There are certain things I associate with Hialeah: cars blasting “Patria y Vida,” the faint jingle of the afilador truck in the distance, the smell of Cuban bread, and viejitos arguing about baseball. And, of course, Cuban food. As a native of Hialeah, I can confidently tell you that this is the place to go for some of the best Cuban food you can find outside of the island. There are a near infinite amount of options in this city, from bakeries to restaurants and everything in between. But these are the spots that always keep me coming back.
La Viña Aragon is a restaurant in a little shopping plaza in West Hialeah with wood-paneled walls and old framed pictures that really make this place feel like the restaurants of my childhood - flowers at every table included. Everything here is great, but let’s talk about the ropa vieja. The shredded beef stew is tangy, savory, slightly sweet, and La Viña’s version of the Cuban classic absolutely slaps. The pollo empanizado also deserves some attention. It’s a giant flattened chicken breast that’s battered, fried, and topped with a big pile of chopped onions and parsley. The chicken comes out nice and crunchy while staying super tender, and a little squeeze of lime gives it that perfect balance. It’s cash-only here, so make sure to grab some on your way.
Benni Jama is an outdoor barbecue joint that overwhelms the senses. Walking in, you are greeted by a life-size figure of Celia Cruz sitting on a rocking chair as her music blasts overhead. There is a bunch of outdoor seating, but I enjoy the shaded church benches surrounded by caricatures of famous Cubans. As you’re waiting for your order, look up and appreciate the Sistine Chapel-esque mural featuring an impressive cast of political figures. Start with an order of the chicharrones that are absolutely stunning and served in thick pieces. The ribs and grilled meats are a great option too, and the half chicken has a subtle smoke to it. Sit down, eat, and watch the old standups by Alvarez Guedes playing in the background - or just take in the hyper muscular forms of Fidel Castro and Vladamir Putin.
Easy to miss, Palmar Cafeteria is in an industrial area of Hialeah across the street from a popular Spanish news studio. The cafe does breakfast and lunch, serving up some of the best Cuban food in the area. But let’s talk beans for a moment. Beans are a staple in Cuban cuisine and it’s surprisingly hard to find really good beans in Miami. However, the beans at Palmar are not just really good, they’re f*cking great. The only bad thing about these beans is that from now on you’re gonna have to lie to your abuela about her beans being the best. They offer black or red daily and alternate a special “potage,” or bean stew. The masas de puerco are exceptional too - cooked with mojo until tender then fried up to order. Get these with a side of black beans, rice, and platanos maduros.
Despite its name, Pan.Com Sandwicheria is a Cuban restaurant - not a website devoted to bread - and this place puts a new spin on some Cuban favorites. Inside, there’s a wooden bar and giant wall print of Havana streets. It’s a good place to come with friends and share some small plates. Or, maybe, just order them all for yourself like I did. Their croquetas are homemade little balls of joy that will make you ask: Why don’t all croquetas come in circular form? And the sandwiches offer a fresh take on some classics. Try the frita gangster for a juiced-up version of a frita that comes with a bacon onion jam you’ll want to spread on everything. The real star of the show, though, is the tamal en cazuela, a Cuban version of grits. It’s enormous and you can probably share it with all your primos. Pan.Com makes theirs with fresh ground corn, which gives a creamy texture. I’d happily eat that on its own, but when they add pork chunks, aromatic sofrito, a heaping portion of ropa vieja, a runny fried egg, and avocado slices, this becomes one of the best dishes in Hialeah.
Cubans love pork. As such, Cuban barbecue is centered around the pig. There are many Cuban barbecue joints in Hialeah, but Las Viñas Barbeque is a consistent favorite. The building has a precarious parking situation - so careful backing out - but it’s completely worth any traffic-induced stress. Las Viñas specializes in all varieties of Cuban barbecue pork, and also offers some great sides. Let’s start with the lechon. They have the whole hog and you can ask for any cut you want (if they’re not sold out). It’s cooked with a house mojo and perfectly tender. Whatever you get, add an order of barrigada, which is basically roasted pork belly cut into bites of pure bliss. And while chicharron is not technically barbecue, you should get it here. These big chunks of pork skin are fried to a crisp and chopped up to order. Add some plantain chips too, which are fried daily and come in big bags you can devour on the way home as a reward for not hitting anyone in the parking lot.
