The fragrance of freshly made ‘pastelitos,’ the lyrics of the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, heard from nearly every open window, the smoke from a hand-rolled cigar and the sounds of the dominoes hitting the table at Domino Park.
Calle Ocho, the main strip, the heart of Little Havana, Miami and my fondest memories of my free spirited youth.
Well, OK, my early youth. From the age of too young to remember how old I was when we moved there, until about eight. The time in one’s life where you could eat A-LOT, and trust me I did, and still stay trim. Back then I burned all the excess calories during school recess, playing outside with my friends after school for hours until it got dark (what a concept) or dancing the salsa with my dad (well he danced and he let me stand on his feet).
Growing up in Little Havana, meant morning walks to the corner bakery, with mom, to pick up a ‘colada,’ a traditional cup of Cuban coffee. It’s what Americans would call a shot of expresso except the Cubans found a way of making the tart brew taste sweet by adding at least five teaspoons of sugar per ONE CUP of coffee (and this is a conservative figure).
That one colada could actually serve a household of four; the rich elixir served in tiny cups about the size of a half a shot glass of booze. If you were bold, or in serious need of a wake-up call, you might have more than one shot from your colada. But be warned, you would have the energy of a running Gazelle for a few hours followed by a serious comatose sugar crash only fixed by grabbing another colada and this time drinking the whole thing.
At the bakery we would also pick up beef ‘pastelitos,’ a fluffy baked pastry stuffed with either beef, cheese, guava or better yet both guava and cheese, some ham ‘croquetas,’ a divine fried ham finger-food specialty and a variety of other tasty morsels to get our day started and have extras to pack for lunch.
Evenings always meant mom’s home cooked meals. I had many I enjoyed like ‘arroz con pollo,’ (yellow rice and chicken), ‘ropa vieja,’ (shredded beef, usually flank steak, simmered in a tomato based creole spiced sauce) and ‘bistec de palomilla,’ (basically a top round or sirloin steak pounded paper thin, seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper and lime and fried in oil) but my all-time favorite dishes were ‘carne con papas,’ (Cuban style beef stew with potatoes) and ‘lechon asado,’ (roasted pig and I mean the WHOLE DANG PIG).
One of the first places I found when I relocated to Hinesville and needed a Miami meal fix was D&M Hispanic Restaurant. Venecia and Jose Morel opened the place 10 years ago and offer up authentic Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban food.
“Basically all the same…but sometimes with different names,” son and waiter Randy Morel said when asked what the difference was between each ethnic dish.
There are a few dishes that are associated with one Caribbean Island versus another, like mofongo, a specially made plantain dish, is tied more to the island of Puerto Rico than Cuba but it is well known and made throughout the Caribbean chain of islands.
And thank goodness D&M Hispanic Restaurant has all my favorites on their menu. Morel said his family is Dominican. He said he also grew up in Miami where his parents ran a restaurant for many years.
Morel said his cousin Ronald DeLeon convinced his family to move to Hinesville and open a restaurant. DeLeon already lived in the area, being military and stationed at Fort Stewart. DeLeon, affectionately known to many as ‘Chubby’ owns and runs Walthourville Meat Market.
I visited the restaurant twice this week dining in on one occasion and getting take out the next. During my first stop I ordered my ‘carne con papas,’ with white rice, black beans and ‘tostones,’ which are fried plantain chips but cooked while the plantain is still pretty much green and hard.
My second visit I picked up an order of ‘lechon asado,’ with the white rice, black beans and ‘maduros,’ the fried plantains that are sweet and soft, cooked when the plantain is fully ripen extracting all the sugars during the cooking process.
The carne con papas sat in a deep red ocean of ‘sofrito,’ a traditional tomato based sauce made with garlic, bell peppers, onions and herbs. Spanish olives and sliced carrots were in the stew and the portion was huge. The potato was easily cut with a fork as was the stewed beef.
The roast pork is served in its own juices and cooked onions. The chunks of meat were tender, yet had bits of roasted edges adding that crunch texture and savory roasted flavor.
For the past nine years I’ve sampled their Cuban sandwich (the real deal), ‘pan con lechon,’ (roasted pork sandwich on Cuban bread…come on, it doesn’t get any better, wait yes it does…..wait for it…) and their ‘chuleta frita,’ (fried pork chops topped with onions – BOOM there it is).
I still need to try their version of ‘bistec de palomilla,’ and don’t even get me started on their ‘flan,’ dessert (think caramel custard, dripping with soft caramel topping, soft sugary goodness worth the extra hour on the treadmill). Pure heaven.
The only thing D&M Hispanic Restaurant can’t duplicate is the experience of mom cooking in the kitchen or watching my dad dig a pit in the back yard and preparing a whole pig for roasting for ‘Noche Buena’ our version of Christmas Eve, complete with feast.
My dad would marinate the pig, split in half yet whole from tail to snout, the day before cooking it. The next morning with the pit already dug he carefully layered the hot coals in place, placed the pig on a rack he designed on top of the coals and cover the pig with a box he also designed based on what he used as a child in Cuba. The top of the box was aluminum and more hot coals were placed on top and the pig would cook the whole day.
Meanwhile family gathered, salsa music played all day long and I would step on dad’s feet and dance until it was time to eat.