If you’re visiting Miami, you’re probably staying somewhere on South Beach. Ignore what your concierge says, because chances are they’re getting paid to recommend places. It’s called a side hustle and everyone in Miami has seven to 18 side hustles going at once. (Writing this article is one of my side hustles.) Instead of eating at some overpriced tourist trap, head to one of Miami’s favorite Cuban spots: Puerto Sagua. Opened in 1962, Puerto Sagua was a fixture on Collins Avenue long before South Beach was SOUTH BEACH WOOO!!! Outside is tourist heaven—lots of shopping and even better people watching. Inside, you can find locals and tourists sitting elbow to elbow at the wraparound counter enjoying a café con leche (more on those in a bit).
I don’t think there’s a better breakfast than a traditional Cuban breakfast. It’s not exactly pre-swimsuit-season fare, but it’s a hell of a hangover cure after overindulging in Miami’s nightlife. And it covers all your food groups! (Parsley garnish counts as a vegetable, right?)
Since my husband is Cuban, I let him take the lead for this meal. As we walked into the restaurant I asked him if he thought the restaurant was authentic. He said, “The smells are right. The feels are right. The wood paneling is right.”
A tiny old man with white hair led us to our table and threw some menus at us, and within a minute our waitress arrived. “¿Que quieren tomar, mis amores?” she asked. And because I took eight years of Spanish I knew she was asking us for our drink order and that we were her loves. I ordered my favorite drink ever: a café con leche. Cuban coffee is so strong that Miamians refer to it as rocket fuel. Be within 20 feet of a bathroom if this is the first time you’re drinking it. The coffee is served in a tacita, or tiny cup, and you mix it into a larger cup filled with super sweet milk. Imagine drinking warm, melted coffee ice cream that gives you extreme jitters. That’s café con leche.
My husband had a colada, which is a giant cup of rocket fuel. It’s typically served in a Styrofoam cup with four or more smaller thimble size cups, because it’s meant to be shared. At Puerto Sagua they don’t eff around and served the entire thing in a large latte cup.
Before we order, the waitress also brought out a basket of Cuban bread and butter. If I were on Death Row (records or otherwise) this would be my final meal. Cuban bread has a cracker-like outside that gives way to the softest, pillow-y fluff inside. It’s warm and begging for you to peel off the shiny foil on those salted butter cubes and slather that stuff all over the sexy gluten-y goodness.
My husband ordered everything his abuela typically prepared when he visited on the weekends as a child. The food came fast and surprisingly cheap. Even with the requisite South Beach price hike, you’d be hard pressed to find anything over $15. Yet somehow my husband and I managed to spend $80 between the two of us. Disgusting. But that’s on us.
We start off with papas rellenas—beautiful buttery deep fried tater balls hugging a secret beef surprise in the middle.
Next came a mamey batido, which is a thick milkshake made with mamey sapote fruit. Mamay sapote is a salmon-colored fruit that smells and tastes like sweetened farts. It also has the texture of Gak when it’s mixed into a milkshake. It’s disgusting, but my husband seemed to love it, so what do I know?
Up next was a sampler platter of tostones, mariquitas, y croquetas. Tostones are flattened and twice fried green plantains, which are very firm bananas that taste nothing like bananas. We slathered them with the mojo sitting on the table next to the other homemade condiments. Mojo is a delectable sauce made of citrus, oil, spices, and enough garlic to kill 20 Nosferatus. Douse everything in this.
By the way, if a restaurant has repurposed ketchup bottles filled with unmarked homemade sauces you know you’re about to eat some good shit.
After demolishing the tostones, we munch the mariquitas, which are thin slices of deep fried plantains covered in a garlic sauce. They taste like the best lime Tostitos of all time. Of course no Cuban meal is complete without croquetas—tubes of deep fried ham paste. They’re crispy on the outside, hot and hammy in the middle, and are so good smooshed onto a piece of bread, or more traditionally a Saltine cracker and topped with a squeeze of lime.
We followed that with two of Cuba’s most famous exports: a medianoche and a sandwich Cubano. Medianoche means midnight sandwich because that’s the time this would be consumed after coming out of a Havana nightclub. It’s a stack of roast pork, sliced ham, mustard, Swiss cheese, and pickles between the two buttered slices of sweet egg bread and hot pressed into a thin delectable rectangle of porcine pleasure. The Cubano is the same thing except it's served on pressed Cuban bread. Because I’m half Jewish I’m going to give the medianoche the win due to its Challah undertones.
Our waitress came and dropped off the final plate of food, a giant platter of vaca frita. Vaca frita translates to fried cow. Gross. But this hunk of fried cow is actually shredded, marinated flank or skirt steak that is covered in sautéed onions and served with black beans and rice. I thought this was incredibly good. My husband said meh. But side note on my husband: This week he made himself what he described as “hot dog salad,” which was a bed of sauerkraut and relish topped with three boiled hot dogs drizzled with mustard. So I’m not sure he can be trusted.
Somehow we managed to leave room for dessert, and we shared a coconut flan and a tres leches. Skip the coconut flan; it tasted like burnt sugar and suntan lotion. But don’t miss the tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and cream, topped with whipped cream and a past-its-prime maraschino cherry. It’s basically a wet cake that squirts sweet liquid cream in your mouth with each bite. It’s not for everyone but if you like it, you’re hooked for life.
After our meal we lumbered out into the sunshine, hissing at the sun like two vampires. It was too hot to be this full and we were too full to look at people in bathing suits. We headed to the car with our bag of leftovers and cranked up the air conditioner. Aside from the Cuban food, that's my favorite thing about living in Miami: A.C. everywhere you go. And after a meal at Puerto Sagua, you’re gonna wanna cool off.