Bargain Shopping in the Danger Zone
Valsan Center in Allapatah is the main shopping complex in the area.
There’s Aventura Mall. There’s Dadeland Mall. There’s even Bal Harbour. But many everyday Miamians go shopping in neighborhood stores instead of malls, which can’t be beat for bargains. And for visitors, it’s a chance to experience local character.
When my girlfriend told me about shopping in Allapatah, I thought she was nuts. “Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?” I asked. “Dude, it’s some of the best bargain shopping in town,” she replied.
Most Miamians never go to Allapatah unless they work or live there. It’s a rather gritty section of Miami-Dade County located just north of the Miami River and the Jackson Memorial medical complex, west of I-95. The population is largely Hispanic working class families. In short, it’s hardcore Miami—nothing to do with the polished glitz and glamour of Miami-Dade’s upper-crusty neighborhoods.
So one morning, my two Cuban-American friends and I drove over the river to check out la veinte y la veinte as the area is called (northwest 20th street and 20th avenue, hence the name “twenty and twenty”), although the shopping district stretches roughly from from 17th to 27th avenue with the greatest concentration of stores between 22nd and 17th.
The heart of the district is Valsan, a cluster of stores spread out over a city block on at that famous “twenty and twenty” corner. Valsan is like a department store, except that each “department” has its own storefront.
Although you might feel like you’re in a glorified dime store—actually today we know them as dollar stores; I’m dating myself—some good deals are to be had here if you can look beyond some of the kitsch and low-quality, cheesy products. It’s a step above a flea market and feels like a bazaar.
BARGAINS AND A LOOK INTO CUBAN CULTURE
Valsan sells everything from women’s shoes to kitchen accessories to children’s toys and beyond. You can even buy statuettes of Santa Barbara or San Lazaro (two popular saints among Catholic Cubans) if you need one for your living room. If you’ve never been to a traditional, old school Miami Cuban living room, here you’ll see what kind of décor might inhabit such a space, minus the plastic cover on the couch.
When we visited, we thought certain items, like wine glasses, were cheaper at Ikea. However, had we been looking for inexpensive Christmas decorations, Valsan’s home store would have undoubtedly been the place to shop. (Note to self for next year.)
The saints have already come marching in here at Valsan.
Stock up on your Catholic saint refrigerator magnets here. San Antonio (“Saint Anthony”), when turned upside down, is supposed to help spinsters find husbands.
My favorite Valsan store was the one featuring fashion accessories or fantasía. A virtual bazaar of costume jewelry, it was all priced very inexpensively, as costume jewelry should be. Hair accessories with feathers and flowers, wigs, stockings, scarves and even belly dancing skirts festooned with fake coins lined the walls. It’s here you can also stock up on first communion veils and party favors.
It may not be Tiffany’s, but it won’t break your bank account.
Next up was Valsan Modas, a clothing store across the street. In a predominantly Hispanic community, I was surprised to find pervasive curve-enhancing fashions: all the mannequins had bubble butts; jeans claimed to “lift” the booty; and padded underwear as well as booty-enhancing girdles were up for grabs, no pun intended. “I thought all Cuban women had big asses,” I pondered out loud. “You’d be surprised,” my friend replied. “Some of are really skinny and don’t feel curvy enough.”
Modas means “fashion.”
Miami is definitely an ass town. Every single mannequin we saw had a bubble butt. It’s interesting, because in South Beach, mannequins tend to have double d cups but look like pre-pubescent scrawny boys from the boobs down.
Beach-friendly fashion, such as wraps and strappy dresses, were affordable, ranging from $6 to $29.99 at Valsan Modas.
Move over Victoria’s Secret million-dollar, diamond-studded bra. You can get your bling at Valsan Modas, too.
An eight-pack of bras was only $12 at Valsan Modas. Sure, it may not be be La Perla quality, but heck, you can’t beat that for underthings.
There are other stores surrounding the Valsan shopping compound, including, of course, the requisite few pawn shops. One store sold hats exclusively, where I purchased a $4 Rastafarian-inspired knitted cap for a friend. I was tempted to haggle—which I could have, just for the pleasure of it—but at that price it wasn’t worth it. Other stores featured clothes for big and tall men, fancy debutante-style gowns, lingerie and clubbing clothes for men and women. If you’re in the market for clubbing outfits and are on a tight budget, shop around here. You can probably get away with $100 or less, head to toe: shoes, accessories and outfit. And seriously, nobody’s going to be checking your clothing labels while they’re snorting crack in the club bathroom.