While lechon asado is usually reserved for special occasions, La Esquina Del Lechon serves it up every week, Wednesday through Saturday. And even though they aren’t technically in Hialeah, they deserve to be an honorary member because the pork is so damn good and it’s not a far drive at all. It’s roasted in the traditional caja china, seasoned with homemade mojo, and served in a huge portion that comes fresh off the hog. The meat is juicy and tender but still has that layer of crispy skin. Pair it with some mojo-slathered yuca and platanos maduros. The lechon is what you want here, so if you order the chicken taco salad, don’t get mad when your friend slaps you with a chancleta.
Molina’s Ranch is as formal as a Cuban restaurant can get in Hialeah. Probably the most famous place in the neighborhood besides the Hialeah Racetrack, this family-run restaurant has been an institution since 1982 and has hosted Willy Chirino, Celia Cruz, and, for some reason, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The reason for all this fame? The food. The menu covers all the Cuban classics and then some, taking pride in doing most things in-house. This is evident in their ham croquetas, which are fried fresh and have a paper-thin crispy crust. I grew up eating their chicken soup and it remains my local favorite. The broth comes loaded with chicken, carrots, and noodles, and feels like a big warm hug from your tia. And although rice can sometimes be an afterthought, they make an arroz moro here that will have you ordering seconds. It’s salty, savory rice speckled with black beans and topped with crunchy chicharrons. For dessert, get the crema catalana. The custard is rich and it has a thick burnt sugar crust. And even if you get way too full here, you’ll walk out the door saying, “I’ll be back” in your best Arnold impression.
This sandwich spot is already featured in our guide to The Best Cuban Sandwiches In Miami. Despite the name on the storefront, locals know it as El Mejor Batido de Hialeah, which loosely translates to “this is some fire sh*t.” Inside, it’s a symphony of blenders, yells for orders, and dings from the kitchen bell. There is a large selection of sandwiches but the star of the show is the pan con lechon. The pork is slow-cooked with mojo, making it incredibly soft, before it’s topped with even more garlic mojo and a healthy serving of crunchy potato sticks. The traditional Cuban sandwich is a bit unique here, because they use the same pulled pork instead of the standard cold cut. For a sweeter take on the Cuban, try the media noche, which is the same thing but with potato bread. For batidos, try the trigo (toasted wheat cereal) and the mamey. The prices are affordable and the service is fast, but keep in mind it’s cash-only and the ordering system is based on who is able to make themselves noticed first. Thankfully, locals hold the first-come, first-served rule sacred.
Take a traditional breakfast diner, add a Cuban twist, and you get Trigo Café. In the middle of 49th Street in Hialeah, you’ll find this tiny cafe with just a few tables and some seats at the bar. They offer mainly breakfast and sandwiches, but also have daily specials like ropa vieja, crema de malanga, or vaca frita. If you’re like me and are always dreaming of the Islas Canarias croquetas, you’ll be happy to know that Trigo has them and now you don’t have to drive all the way to Tamiami. They put them to good use in their croqueta preparada too, which is stuffed with these beauties and even better than it sounds. This is a breakfast spot and the traditional Cuban breakfast comes with all the fixings: tostada, cafe con leche, and french fries. Their brunch menu is a mix of Cuban and American staples too, like french toast and a luscious shrimp and grits. You’ll also want to try their milkshakes, which are decadent and pair really well with those croquetas.
Baked goods are an essential part of Cuban cuisine and there are bakeries scattered throughout every corner of Hialeah. Breadman has only been around since 2014, but it’s already one of the best Cuban bakeries. Here you’ll find Cuban bread, croquetas, pastelitos, cakes, and their own spin on traditional desserts. Pastelitos are almost as essential to Cubans as croquetas, and Breadman makes their versions with guava or coconut, plus a Nutella pastelito that’s flaky and oozing with warm Nutella. If you go in the morning, the Cuban bread is still warm from the oven and you might want to get a loaf to-go just so your car will smell like Cuban bread for the next 24 hours. They also make very good sandwiches, like the SuperMeng, a shredded steak sandwich with two eggs, cheese, and grilled onions. While they leave some of the traditional desserts untouched (like the capuchino cakes or señoritas) they also craft some really creative (and delicious) versions. The Alabao, a flan topped with arroz con leche, is a combo so perfect it’ll have you questioning your loyalties to the classic flan de leche.