Food is so hotly debated in Cuba. Start talking to Americans who have recently travele there and you will quickly start a debate about whether Cuban food is good. Well, Cuban food as we know it in New York City and Miami is absolutely good. The debate is more about if the food in general in Cuba is good. What it is, is that Cuban food when you have access to all the ingredients is great.
Have you ever checked the label on your produce items and noticed where your food is being imported from: Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Jamaica, Thailand, etc. All places that in order to do the massive business they do with the States, are restricted from importing to Cuba. This translates to things like avocados, dried seasonings, pastries, cheeses, beef or turkey being scarce on the island and largely being held for tourist consumption. It’s not dire or going to ruin your trip, but food is political.
Some people love the food in Cuba. Some people pack their own spices, which is fair, and some people think food in Cuba is disgusting. With the US opening up travel to Cuba, the tourism has take a sharp spike up, so where we live in a capitalistic society, of waste honestly, and go to supermarkets with aisles upon aisles of fresh produce imported from countries we have blocked from importing to Cuba. You are eating what is grown in Cuba, and the land is not setup to sustain the voraciousness of tourists. You really might want to bring your own Lawry’s and Red Dot Hot Sauce. Oh and everybody tires of jamon con queso (ham + cheese sandwich) quickly, the one thing that is never out of stock in Cuba.
The trick to really enjoying the culinary experience in Cuba, even with the shortage in foods that are more common in the States, is to avoid eating at tourist restaurants that cater towards western palates. Why are you in Cuba trying to have Italian food? I avoided most problems with the food unless we were eating at tourists restaurants that were serving more American or European style food. They just don’t have the ingredients, like variety of cheeses, to pull it off. Yes, I tried lasagna in Cuba…like I tried pizza in Ghana *insert sad face.* Y’all beef is an American thing + texture, seasoning and cheeses matter. I had the worst food in Trinidad (a city in Cuba) because we met up with a group and they were insistent on eating a super subpar $25 dinner for New Years.
I had my best meal for $2CUC out of of garbage bag at the Viazul bus stop in Havana. Yes sis, we were waiting for our taxi to Vinales, and I noticed all the local guys (who were hustling taxi rides) chowing down on bowls of food at the same time. I’m like is it dinner hour? This abuela blessed me with a tupperware bowl of stewed pork, congri + cassava. I was a proficient eater of “street meat” when I lived in Brooklyn, and when you travel enough you realize the best food doesn’t usually come from the cleanest of places. So her pulling the bowl and silverware out of garbage bag was nothing. But that food was everything. The best breakfast was at our AirBnB, also known as casa particulares, in Matanza. Rafael’s wife made all her pastries from scratch and they had German sausages (where their daughter was studying), it was so damn divine.
I ate what and where the locals ate and it was lit. Whole meals for no more than $3 CUC. Cubans eat a lot of pork, chicken and seafood. I don’t know how folks fare as a full out vegetarian but pescatarians have plenty of options. The hamburgesas might give you the bubble guts but otherwise the meat is so much fresher than what we eat in the States.
They don’t really do spicy. So pepper/hot sauce wasn’t really a thing and I’m surprised I didn’t see a single plantain. Like where were the platanos? Every cuban meal I’ve ever had in the states has always come with some sweet sweet plantain, have I been lied to? The rum is delightful! Daiquiris are not the frozen fruity variety we drink here, but I loved the pina coladas. Drink lots of it in pina coladas.
Eating out is really a function of capitalism and therefore much more popular where there are thriving capitalist societies (ie: wealthy people). In more cultures than not, eating out just isn’t a thing, and amongst the Cuban people, eating at home is the way to go to. That leads to the biggest quirk to keep in mind, especially if you eat local. Plastic flatware and take out are not a thing there. The real down local spots are typically someone’s house or small room with a window or door open where they’re selling plates of foods mostly to local workers. They serve food out of a window and you literally eat your food and drink right there. They give you real silverware and plates that you have to give back. If you stay at AirBnbs, just about every host offers breakfast ($5CUC avg), lunch and dinner ($8-12CUC) that they prepare for you. We did breakfast at two different AirBnBs and generally found it wasn’t worth it since we could get ham + cheese sandwiches f0r .50¢ on the street, where as the casas (sans Rafael’s) just offered bread, fruit, soft cheese and juice/coffee.
Now that I’ve done all this lamenting about not eating at tourist restaurants, here’s the exception: Paladars, the right ones that require reservations ’cause they stay booked, are amazing. Definitely utilize the reviews on TripAdvisor. I’m not sure of the actual definition of paladars, I vaguely remember being told that certain families were able to get a license to use their homes as restaurants (different from those selling out of windows). They are on the more expensive end but will give you the full sit down dining experience, dress cute, with the good food that you are looking for. They stay booked for very good reason.
Some of my fav spots:
- Paladar Casa El Campesino, while most of the food we ate here was good, this was hands down an enjoyable experience from beginning to end and the view is amazing. Do get your fill of Canchanchara, a Vinales speciality cocktail with locally grown honey. They’re served everywhere in Cuba, but it’s a Vinales speciality and tastes this best in its city of origin.
- Old Havana – La Bien Paga: a sandwich shop that’s not always open, lol. It’s good and cheap and they do run out of ingredients often. El Chanchullero de Tapa: menu changes daily and they have a bar/rooftop with a separate menu. It’s simple good food and amazing cocktails, hence why there is almost always a line. 304 O’Reilly’s is just a fun time from the decadent cocktails to the tapas style menu, we found a reason to stop by here every day we were in Havana.
- Central Havana: Paladar La Guarida: it’s upstairs in an unsuspecting building on a dimly lit street. It’s as trendy and hot spot as you can get in Cuba. Since the Kardashians have dined here, the prices are a bit steep for Havana standards and the portions aren’t large. The rooftop is gorgeous and has a separate menu from the downstairs dining, that absolutely requires an advance reservation.
Miramar –Paladar La Cocina de Lilliam: since Paladar Dona Eutimia was completely booked through our stay we managed to grab lunch at this runner up. It’s really only the runner up because the location is further out in the suburbs away from the more tourist central Old Havana, where Eutimia is located. I wasn’t a fan of Cuban style daiquiris, but here the cocktail was perfectly balanced and delicious. Me, oh my, the “small paella” was massive and delicious. Really worth the cost and a great dining experience.
- Trinidad – I was mostly disappointed with the food here, though we did find a small spot north of the plaza. Totally don’t remember the name but if it’s one block up from the huge yellow hotel right on the plaza. Trinidad is small, so the tourist vibe is more overwhelming than in the spread out Havana.
A lot of places don’t have signage that’s visible so I ate some great food at no name restaurants in Varadero and Havana. My best rule of thumb was just to find where the taxi drivers ate at. Throw some Lawry’s/Adobo and hot sauce in your suitcase, leave your American expectations at the airport and enjoy the laid back Cuban experience with a glass of Pina Colada.
Next up: all about the confusing exchange rate and currency exchange in Cuba.