Sampling Cuban food while in Miami is a must, and there’s one restaurant in particular that locals and in-the-know visitors make a beeline for when the cravings strike: Versailles Restaurant. Started by Felipe Valls in 1971 after arriving from Cuba, Versailles had humble beginnings as a small sandwich shop and coffee window; it has since expanded to a bakery and full-service restaurant seating about 400 people. Over the past 44 years, this Little Havana mainstay has attracted everyone from hungry musicians looking for late-night, post-performance grub, to state and national politicians making Versailles a requisite campaign stop, hoping to woo Cuban-Americans for their votes. Many celebrities have come through its doors, but what makes Versailles really special is the loyal local following and its tried and true family recipes.
Now, Felipe, his son, and his six granddaughters all run the family restaurant together. In this edition of “My Famous Five,” Nicole Valls, a granddaughter of Felipe and operations manager at Versailles, tells us about five special dishes that have made this business a beloved Miami institution for traditional, authentic Cuban food.
The dish that put Versailles on Miami’s food map
“Cuban sandwiches are so popular now. You open up any menu and you see some version of a Cuban sandwich in it. Ours is just done in the traditional way. It’s Cuban bread with sweet ham, roast pork that we marinate overnight, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, and then we use a plancha to heat up the sandwich. Recently there was a huge controversy between Miami and Tampa and whose Cuban sandwich is the real deal. Tampa puts mayonnaise and salami and lettuce and tomato, which we don’t do … Most of the Cuban sandwiches you’ll find in Miami are done the way we do it. It’s just kind of how everyone grew up eating it. It’s just a very typical, traditional sandwich. Some people, instead of sliced roasted pork, they put shredded pork, or like I said, they put salami in Tampa, but ours is just kind of the way it was made in Cuba. We haven’t veered off too much.”
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a croqueta. If you’re old, if you’re a baby, if you’re everyone in between. It’s not a Cuban party unless there’s croquetas present. People just love these. We eat them as snacks, we eat them for breakfast, we put them inside a sandwich and eat them as a sandwich, we sell them as appetizers. We sell them at our café window so people can go and get their cafecito and a croqueta.
We have ham, chicken, cod, and then we also have one that’s made out of yucca, which is a root vegetable that we use a lot in our cuisine, and it’s stuffed with picadillo, which is like a ground beef. Ours has a béchamel base, and then you have the ham or chicken or whatever protein we use, and then just fried goodness. We sell [yucca and beef] more as an appetizer. It’s pretty unique. I don’t know a lot of people who make it that way. The more traditional croqueta is obviously ham and that’s our number one seller.”
The most popular dish at Versailles
“We get our pork and we marinate it overnight in mojo, which is citrus and garlic and onion and stuff like that. So we marinate it overnight and we put it in the oven, slow cooking for up to seven hours. It comes out really tender, and then the skin of the pork gets really crispy. We’ll serve you the shredded pork with a little chunk of the crispy pork skin on top.
Lechon asado is very popular. Whenever we have big celebrations, we usually roast a whole pig in a “caja China,” which is a box. Originally it was [roasted] in the ground, but now they just sell the box that you cook that in for hours. Any special occasion, really, in the Cuban community, you’ll always see a roast pork. It’s one of our popular dishes. It’s very traditional, and pork is a huge part of Cuban cuisine, and a lot of the stuff we eat is very pork-based.”
The personal favorite
“It’s one of the favorites between all my sisters, as well as a personal favorite. It’s actually one of our top sellers, as well. The literal translation is “fried cow,” but it’s just shredded flank steak and onions that we fry on the flat grill, and we throw a little citrus on top of it, like a mojo. It’s delicious. Obviously we don’t eat this everyday, otherwise we’d be like, 500 pounds, but if I want to be bad and I want to eat Cuban, we’ll get vaca frita. Everyone loves it. And I think it’s more of like a generational thing. I really don’t see a lot of older people ordering vaca frita, but every time you see a table of young people, they always order vaca frita. The beef one is definitely the more popular out of the two (Versailles also has a chicken version).”
Pastel de platano
The underrated dish
“It’s kind of a weird dish. I call it like a Cuban lasagna. It’s a layered dish: the first layer is mashed up sweet plantains, then you have a layer of picadillo, which is the ground beef, and then you have another layer of plantains, and then it’s covered with cheese. You put it under the salamander and it gets the cheese all melted on top. I love this dish. I personally love the combo of sweet and salty; you have the sweet of the plantain, the salty of the beef, the savory of the melted cheese. But it’s a dish that not a lot of people order. It does well, but I think people are a little weirded out by it because it’s not something that you’re used to seeing that much.
I’ll have a party and I’ll bring pastel de platano and everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh, what is this? This is amazing.” But I think people, they read it in the menu, and they’re like, “Hm, sounds kind of weird,” so it’s not ordered as much as I think it deserves because it really is delicious.”
Versailles Restaurant, 3555 SW 8th Street (Little Havana); Cuban, breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night daily.