The espresso machine that made what many thought to be Miami’s best Cuban coffee went up in smoke early Monday along with the tiny, colorfully nondescript and beloved Key Biscayne café in which it was housed, the Oasis.
The interior of the Oasis, a Key institution so familiar to thousands it didn’t need a sign, was destroyed by an accidental electrical fire around 12:30 a.m., village fire chief Eric Lang said. The cafe, tucked next to a gas station at the entrance to the village off Crandon Boulevard, was closed at the time and no one was hurt.
“It was pretty iconic,” said Lang, who grew up on Key Biscayne. “It’s been there as long as I can remember, and I’ve been here a long time. It was one of the first welcoming places when you arrive in Key Biscayne, a real destination. It will be missed.”
All day Monday, as word of the fire spread, patrons streamed by with hugs, handshakes and heartfelt condolences for the Oasis’ well-liked staff, who were working to salvage what little they could and board up the plain concrete hut that was home to the Oasis since at least the 1960s. Some customers, unaware of the conflagration, were in for a shock when they stopped by for their usual cafecito. The glass doors were shattered, yellow tape across them, and the dark interior was utterly charred.
“Holy cow,” said Wayne Richardson, a Coral Gables resident who cycles to the island regularly and stopped for refreshment after battling heavy winds on the Rickenbacker Causeway on Monday afternoon. “I was going to get a cortadito. I’ve been coming here since the ’60s. It had local color and was the one part of Key Biscayne that remained the same for so long. What a shame.”
The news wasn’t all funereal, however. An addition that had been in the works for years is scheduled to open on Friday, and staff was scrambling to get village permission to move that up, said Oasis service manager Wendy Rodriguez. The structurally separate addition was not affected by the fire.
But even Rodriguez conceded the gleaming, modern and air-conditioned annex lacks the funky charm of the open-air original, which didn’t look to have been fully renovated since the Cuban Revolution and pumped out salsa all day long, though always at a pleasing volume, as servers sang along or took a few dance steps while they worked the espresso machine. Oasis owner Carlos Flores had planned to keep the old cafe going even after opening the addition, Rodriguez said.
“It will be the same service, the same food and, we hope, the same customers,” said Rodriguez, who added that the Oasis was her first and only job after leaving Cuba several years ago. “But it’s super sad, what happened.”
The allure of the Oasis, perhaps hard to explain to the uninitiated, lay not just in its cafeteria-style food and sandwiches, its pastelitos or its coffee — all widely regarded as first-rate — but also in its preternaturally warm and cheerful staff, most of whom had been at the cafe for years, its slightly chaotic atmosphere, and its role as a social hub and historic lodestone for Key Biscayne, transformed over the past two decades from laid-back beach town into an uber-wealthy enclave.
The Oasis drew customers to its narrow counter and ventanita — the only seating was on benches and tables crammed into a side alley and small patio — from a broad social strata, including old Key rats, tennis and beach bums, boaters and fishermen, tradespeople, wealthy South American and European residents, tourists and, most mornings, hordes of Lycra-clad cyclists who stopped to refill their bottles at the water jug and propel themselves home with a few shots of a colada or the fresh-squeezed OJ or cane juice for which the Oasis was also known.
“Not only is the food excellent, but the people who work there are chévere,” or great and cool, said Sandra Rothman, a regular since moving to Key Biscayne a dozen years ago who stopped by to commiserate with Rodriguez and manager Joe Acedo. “They’re always dancing and singing. No one who is rude or unhappy works there. The people are all exquisitos.”
Daniel Ferrari, an Oasis regular who happened to be passing by on his way to a 7-Eleven next door, said he noticed flames in the front of the cafe about 30 minutes after midnight and called 911.
“If I’d had water, I would have tried to put the fire out myself,” he said ruefully outside what remained of the Oasis on Monday.