The Long History of Calle Ocho

There’s no denying it – think of Calle Ocho and images of vibrant Cuban life and culture abound. 

By Alona Abbady Martinez

Set in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, this street, lined with restaurants, stores, and pedestrians, is best known for its colorful flair and festivals. The origins of Calle Ocho are starkly different from the festive, Spanish-speaking dynamic destination it has become.

Dating back to the 1920s, Calle Ocho, known simply as “The Trail” was a dirt road that ran along young citrus groves and served as a thoroughfare for farmers transporting their crops. As the citrus industry in Florida began growing, more people started moving here. This of course led to more traffic on “The Trail” because it was the end of a national road, Highway 41, which began in the Midwest. It also was the first road to cut through the Everglades. “It assumes importance because two neighborhoods develop very strongly residentially and commercially,” Paul George, retired history professor from Miami Dade Wolfson and resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum explains. 

The neighborhoods he refers to are Riverside, on the north side of Calle Ocho and Shenandoah, on the south of what is Little Havana today. As these areas became more populated, they began to fill with people from different backgrounds, from Southerners to Jews to Lebanese Syrians who built the Lebanese Syrian Club in 1941. “There were pockets of multiculturalism here before we used the term ‘multicultural,’” George adds. The first Cuban influx began in 1952, when islanders fleeing the Batista dictatorship arrived on these shores. When Castro took over in 1959 more and more Cubans came. They settled on Calle Ocho because of its proximity to stores and hospitals, as well as the Miami Freedom Tower, which was repurposed to help process the large convergence of refugees. Serendipitously, it was also the site of one of the only good metro bus systems in the county, an important advantage for people without cars.

As more and more Cubans settled in the area it began taking on the Latin flavor so celebrated today. What started with small mom and pop shops has turned into a thriving destination with over three million tourists visiting each year. George, who has been giving free tours of the area for 17 years as part of the Viernes Culturales, or “Cultural Fridays” (a nonprofit organization dedicated to highlighting culture and arts of the area) explains the reason why Calle Ocho keeps drawing the crowds. “It’s got a lot of pizazz, color, history, sociology, demographics, and lot of appeal and attractions. It’s become a landmark neighborhood.”

Here are some top stops worth checking out:

Domino Park: 

Originally an abandoned lot, Domino Park has turned into a domino-destination for players and spectators alike. Located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Avenue, this spot, originally named Antonio Maceo Park, then Maximo Gomez Park goes by its self-explanatory moniker of Domino Park. Here you’ll find everyone from abuelitos smoking cigars, pals talking politics, and tourists taking selfies, all over a game of dominoes.

Tower Theater:

Built in 1926, this classic Art Deco building served as a movie theater and gathering spot for Cubans eager to watch Spanish-language films while working on their English by reading the movie subtitles. Today, the building hosts Cuban exhibits, performances, and free lectures, under the auspices of Miami Dade College. 

Cuban Memorial Boulevard:

The 16-foot raised map of Cuba inscribed with José Martí’s famous words, “La patria es agonia y deber” (the homeland is agony and duty) sets the tone for this memorial paying homage to Cuban soldiers who fought for independence. There are seven monuments spread over the quiet space as well as a statue of the Virgin Mary.

CUBAN CIGARS

Cigars are synonymous with Cuba, so it’s no surprise there will be puro shops on this street, many still hand rolling their cigars onsite. Favorite spots include El Titan de Bronze(1071 SW Eighth St.),which bearsthe nickname given to the fierce Cuban general Antonio Maceo Grajales, and Little Havana Cigar Company (1501 SW Eighth St.), which has been in the Bello family for five generations.


RESTAURANTS

Azucar Ice Cream Company

1503 SW 8th St.

The gigantic 3-D ice cream mural says it all: this place is all about ice cream and good ones at that. Named after Celia Cruz’s signature call sign, or, simply, the Spanish word “sugar,” fans swear by staples like Abuela Maria (made with guava, cream cheese, and Maria cookies), Café con Leche (Cuban coffee with Oreos), and Platano Maduro (sweet plantain).

Ball & Chain

1513 SW 8th St.

Opened as the Ball & Chain Saloon in 1935, this bar and lounge has a colorful history worthy of its own Netflix series. Today, guests can enjoy live music, drinks, and an assortment of bar bites with a Cuban twist like the Cuban Spring Roll filled with ham, mojo pork, swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard aioli.

Café La Trova

971 SW 8th St.

Local celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein recently paired with award-winning bartender Julio Cabrera to open this bar and café as an ode to the Cuban professional bartender or cantinero. Named for and inspired by traditional Cuban music known as La Trova, it boasts live music, two separate bars, as well as a patio for cigar smoking out back.

El Pub

1548 SW 8th St.

Another long-timer, El Pub is a great place to sip a cortadito and order some ham croquetas. There’s heartier fare as well such as the Bandeja Especial which includes masitas, chicharon de pollo, vaca frita, mariquitas, and tamal—fried pork chunks, crispy chicken chunks, fried beef, plantain chips, and tamal.

El Exquisito

1510 SW 8th St.

This classic Cuban restaurant has been around for a long time serving traditional dishes like rabo encendido (oxtail stew) vaca frita (shredded beef) and pan con bistec (meat sandwich).

El Rey de las Fritas 

1821 SW 8th St.

Fritas are Cuban hamburgers and El Rey de las Fritas, as its name announces, is king. This spot hits all the fast food high notes: a juicy ground beef patty, typically mixed with pork and chorizo, hidden under a mountain of crispy, thin fries, and of course, tons of sauce. 

Taquerias El Mexicano

521 SW 8th St.

This bright and happy Mexican staple has been around since 1985 serving tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and other family favorites. Tortillas are made in house daily and breakfast is available as well for those craving huevos rancheros or chilaquiles.

Versailles

3555 SW 8th St.

This is the most well known Cuban destination in Miami, the one where all presidents and politicians make their stop to sip coladas, sample pastelitos de guayaba con queso and discuss politics with locals. While it lies outside of the buzz of Calle Ocho, which stretches from 5th Street to 22nd Street, it is nonetheless an important part of Little Havana. 

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