South Florida may be the land of senior citizens and early bird dinners, but late at night, Calle Ocho is hopping with activity.
Last week I went on a last minute business trip to Florida, with my base of operations being very close to Miami International Airport.
While I dreaded the idea of having to work what would certainly be very long days confined to conference rooms and then emerging late at night ravenously hungry, there was some consolation in the fact that unlike other parts of South Florida, where your food options late at night are restricted at best, downtown Miami and the neighborhood surrounding 8th street (“Calle Ocho”) which calls itself Little Havana (home to Free Cuba in Exile) has some of the best late-night eating anywhere in the state, and probably in the entire country.
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If there’s one iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami, and if you ask anyone where the center of activity is for food on Calle Ocho past 9PM, then that place is Versailles.
Like the French palace from which it gets its name, Versailles is a HUGE restaurant. On weekends and in prime dining hours the place gets absolutely packed with people, including large number of out of towners looking for authentic Cuban food.
This is what the dining room looked like on 9PM on a Sunday night. The 384-seat restaurant was absolutely PACKED with people. Yes, a lot of non-Cubans go there, but I like to think of it as like the “Katz’s Deli” or the “Carnegie” of Cuban food. Just because the place is really popular does not mean the food is not authentic and not good, it’s excellent and consistently good.
Versailles’ menu is massive. It covers the full spectrum of Cuban cuisine, and has something for everyone. It’s the Cuban equivalent to a Diner menu. I was handed a menu in Spanish but I think they have one in English as well. Click on the photo to enlarge.
After just getting off the plane, and absolutely starving since breakfast, I decided to hit the heavy duty stuff. This is the “Versailles Especial” which is a Cuban Sandwich with ham, pork loin and sliced Chorizo sausage. Not what the doctor ordered but what my stomach WANTED.
This is a Mofongo (Mashed fried green plantain) appetizer with fried pork chunks.
Cuban Black Bean Soup with raw onion.
Here’s the Versailles dessert menu.
I opted for the Tocinillo del Cielo, which is a double egg, super rich custard flan with caramel sauce, as if a regular flan wasn’t rich enough. I needed to enlist the help of a few Cuban grandmas sitting next to me to help me finish it.
What Cuban meal would be complete without a Cafecito? This is a double decaf — otherwise I’d never be able to fall asleep. Versailles also has its own bakery store and a walk-up cafe where you can get Cafecitos in little foam demitasse cups along with various Cuban munchies.
On weekends, Spanish troubadours arrive to serenade you. You might need to shoo them away with a single or two.
By contrast here is what Versailles looks like at 11PM on a Monday night. The restaurant is open until 2AM.
Jupina is a pineapple flavored soda that comes in regular and diet versions. Cuban-style diet soft drinks utterly blow away their American counterparts.
I was still getting over a pretty lousy bronchitis from the week before so I decided to go with some of their chicken soup, which is excellent. Cuban Penicillin.
Here is the “Criollo” combination plate, which has Ropa Vieja, a croquetta, a tamale, fried pork chunks, platanos maduros and yuca. I had trouble finishing the entire thing because my gut was about to explode.
10PM the next night brought me down the street to El Rey de las Fritas. A few years ago Rachel and I went to one of their other locations because this location, their Calle Ocho flagship store, was under construction, after moving from their original Calle Ocho location down the street.
The inside of the flagship El Rey De Las Fritas is like something out of a 50’s luncheonette/old school burger joint. While this location has only been operating since 2006 it looks totally old school.
The Frita con Queso, the ultimate in Cuban late night cuisine. Imagine you took a hamburger and gave it a Cuban accent — crispy Cuban Pan de Agua bread, a spicy meat mixture of pork and beef, topped with fried onions and potato sticks and melted cheese. Yes I am aware I am behaving badly.
Frita, interior view.
What do you drink with a frita? A Diet Ironbeer, of course.
El Rey’s Cuban Sandwiches are also pretty damn good, and they make a mean Pan Con Lechon, roast pork with onions sandwich too.
For dessert, a Batido (Milkshake) de Frutabomba (“Fruit Bomb”).
10PM the following evening. Like Versailles, La Carreta, which is just down the block, is another iconic, huge Cuban restaurant with a gigantic menu.
The front dining area of La Carreta.
I had a particularly rough day so I started off with a classic Mojito made with Bacardi rum. You won’t be sorry.
These are Croquetitas de Yuca con Picadillo, fried croquettes of mashed yuca with a spicy ground beef and tomato mixture. You MUST get these.
Camarones al Ajillo, Shrimp in Garlic sauce. Unlike the Iberian version cooked in olive oil with smoked paprika, this is more like a Shrimp Scampi with a ton of mashed garlic, which you sop up with the crusty Cuban bread.
This is a Caldo Gallego, a Spanish bean, potato, ham and greens soup.
Lechon Asado, roast pork with a giant piece of cracklin’ on top. OMG.
This was served with fried sweet plantain (Maduros) and black beans and rice (Moros).
My dining companions went for this seafood stew dish, which I got to taste and was totally awesome. I forgot what it was called.
Another companion’s boneless pork chops with Moros (black beans and rice) and Tostones, fried green plantains.
La Carreta has a dessert menu but by this time the bunch of us were full.
La Carreta, like Versailles, also has a walk-up Cafe area where you can get your Cafecito and Pasteles late at night. A double shot of espresso is 75 cents, and with a Guava and Cheese pastry is a whole $1.50. Take that, Starbucks.