If LA was tough, Miami was tougher. In over six months I only found one place (well two if you count their second shop downtown) serving anything close to a decent flat white. What’s worse is I didn’t even make this discovery until closer to my departure. But let’s go through my caffeine life in chronological order…
Ask anyone in Miami where to get a decent coffee and they’ll tell you anywhere with Cuban coffee – which is basically everywhere that’s not Starbucks – or Starbucks. A hater of the latter, I deemed it only appropriate to do as the locals do and give this whole Café Cubano culture a try.
Alas, what began as an obsessive love affair with Cuban coffee quickly fell apart, our relationship becoming more like one of those dangerous ex’s you on occasion just can’t resist. Cuban coffee is like crack (I assume). That deliciously strong and super sweet indulgence quickly becoming a wired high followed by a crash and burn.
What makes Cuban coffee so good, and ultimately so bad, is the sugar. All that dangerous white refined sweetness, heaped in by the scoopful (there would be about three teaspoons in a tiny espresso sized cup). Ouch. It’s so super sugary it becomes almost a syrup. Cue a very unhealthy addiction… It’s deliciously sinful and that’s the problem.
FYI: Cuban coffee is dark roasted and finely ground, and made using an espresso machine. It’s much stronger and lot more bitter than the espresso we are used to, hence the sugar issue.
Seen as though Miami is pretty like a South American microcosm, your coffee life will be much sweeter (if that’s possible) if you can understand their Spanish lingo, so I’ve broken it down for you…
You’ve got four main types:
- Cafecito or café cubano – this is their equivalent of an espresso served in a tiny cup. It’s much stronger than American coffee, and surprise surprise, super sweet.
- Cortadito – this is basically the above with a little milk added; for the macchiato or piccolo drinkers of the world who can’t handle the straight stuff. That would be me…
- Café con leche – literally meaning coffee with milk, it’s a shot of espresso with steamed milk, so basically a Latin version of a latte or flat white but with minimal foam. It’s served in a polystyrene cup that’s just slightly smaller than our small takeaway size. Cuban coffees are much smaller than American coffees, and thank God for that.
- Colada – similar to a cafecito but a bit bigger. It’s 4-6 shots of espresso served with tiny cups for sharing. Take note: those cups are there for a reason; this is not a beverage you want to tackle alone, unless you’re into liquid crack, of course.
I should probably mention that the Cuban coffee experience is best spoken in Spanish, not only so you feel like cultured traveller but because you might have no other option. Skip the formal “I would like/could I please have” language and just say something like “hola un (café cubano) por favor” meaning “hello, a (Cuban coffee) please”. It’s as easy as that.
Want your coffee minus the sweet stuff? The good news is you can simply ask for it “sin azúcar”, meaning without sugar. The bad news is it tastes like shit without it, and this is coming from someone who never usually sweetens their coffee. For the health conscious lot your best option is to ask for no sugar and then add it yourself, or try saying “con un solo azúcar”, meaning “with only one sugar” .
Throw in a simple “muchas gracias” to say thank you afterwards (to which they’ll surely reply “de nada” meaning “don’t mention it”) and you’re basically a local. Then, polystyrene cup in hand, you can walk away smiling that your coffee only cost you a couple of dollars. And so begins this is no frills love affair.
Like it, love it, or hate it, if you’re in Miami you’ve got to give Cuban coffee a try, even if it’s just once. But you’ve been warned – it’s highly addictive. Go easy on the sugar.
Once I weaned myself off the aforementioned coffee I was at a loss as to where to get my caffeine fix. I’m terribly embarrassed to say I had to resort to Starbucks for a period of time in sheer desperation. Alas, after too many assaulting filter coffees I quit el café altogether. My replacement? Matcha green tea powder, purchased from the holy grail Whole Foods, of course. It fits in somewhere between green tea and coffee on the caffeine scale, but unlike the latter it’s non-acidic, full of antioxidants, and miraculously detoxing. The health freak in me was happy, and so was my liver. No withdrawals, no headaches, more energy. I was on to a good thing.
There was only one problem. I missed coffee – not the kick but the taste. Back on my relentless pursuit of happiness, I knew that something, somewhere must be good enough to hit the spot, or at least come close. And I was right, on Purdy Ave nonetheless. Just a short stroll or bike ride away from the heart of South Beach and a welcome retreat from all that Miami glitz.
Introducing Panther Coffee. My savior. The first thing I noticed when I entered was my beloved Australian Keep Cups lining the walls; we were friends immediately. Roasted on site in small batches, the coffee is decidedly good and the baristas know what a flat white is too, even though it’s not on the menu. Instant cred in my books.
With the whole semi-industrial vibe thing going on it feels more like one of those cool Sydney or Auckland cafes we seem to love back home rather than anything you’d see on the beach. It’s very un-Miami and I love that. Pop in for a takeaway and I guarantee you’ll want to stay, and then when you’re done you can marvel at the nearby stores you otherwise would have never found. Make a pitstop around the corner at Jugofresh too for what’s probably the best organic juice in the city.
The original Panther Coffee happens to be in the Wynwood area downtown, where everything is a million times cooler than anything you’ll see in SoBe – a tip not to be overlooked even during a quick beach vacation. On the second Saturday night of every month is the Wynood Art Walk, quite possibly the best thing going on in the whole city. The streets are filled with people who wander from gallery to gallery, stopping off at a restaurant or bar or, better yet, a food truck, along the way. Go do this, and then stop off at Panther (if you can handle the queue).
The weekend before I left Miami I visited the recently opened Pérez Art Museum Miami (or PAMM) which is situated across the bridge in Downtown Miami, right on the water in the new Museum Park. It is without a doubt the most beautiful location for a museum I have been to anywhere in the world. Enchanted not only by the sweeping views of Biscayne Bay, the spectacular architecture courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, and the wonders of contemporary art (from the likes of Liechtenstein at the time), I made a wonderful discovery in the cafe Verde downstairs. A latte or a flat white, whatever you want to call it, this little cup of goodness was everything a good coffee should be, and totally unexpected.
Tourists take note: if there’s anything I learned in Miami it’s that it’s not all Ocean Drive and bikinis. These pockets of wonder do exist, you just have to hunt them down, but I promise you it’ll be worth it.
My journey was complete. I was happy. I found that much needed breath of fresh air, and it all began with a coffee.