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Friday, March 1, 2024

Havana’s Kindred Spirit

The tropical Florida sun shines brightly on Miami beaches all day, but the city really heats up after dark. That’s when bathing suits are shed in favor of alluring club fashions, because Miami is famous not just for its powdery beaches, but for its sultry nightlife — especially the Latin-themed variety.

On a recent getaway, my friend Erin and I were interested in checking out the nightlife, but we’re not single twenty-somethings looking to drink shots until the room spins like a Roulette wheel. Fortunately, we found a couple of classy hotspots that cater to all ages.

Mango’s Tropical Café
Miami is a majority Latino city, and dance is deeply rooted in many Latino cultures. It can be intimidating for visitors to get out on the dance floor in a city where the average local seems capable of taking home the mirror ball trophy on “Dancing with the Stars,” but Mango’s Tropical Café in the heart of South Beach builds my confidence in no time.

The Salsa Mia experience includes a two-hour dance class upstairs in the Mojito Room, an introduction to that beguiling dance that originated in Cuba.
Instructor Alex Ruiz says the classes help out-of-towners integrate into the club scene.

"They might not know anybody at the venue,” he said, “but they’re going to get to know at least 50 people at the class, so by the time the club starts, maybe they’ve already danced with 10 of them. When they get downstairs, they’re comfortable asking somebody to save them a couple of dances.”
Ruiz takes everyone through the basics, sans music. Step forward left. One, two, three, pause. Step back right. Five, six, seven, pause.
Salsa is a social dance, and Ruiz instructs everyone to switch partners every five minutes or so.

My years of Zumba — a workout based on Latin dance — help, but in Zumba, you don’t have a partner.
When Ruiz deems his fledgling dancers ready to put steps to music, everybody loosens up. They smile. They talk with their partner. They remember they have hips and start to move them.

It’s a diverse crowd. Middle-aged couples on a date night salsa with singles ready to party. Sporadic giggling erupts from young women wearing clingy dresses and sashes, indicating they are with a bachelorette party.

Ruiz demonstrates how to turn with a partner, slowly at first, then faster. Soon, colorful skirts are swirling around the room.

Eventually, Erin and I head to the stage downstairs to catch the non-stop Latin dance show. Professional dancers, sporting Las Vegas-style feathered headdresses and just enough strategically placed fringe to cover the bare minimum, perform the conga, samba, and, of course, the salsa.

When the dancers take a break, we discuss some of the bizarre murals that cover every inch of the club. Does that woman have tree branches for arms? Why does her companion have flames shooting out of her head?

If you’re celebrating a special occasion, order bottle service. It’s a major production where “bottle girls” adorned in layers of pink beads and little else deliver champagne in a burst of fiery sparklers.

El Tucan
Anyone who has watched the 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy” knows there was a time when Havana-inspired cabaret shows were prevalent. Cuban-born Desi Arnaz, who played Ricky Ricardo, sang “Babalu,” banging out the Afro rhythm on a conga drum as diners in tuxedos and chic dresses swayed to the beat.
El Tucan provides a little of that old-school glamour in an eye-catching, modern setting.

A key design detail is the intricate murals of the Amazon jungle that lend a primitive vibe to the hip scene. A jaguar crouches, ready to pounce from the wall and into the dining room, as a monkey looks on from a thicket of colorful flora.

Part of the appeal here is the element of surprise.

As Erin cuts into a wood-fired wagyu beef tomahawk steak, an aerialist swoops down from the ceiling like an exotic bird. Later, a singer bursts onstage, crooning a Cuban song once popular in Havana nightclubs.

El Tucan goes above and beyond, not only with the ambiance and entertainment, but the cuisine, bringing a “wow” factor to practically every dish.
My sushi and sashimi platter comes artfully presented on an illuminated bowl that glows in the dim light. The El Tucan Imperial Experience, a sculpture-like dessert with an assortment of exotic fruits and ice cream, is plated to impress.

The cocktails are over the top, too. The best-selling passionata, a divine elixir of tequila, passion fruit, pineapple juice, and ginger, is served in a martini glass standing in a coconut-shaped vessel filled with ice.

To add sizzle to date night, visit “Tryst — a Lover’s Rendezvous,” a contemporary, burlesque-style cabaret show at the Faena Theater in the Faena Hotel.
Havana’s pre-Castro heyday as a nightlife hotspot may be in the past, but just across the Straits of Florida is Miami, Havana’s kindred spirit that keeps the mystique and glamour alive.

When You Go

Mango’s Tropical Café
900 Ocean Drive.

El Tucan
1111 SW First St.

Faena Theater
Faena Hotel Miami Beach,
3201 Collins Ave.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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