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Dispatch from Miami – The Search for Authentic Cuban Salsa

by Rachel Levin
March 26, 2008
Kaffe Krystal
10855 SW 72nd Ave.
Miami, FL 33156
786-262-1053
Spring break in Florida has its share of clichés. Many come looking for beachy, boozy bacchanals in Ft. Lauderdale, South Beach, and other skin fest destinations. My mission was something entirely more humble and involved a good deal more clothing and sobriety: to find authentic Cuban salsa in Miami. OK, a little romance wouldn't hurt either, but I'd be perfectly fine with a few good dances.

I braved the misery that is Spring Break/Easter travel to join a good friend on her visit to see her parents in Miami. It was my first time in the city, and I was expecting to step off the plane into a cloak of warm humidity. Just my luck: it was a cold week (at least for Miami) with clouds, chilly breezes, and scattered rain. There would be no beach day. No matter. I rented a car and by day set out to explore Miami's many neighborhoods: the glitz of South Beach, the lush tropical beauty of Coral Gables, and the old world charm of Little Havana.

Since I was there mid-week, I figured Wednesday night would afford my best shot at plugging into the local salsa scene. At least in Los Angeles, Wednesday nights are huge for the salsa set. I wanted something low-key (but not so low-key that it was patronized exclusively by Cuban grandfathers), genuine, and off the tourist circuit—with great live music, of course.

A friend had recommended I go to Mango's on South Beach, a Havana-style supper club. But I was apprehensive about how authentic the scene might be when she said, "Try dancing on top of the bars….yeah go for it!" I had passed the club on my daytime excursion to South Beach, and I'd never seen more leopard print spandex in my life. This was definitely the touristy atmosphere I was hoping to avoid. Plus they charged $25 for valet parking.

Armed with the calendar listings of the Miami Herald and the New Times, I sat down Wednesday evening to call around and explore other non-Mango's options. Given Miami's huge Cuban population and proximity to the motherland, I expected there to be an infinite number of little clubs tucked throughout the city. But the newspapers listed more sports bars and martini lounges than Latin/Tropical clubs. Also, I quickly learned that fact checking is not a strong suit of the Miami press. The first three numbers I called were out of order. The next five or six clubs I reached only had salsa music on Fridays and Saturdays. Oddly, several of them offered trance music on Wednesdays in salsa's stead. Other venues offered live music but no dancing per se.

I was just beginning to despair and prepare myself for the spandex of Mango's when I happened upon the listing for Kaffe Krystal. It was located in the suburb of Kendall Lakes—not far from where I was staying, but in boony-ville compared to the South Beach epicenter. Here's the description the New Times gave: "Out in the middle of nowhere, the Latin rhythms flow freely and the booties shake as fast as the maracas. This rather large venue behind the Wendy's and the Pizza Hut caters to the Spanish hip-shaking crowd." At least I knew I wouldn't run into any drunken frat boys there.

I called the number, and once again, the fact checking skills of the New Times staff failed. The number provided was not the club's line, but someone's personal cell phone.

"Hello, is this Kaffe Krystal?" I asked.

"No, they haven't changed the contact number yet. I used to work there but I don't anymore," said the man who answered.

Frustrated and out of options for my Miami salsa experience, I decided to ask this man with the friendly voice for some advice. "Do you have any idea where I can go for good salsa in Miami tonight?" I explained that I was visiting from Los Angeles, going home the next day, and only had one night to dance salsa Miami-style.

He took pity on my plight. "Kaffe Krystal is a good place," he assured me. He gave me the legitimate contact number for the club, gave me directions there, and confirmed that Wednesdays indeed feature live salsa bands. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers. Then he said, "Who are you going with?"

"A friend," I said.

"Male or female?" he asked.

"Female."

"In that case," he said, "why don't I meet you there? I'm Columbian, so I love dancing. If you want to give me your number, I'll call you when I get there."

Was he asking me out? How strange to ask someone out sight unseen. But from his voice, he did sound cute. Then I thought: maybe that's why his contact number is in the paper—so he can glean dates from women who try to call the club!

"My name is Malcolm," he offered.

"Hi Malcolm. Let me think about it. I'll call you back at this number if I decide to go."

Meanwhile, my friend's mother had called her Columbian housekeeper to see if she could get the skinny on an authentic Wednesday night salsa venue. The housekeeper called her son, who called a friend, who called back the housekeeper, who called us back with the recommendation: Kaffe Krystal. All signs now pointed to Kaffe Krystal—and Malcolm.

The paper was correct this time: the club was in a strip mall behind Wendy's and Pizza Hut and next to the frankly named Bathroom World, which made us chuckle. My friend and I arrived around 9:30 pm, figuring that even though it was a touch on the early side, it was a reasonable time for a crowd to start forming on a week night. No such luck: the place was completely empty. We were the only ones there aside from the staff. So we took a seat on a couch and ordered drinks. The music—despite the lack of any dancers—was uncomfortably loud and made conversation impossible. So we sat there drinking and text messaging one another to communicate while we waited for the party to start.

In our boredom, I decided to send a text message to Malcolm and tell him I was at Kaffe Krystal. At least his presence would guarantee me a dance partner—and some intrigue. But Malcolm texted back that he was busy and would try to get there later.

Later never really arrived. By 11:30, there was still no one dancing! We were definitely on Miami time. With clubs that stay open until 5 a.m. (as opposed to the 2 a.m. standard close time in L.A.), Miami has a true late night scene. But with our jet lag, we just couldn't swing it. Without so much as one dance (and no Malcolm) at Kaffe Krystal, we headed home to go to sleep.

I was dismayed that I was not able to consummate my spring break salsa mission. But I realized that the Miami salsa scene I envisioned was something of my fantasies, not the reality. The mere presence of so many Cubans doesn't guarantee salsa heaven. The young Cubans, at least, seem to be more into trance than into tropical. As if to prove the point, a text message came in from Malcolm (who incidentally turned out to be a trance club promoter) at 5 a.m. the next morning. "Hi," it said. He was ending his night and looking to meet up. But I was already en route to the airport.
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