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Azucar ice cream in Little Havana

You have to hand it to the Latin culture- they can transform something that is ordinary into something that’s beyond extraordinary.

Take dance for example. Except for disco, one of the greatest trends of all time, ( you have to admit that the Hustle was the bomb. Ok, ok, we can agree to disagree), there is nothing like watching a plain promenade get elevated to the sensuous salsa movements that only this community can expertly execute. A run-of-the-mill glass of wine becomes that bold, tropical fruit-infused pitcher of boozy merriment called sangria. A mere handshake is relegated to those with cold personalities; Latinos raise the greeting stakes with a polite, but warm kiss on the cheek. It’s very fair to say these wonderful people make life much more fun.

One of the first things you’ll notice right smack in the center of Little Havana is the long line out the door for local ice cream. But this isn’t from just any ubiquitous parlor. You know you’ve arrived in the neighborhood when you see the candy-colored massive plastic recreations of ice cream cones emblazoned on the store front of Azucar, THE place for Cuban-inspired frozen treats. The whole premise of this operation is to take the basic flavors of ice cream and spin them to new heights of culinary mastery.

Born out of necessity, in 2008 when the banking crisis forced people to reevaluate their lives, Suzy Batlle, a resident of Miami and a proud Cuban woman, made the life-altering decision to switch from her career in finance to making ice cream! That seems like quite a non-sensical leap, but for Suzy, she had ice cream production in her genes! Her grandmother, her beloved Abuela, was an expert at creating ice cream flavors. As she traveled through South America with her sugar cane engineer husband, Suzy’s grandfather, she used the beautiful and local produce to spark up the taste of the chilled sweet.

So while Suzy understood how to make ice cream shine brighter, she needed some business training for this new endeavor. She picked herself up and enrolled in the famous ice cream school on the campus of Penn State-hey, if it’s good enough for Ben and Jerry, she figured it was good enough for her.

In 2011, she flung the doors wide open in a most enviable spot on the main drag of Calle Ocho (8th Street) and the rest of this extreme success story is still history in the making. Keeping with the tradition of sourcing local, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump down the street to reach one of her suppliers, Los Pinerenos Fruiteria, who fills her need for fresh mamey fruit. Mamey, a sweet potato like fruit with a deep gorgeous red hue is churned into one of the most unique ice cream flavors Azucar has to offer. That’s one example on how committed this outfit is to involving other local businesses into their own.

But don’t leave Miami without trying their signature flavor, Abuela Maria. It’s literally the Cuban culture in a waffle cone. Vanilla ice cream gets all gussied up with chunks of guava, guava marmalade, cream cheese and a Maria cookie. These graham cracker-like thin cookies are staples in a Cuban pantry. Typically cream cheese and a slice of fresh guava is pressed between the two wafers and then are popped into a hungry mouth for a tasty after-school treat ( far and away beats Oreo cookies). So, Suzy got the idea to borrow from the beloved morsel and trademarked this unusual, but sensational best-seller named after her grandma and the cookie.

There are so many varieties of ice cream flavors to choose from, so don’t be shy to plaster your feet on their stunning tiled floor and stare wide-eyed for awhile at their chalkboard to make the most important decision you’ll probably make all day. Actually, you can’t go wrong with anything you select, so you’ll just have to return to the shop many times- in the name of research of course!

So, why the name Azucar? It means sugar in Spanish and yes, that is the crucial ingredient you’ll need to make proper ice cream, but the moniker has a deeper meaning. In the Cuban community one of their most famous entertainers of all time was the incomparable Celia Cruz. Celia, known as the Queen of Salsa, began her illustrious musical career in Cuba before emigrating to the United States. As the master of a wide variety of Afro-Cuban styles including salsa, bon, guaracha, bolero and rumba, her big break came in in 1950 and ended in a beautiful blaze of glory during her last performance in 2003, the year she passed away. Her powerful music matched her equally fireball personality that shined through her dramatic clothing and makeup choices.

But more than outward appearances, she was a force to be reckoned with. Celia garnered 37 albums, 2 Grammy Awards, 3 Latin Grammy awards, and made several appearances in movies and telenovas. Her well-known catchphrase at the end of her live performances was to forcefully utter the sweet-sounding word, Azucar. And so Suzy bestowed Ms. Cruz with the highest honor to have her signature sign-off splashed across Little Havana for everyone, locals and tourists alike, to remember this iconic woman. There is even a flavor named after her-the Celia Cruz! Be sure to view the giant portrait of her looming over you like the goddess she was. Have a seat on the cozy guayabera-covered bench below the painting and allow dear Celia to give you her blessing as you savor your flavor.

So why settle for the been there, done that experiences. Grab yourself a cone and settle into Little Havana where your life is about to go big-time.

Azucar is one of the stops at the Little Havana Food & Cultural Tour


By Robyn Webb