Coffee Traditions: Espresso Cubano, or Cafecito


They're almost as serious about coffee in Cuba as they are about cigars—and thankfully, the island's sweet and strong caffeinated export is one we can still legally and easily enjoy stateside.

So what is a café Cubano, and why should you head to your favorite local Cuban lunch counter to order one?

In most places around the world (aside from in paper-to-go-cup-obsessed America), drinking coffee is a highly social activity, allowing friends and neighbors to gather over their cups and share the news of the day. In Cuba, those cups are typically full of sweet, strong cafecito. Also called espresso Cubano, the drink is a shot of dark-roasted espresso brewed either directly onto sugar, or with the sweet granules mixed and melted with the grounds as they're extracted.

In the former version, many cafecito aficionados will be sure to catch the first few heavy, oily drops of the espresso to mix with the sugar thoroughly, only adding the rest of the shots after the sweet stuff has dissolved completely. Others rely on instant espresso powder: Many traditionalists absolutely insist on using Cafe Bustelo, just like abuela does, but I say fresh is always best. (Perhaps that's evidence of a cafecito cognition theory?)

Just because the coffee's short and sweetened doesn't mean it won't pack a punch: The thick, foamy head that forms from the melted sugar and the espresso's aromatic crema gives way to a syrupy little jolt of rich, smoky liquid underneath.

Traditionally enjoyed as a quick breakfast with a freshly baked Cuban roll, it's also the perfect thing to wash down a custardy-sweet plate of flan—especially after plopping a bit of frothy steamed milk on top for a café con leche.

To bring this little taste of Havana at home, add a little sugar to the top pot on your moka brewer—the extracted coffee will melt the sugar as it bubbles up. Maybe that's what Celia Cruz was always shouting about—and I can't say I blame her.