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How 3 Restaurants Keep Cuban Culture Alive in Calle Ocho

Three restaurateurs share how their businesses in Calle Ocho, located in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, serve their community, preserve Cuban culture, and more.

10 min read
10/4/2022
La Carreta Blog Hero

Located in Miami’s Little Havana, Calle Ocho (or Eighth Street) is the historical epicenter of Cuban culture in the city, teeming with shops, restaurants, and more. Calle Ocho has transformed from a gathering place and cultural center for the Cuban community to a place where they can share their roots, food, and culture with the world.

Read on and watch the video below to discover how Suzy Battle of Azucar Ice Cream Company, Nicole Valls of La Carreta, and Joe Rivera of El Pub Restaurant keep their culture alive in this bustling community. 

The beginnings of Little Havana 

For many Miamians, Little Havana and the Cuban community go hand in hand, and it’s hard to imagine anything different. It’s been a hub for Cuban-Americans since the 1950s and 1960s when the Cuban Revolution brought many exiles to Miami. As Cuban refugees settled in Little Havana, the community brought their language, food, and more to their new home, forever changing the culinary and cultural landscape of Miami.

If Little Havana is the heart of the Cuban community, Calle Ocho (or Eighth Street) is the artery that nourishes it. To call Calle Ocho lively doesn’t quite describe how dynamic it is. It’s better to describe this stretch of Little Havana as electrifying, with jolts of sounds, sights, and smells at every turn: walk-up coffee windows slinging doses of strong cafe Cubano to start the day, open-air stands selling a kaleidoscope of tropical fruits and vegetables, local restaurants playing the pulsating sounds of salsa, and colorful murals that decorate the streets. 

Recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Little Havana is a decades-long haven for the Cuban community and beyond. 

Suzy Battle

It was built when the exile community came from Cuba, fleeing Fidel Castro and communism. This neighborhood got an influx of Cubans and just like every other neighborhood that has an influx of immigrants, we named it our own. We named it Little Havana.

Suzy Battle
Owner

A haven for the Cuban community 

Like many businesses that line Calle Ocho, Azucar Ice Cream Company is a reflection of Suzy’s Cuban heritage and pride in serving her community. However, owning an ice cream shop wasn’t a part of her career plans. After a 20-year career in banking, the 2008 recession left her unemployed with a cancer diagnosis and in the middle of a divorce. 

“I had to figure it out pretty quickly,” she says. “My children kept saying ‘Why don't you open an ice cream store?’” she remembers. “I said that might be the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life, but it just stayed with me.” 

Later, she decided to take her children’s idea to heart: Suzy enrolled in Penn State’s Ice Cream course and the Frozen Dessert Institute of St. Louis to learn about the science of ice cream before opening her shop in 2011. “I decided I was gonna make homemade Cuban ice cream,” she says. “The only place that could host a homemade Cuban ice cream shop would be Little Havana.”

Azucar Ice Cream Exterior

The business has grown to include an outpost in Dallas, Texas, but for Suzy, Little Havana is home; she loves seeing the magic of the neighborhood unfold throughout the day. “It's nice when it's quiet and then you see how the day goes. All of a sudden you start hearing the music next door, and you see people dancing,” she says. “As the day moves into the nighttime, you see people smoking their cigars and having drinks. It just brings out a whole different way of seeing this little city.” 

Suzy Battle

The best day in Little Havana is when you start early and you have a coffee and you get to see the neighborhood wake up because once it wakes up, this place is on fire all the time.

Suzy Battle
Owner

For Nicole Valls, Vice President of Operations at La Carreta, a family-owned restaurant, the vibrancy of Little Havana is what sets it apart from other Miami neighborhoods. “You have all of the restaurants, bakeries, and cigar shops here,” she says. “When you walk by Domino Park, you see all the old guys out there getting heated, talking about local politics. It's a very vibrant neighborhood and throughout the years, it's where tourists have come to see the Latin experience in Miami.” 

Nicole Valls La Carreta

La Carreta has been part of the fabric of Little Havana since 1976 when Nicole’s grandfather opened the restaurant a few years after fleeing Cuba. For over 50 years, it’s served as a cultural hub for the community, with Calle Ocho as a backdrop to some of Little Havana’s most pivotal moments. 

Nicole Valls

Eighth Street is where Miami comes to mourn, to celebrate, and to protest. Whenever there's something important happening in the city or in Cuba, this is where everyone comes.

Nicole Valls
VP of Operations

Maintaining authenticity  

A big part of the magic of Calle Ocho is that many businesses have operated there for  decades, faithfully keeping Cuban culture and traditions alive. While Azucar is one of the more recent additions to Calle Ocho, Suzy is keen on being as authentic as possible and translating the sweetness of Cuban culture into something tangible. The Abuela Maria flavor (which is trademarked) is an ode to Cuba’s popular afternoon pick-me-up snack. “Cubans love to take a Maria cracker, a slice of guava, and a slice of cream cheese at four o'clock with a coffee, but instead we made it into ice cream,” she says.

Maintaining authenticity is also paramount for Joe Rivera, co-owner of El Pub Restaurant. A Calle Ocho stalwart, the restaurant has been a welcoming presence in the community for the last 27 years. 

“Everything that you see in the restaurant is before the revolution and Fidel Castro taking over the island in 1958,” Joe says. “My family and I take great pride in attending to the Cuban tradition and culture and being a part of this great community.”

El-Pub-Family

El Pub is known for its classic Cuban dishes that have changed little over the years, which is something that Nicole can relate to at La Carreta. “We don't have a lot of fusion. When it comes to our food and our menu, it's classic, Abuela-style home cooking,” she says. “That's what makes us special because people know that's what they're gonna get.”

Joe Rivera

When customers come in, they truly get to experience the Cuban tradition. That’s so meaningful, especially to my family.

Joe Rivera
Co-Owner

Keeping Cuban culture alive in Calle Ocho

For Suzy, Nicole, and Joe, being a part of Calle Ocho is more than just having a business — it’s about serving the community and expressing pride in their Cuban heritage every day. There’s a deep sense of gratitude for the resiliency and sacrifices their families made in a new country, and they’re honoring that by preserving Calle Ocho for future generations to come. 

Cuban food

“The proudest that anybody's ever been about this business is my mom because it’s a homage to her coming from Cuba and sacrificing to get us here,” she says. “I love the fact that I'm here and I love the fact that this is what I do. I'm very proud and blessed to be the Cuban girl on the street making ice cream.” 

Suzy Battle

I feel that we have to hold on to the culture. And that's what Little Havana does — Little Havana holds onto all the cultures, all the flavors, and all that authenticity.

Suzy Battle
Owner

For Nicole, it’s about continuing the legacy that her grandfather built decades ago and keeping La Carreta’s spirit of hospitality alive. “Our employees have been here for a long time. Our customers have come here for a long time,” she says. “It's a neighborhood spot where it's just familiar and comfortable for them to come in and out. It's like their own kitchen.”

Joe echoes a similar sentiment. “You come in [to El Pub] and you feel at home and that’s so special. It’s a feeling I will protect.”

Author

Vonnie Williams

Vonnie Williams

Copywriter

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