This store wasn’t part of Valsan but was located right next to it. The racks featured clubby dresses and other cool outfits. Unfortunately, there weren’t many plus size options, which surprised me.
Bargains everywhere! Including those fake Bebe shirts, ladies. There was an unusually large collection of boy shorts at this lingerie store alongside the kind of pajamas a Cuban grandma might wear.
The 4 Seasons Collection, a more “upscale” store around the corner from Valsan, offered men’s and women’s clothes.
The 4 Seasons Collection also offers a wide variety of iron-on bling for your clothes.
Debutante-style gowns for your quinceañera parties (the Cuban equivalent of sweet sixteen). These were priced in the $250 - $350 range. Other fancy party dresses were available at this store across the street from Valsan Center.
The most interesting and unique store was Santorales, which caters to all your wardrobe and accessory needs if you happen to be initiating into the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. It’s worth a visit just to see what people wear in their ceremonies. On display were four different colored themes, each representing a particular deity. My favorite was the blue, which echoes Yemayá, goddess of the ocean.
Items for devotees of Yemayá.
Initiation into Santería involves a purification process and much devotion. The accessories are elaborate.
After browsing all the stores, we returned to Valsan Zapatos (“shoes”), where my friend purchased a very cute pair of cloth-lined pumps for $19.99. “I went to the New World Symphony later that night and had a woman sitting next to me go gaga over the shoes,” she told me the next day. “I secretly gleamed with pride, knowing how little they cost me.”
In fact, my friend liked them so much, she went back for a pair in a different color.
We only cared about girly shoes but Valsan has footwear for men and kids, too.
A TASTE OF LOCAL FLAVOR
Miami’s best roast pork sandwich is worth the drive.
It took us about three hours to browse all the shops around Valsan, so by the end of the morning we were hungry. A five-minute drive away is one of Miami’s best kept secrets, Papo Llega y Pon, which translates roughly as “big daddy come and take a seat” or “hey buddy, come and hang out.” From the outside, the restaurant looks like a shanty. There’s no place to sit. But step up to the counter and you’ll find all kinds of home-cooked goodness for unbelievably low prices.
It was here that I tried what is arguably one of Miami’s best classic sandwiches. Pan con Lechón is a Cuban-style roast pork sandwich. The pork is marinated in a citrus garlic mojo and then roasted for lip-smacking juiciness. Two perfectly flaky and warm pieces of Cuban bread surround the meat, which is covered with sautéed onions and an optional special mild hot sauce. The 12-inch sandwich is $5, half of which is enough to fill even this big girl’s belly. Throw in a soda and some chicharrones (meaty and crispy pork flesh rinds) and the damage to your wallet is still under $10.
IF YOU GO
Don’t expect English in this part of town, or perfect grammar, either.
If you are looking for a sterile, homogeneous, sugarcoated experience, best stick to Miami-Dade’s malls east of I-95. But for a deeper cultural exploration of Miami that’s way off the beaten path and never mentioned in a tourist brochure, shopping in Allapatah is an adventure.
This area of Allapatah is ground zero for Spanish. If you don’t speak it, be prepared to deal with clerks who don’t speak a lick of English. However, pointing a finger at what you want is good enough. And don’t forget: “dollars at the register” is a universal language.
We went early on a Saturday morning, which was just perfect – not crowded at all. There are plenty of metered parking spots and some free lots attached to Valsan. Yeah, sure, I felt like I was slumming, but my friends and I felt perfectly safe here during our visit.
Valsan in Allapatah is located at 2015 NW 20 Street, but there are three other locations in Miami-Dade: 12256 SW 8 Street and 7551 West 4 Avenue in Hialeah. For more information, call (305) 324-0102.
You’ll find Papo Llega y Pon at 2928 Northwest 17 Avenue, (305) 635-0137. For a yummy treat to share with friends, order a whole loaf of Cuban bread with lechón—it’s called a flauta (“flute”) and cost only $10 at time of publishing.
Santorales Iyabo is Miami’s only Santería boutique and is located at 2082 NW 21 Street around the corner from Valsan. The clerk tending shop during our visit was friendly and answered some of our questions about the religion, though she herself was not a practitioner.
A nice selection of club clothes for guys is available at 4 Seasons Collection, 2090 NW 21 Street, (305) 549-3080.
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