‘They kill Castro every single day’
In Miami’s Versailles café, the Cuban community gathers for sweet java with a side of politics

by Kate Zimmerman for The Globe and Mail Wednesday, October 10, 2012

MIAMI —When Cuban-Miamians crave coffee, they gravitate to a Little Havana hangout called Versailles. They pair their sweet, strong, minuscule cups of Café Cubano with equally intense gossip about what’s happening in their homeland.

After Fidel Castro was erroneously reported dead in January, international news media swarmed Versailles (pronounced “Ver-sigh-yez” in Spanish) looking for expats’ reaction to the story. Limousine driver Eddie Padron, who left Cuba in 1971, jokes about his community’s longstanding contempt for the former dictator.

Over coffee, “they kill Castro every single day,” he says, chuckling. “They’ve been killing Castro for 50 years.”

Given the variety of customers the popular venue attracts – including mothers with babies, “suits,” 20-somethings with tattooed faces, and elderly men nattily dressed in the white Cuban shirts known as guayabera – subjects other than Castro’s longed-for demise clearly come up. Still, politics are centre stage at Versailles, which bills itself as the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant.

“It’s the unofficial city hall of the Cuban community in Miami,” says owner Felipe Valls Jr., whose father founded the place and still presides.

Versailles originated in 1971 as a diner where Mr. Walls Sr. sold Cuba’s culinary favourites, with a traditional take-out coffee window called a ventanita. It’s since evolved into a 370-seat restaurant and a 50-seat retail bakery. Miami is a night-owl city; Versailles, including its ventanita, operates from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, with even longer hours on weekends.

Though there are countless cafesin Miami, local Marilyn Borroto describes Versailles as essential. Its coffee meets all the Cuban-American requirements. In Ms. Borroto’s lexicon, the “c” in café stands for caliente, or hot. The “a” stands for amargo, or bitter. The “f” stands for fuerte, or strong. And the “e” stands for escaso, which means “just a bit.”

Custom dictates that Café Cubano, also called cafecito, comes in a standard espresso portion; it costs about 80 cents. If you order the 4 oz. version called a colada, you’ll be handed five tiny plastic cups so you can divide the contents into shots for your friends.

No matter which style you choose, these cups of joe are served already sweetened, the hot coffee quickly stirred into the sugar. Look for a light layer of foam, the espumita.

Cubans take sips of cold water alongside their Café Cubano to dilute it, or they order a cortadito, which is topped with steamed milk. Devout in their coffee worship, they use café con leche, a shot of espresso with lots of milk, to wean their babies off the breast.

At Versailles, Ms. Borroto bumps into her friend Pedro Garcia, who drinks three high-octane cafecitos per day. His lunchtime companion, Eddy Camejo – who says he goes to Versailles “for bullshitting” – ingests a solitary café con leche.

“I am not a good Cuban,” he says, tongue-in-cheek. Still, like Mr. Garcia, Mr. Camejo is a Versailles mainstay. Mr. Valls Jr. claims that for such regulars, he tells servers, “Don’t charge for the food. Just charge him rent.”

Conviviality aside, the appeal of Versailles isn’t immediately evident. Its bland décor only echoes the French Sun King’s palace in that both are amply supplied with mirrors. Nevertheless Ms. Borroto says the fact that Miami’s version is open late and serves inexpensive Cuban comfort food means friends congregate there often -- sharing memories after a funeral, dropping by for a post-opera sandwich, or lingering over tortillas y huevos to discuss their worries.

Many of the older patrons are escapees from Castro’s Cuba, says Ms. Borroto, who arrived in the U.S. in 1962 as one of the 14,000 “Pedro Pan” children sent west by their parents to shield them from El Presidente’s enforced Communist zeal. Unlike some, Borroto’s family was ultimately reunited.

Along with its exiled clientele, Versailles’ cosy food attracts celebrities. Robert Duvall recently ate there, says Mr. Valls Jr., as have singers Rod Stewart and Julio Iglesias. Versailles is also a crucial stop for politicians, including presidents and vice-presidential candidates like Paul Ryan, who hope their coladas will come with a hefty side of Cuban-American votes.

With so many famous customers, the younger Mr. Valls is thinking about assembling a wall of fame. There’s no apparent rush, however -- it’s not like this version of Versailles needs to show itself off.

Where: Versailles, 3555 Southwest 8th Street, Miami

What to order: A cafecita and a Baguette Cubano -- bread stuffed with sugar-glazed ham, roast pork, Emmental cheese, mustard and pickles, grilled and served hot

Who goes there: Cuban-Americans, politicians, unpretentious types

Best people-watching: Late-night, Sundays, March’s Calle Ocho block party

Design: Nondescript

Special to The Globe and Mail

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