Cuban coffee defines Key West – From cortaditos to coladas to bucci, islanders love their java jolt

A person standing in front of a store - Cuban cuisine
The baristas at Sandy’s Cafe are considered specialists in Cuban coffee by the locals of Key West.  Here two employees work on an order of a ‘cafe con leche’ and a ‘cortadito.’

Although the country I currently live in expects me to boycott Cuba, the truth is I don’t have a problem willingly giving them my support. I may live a short missile’s throw away, but I see the neighboring island as a place of vintage ethereal beauty with beautiful people who know how to make really good food. While they are still importing decent cigars from the Dominican Republic, there is just no other cuisine in the world that could replace Cuban. Take the roast pork for example. The entire pig gets rubbed with a generous dousing of mojo marinade and sits in a charcoal hotbox until the insides are tender and juicy and the skin is salty and crisp. Then it’s served with seasoned yellow rice, sofrito black beans, sweet-buttered Cuban bread, and fried tostones and finished off with a slice of dulce de leche cake. It might make you think twice if you happened to witness a large group of people drifting towards land on a raft. Maybe it would be wise to dock the raft first, check it for any leftovers and thank whoever made it for bringing it all this way.

Okay, I’m kind of kidding, but when it comes to more serious matters there is no joking about Cuban coffee. Khloe Kardashian who in a recent TV episode was stranded with her broke down scooter somewhere in downtown Miami around 1 a.m. one night while searching for a cortadito would probably agree that it puts the American cup of joe to shame. Cuban coffee is made with a very fine grind that holds intensely bold flavor as opposed to American coffee that is usually very mild and thinned out with hot water. The Cubans use real milk. When it’s nothing but the coffee it’s simply brewed into a small shot similar to an espresso. It’s like a “colada,” or as we like to say in Key West, the “bucci.” I like to call it Cuban crack.

There are several variations of Cuban coffee and a few different ways of ordering one. For example, would you like it with sugar and how many little cups do you need? The bucci is great for making friends because it is always served with a few demitasse cups for sharing. A cortadito is a bucci with a dash of milk and a cafe con leche is just a bigger version of a cortadito with more steamed milk. Those with a bit more experience will order their cafe con leche with the cream and milk on the side so they can control the flavor themselves.

With Cuba just 90 short miles away to have a bucci, or any kind of Cuban coffee is to experience a bit of Key West culture. Sandy’s Cafe on White Street and 5 Brothers on Fleming supposedly have some sort of unspoken rivalry going on about who puts out the best stuff. Cuban Coffee Queen is the actual name of the little brick hut in a parking lot on Caroline Street that is popular among the sun tanned boat employees working at the marina nearby. Even the Courtyard Deli serves a pretty good batch to late night crooners, bartenders and patrons of the Green Parrot. That’s the place I choose to show my support.

Cuban coffee is the kryptonite of sleepy Zombie syndrome. I’ve been told several times after a cup that I look fresh and awake. It holds not only a little bit of culture but also a lot of caffeine. And if you think that Key West is a place that literally never sleeps, the culprit might not be the bars at all. Maybe, the real reason is really in the way that Cubans can make coffee like no one else in the world can. And if we boycotted the coffee, we would have ourselves at the beginning of a Cuban coffee crisis in Key West.