnamese, Mexican, and Argentinean cuisine here, too. Cabrera recommends Lung Yai Thai Tapas, a small gem serving up authentic Thai cuisine, including northern Thai specialties such as nam prik ong. There’s almost always a wait, but it’s worth it.

Best underrated spot

Cabrera tips Havana Classic Cigar as his top underrated spot. Established in 1996, it’s one of Miami’s few remaining hand-rolled Cuban cigar factories and is famed for its walk-in humidor, the largest in the city. Even if you are not a smoker, it’s fun to watch staff expertly hand rolling the cigars. Cabrera points out that there’s also a lounge where you can have a Cuban-style coffee.

A man folds cigars in a Little Havana tobacco store.
In Little Havana, you can still find hand-rolled Cuban cigar factories.Foto: Iv Nikolny / Shutterstock

A perfect day in Little Havana

If you have just one day to explore Little Havana, Cabrera recommends making lunch at Old’s Havana your first stop. Afterward, “have an ice cream as a dessert at Azucar Ice Cream Company, smoke a cigar and have a cafecito (a Cuban espresso) at Guantanamera Café and Lounge, and play dominoes at the Domino Park.” Maximo Gomez Park, better-known as Domino Park, is a popular spot for getting a peek into local culture. Most days you’ll see older Cubans gathering in the park to drink coffee and play dominos. Leave time for a little shopping—Cabrera recommends stopping into The Havana Collection to pick up a guayabera, the classic Cuban shirt that makes for the quintessential souvenir. Of course, you should “end up at Café La Trova.”

Preserving cantinero culture

Through Café La Trova, Cabrera wants to highlight and preserve the classic Cuban cantinero style of bartending. Cabrera has long trained bartenders in the elegant style. What makes it so distinctive to the American style of bartending, he says, is the passion of the bartenders; “their grooming, attention to details, the way they dress, and the high level of hospitality by being part of the show. Café La Trova brings it to Miami by doing it every night, being authentic, and following the cantineros rules.”

Julio Cabrera pours a cocktail at Café La Trova in Miami.
Cabrera is one of the most influential bartenders in the US.Foto: Anthony Nader / 52 Chefs

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