Because I lack self-control, I know long before my flight lands that over-indulging in food and beverages will be a highlight of the trip. Any trip. I plan for it. First thing, I do an online search: what to eat and drink in (insert destination here). Next, my pre-trip language studies focus on fluently ordering food and drinks once I’ve arrived in-country. Barring fluency, sounding like a 4-year-old is fine with me provided I end up holding an ambrosial beverage paired with a plate of food that won’t have me spitting into a napkin. Which brings me to dining in Cuba.
Imagine my dismayed shock to read online accounts of Cuban food as bland, boring and barely palatable. What? Wait uno momento, Señor! I’ve been to Miami. I know my way around platters of ropa vieja, vaca frita, and chicharrón de pollo. Even my favorite (okay, only) Cuban restaurant here in Austin serves up awesome maduros. Dining in Cuba is where the Caribbean meets Spain in a cultural explosion of food, right? Uh, not really, according to the interwebs. Or rather, not often. I’d waited nearly all my life for this trip and disappointment hit me in my empty belly before I could pack.
Cubans have a sense of humor about the current state of their cuisine. Here’s a joke that has made the rounds since the 1980s:
What are the three biggest failures of the Revolution? Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Blame for the regrettable state of dining in Cuba gets laid on three legs of a Cuban stool. The exodus of the country’s best chefs, a no-fuss socialist approach to cooking and a poorly functioning distribution system. Well, who am I to argue with that? And yet I did. I doubted all the downers who insisted a trip to Cuba meant coming home hungry with a fierce craving for seasonings. After all, I reasoned, there are still mamas and papas in Cuba cooking for their families. Surely some of those can sling ropa vieja with the best Cuban cooks in the USA?
On page 4 of my Cuban travel journal under the heading “Anticipation and Questions” I wrote, Can Cuban food be as bad as we’ve heard? Someone had to peel back the lid of truth about dining in Cuba. I spent more than a decade cooking on charter boats. Marginal refrigeration and a lack of fresh ingredients required a keen sense of creativity and a talent for putting a positive spin on whatever came out of my galley. Like the time a rollicking good sail created a key lime pie disaster, which transformed into key lime shakes. Combine those skills with my proclivity for pigging out, and I knew that I was the right person for the job.
The Steal Just One Day Traveler’s Guide to Dining in Cuba
Don’t expect miracles. And by “miracles” I mean tender meat, great variety, seasonings and the availability of everything listed on a menu. Your flair for managing expectations will be key. You may be a foodie in Fairfax, but tuck that notion away with the extra roll of toilet paper you packed.
Ask around for dining recommendations, especially from the hosts at your casa particular or hotel. Don’t forget to solicit advice from your driver and other travelers you meet. Talk with Cubans on the street; where are they having lunch? Go there. Word of mouth has its rewards.
We Eat, We Drink
Here’s something to wet your whistle: you won’t go thirsty while you’re dining in Cuba. Daiquiri. Cuba Libre. Mojito. Cubata. Everything is better with rum. Seriously, everything. Thank you very much, don’t mind if I do. If you don’t, or on those occasions when you’re not ready for alcohol try a batido (fruit juice blended with milk and ice) or a refreshing glass of guarapo, fresh-squeezed from sugarcane with a squirt of lime.
Cuban coffee improves a meal. It changes attitudes. It could probably bring down governments. Strong, intensely flavored, sweetened with sugar. If you need a reason to get out of bed after a late night of rum and mambo dancing, Café Cubano (aka cafecito) is the best thing about waking up in Cuba. By the way, “mambo” means “conversation with the gods” which practically begs you to devote a night of your trip to it.
Breakfast is nearly identical throughout Cuba. Eggs—scrambled or omelet—a pitcher of some pretty great juice (most of Cuba’s fruit goes to juice production), white-flour buns or cake and a platter of fruit: fresh papaya, pineapple, bananas, melon. Prices run 4-5CUC* (about US$4-5) extra at nearly every casa.
Paladars and Pesos
Dining in Cuba offers a visitor options. Choose a paladar, a private restaurant in a Cuban home, over any government-run spot. Paladars serve mostly criollo, home-style Cuban food. In hotels, you’ll be served primarily “continental” dishes.
Locate a local, peso-only* restaurant for lunch, if only once during your visit. Order the “Oferta Especial”. You’ll likely see a notice posted with the special of the day, but if not, be sure to ask. Moments later, you’ll receive a plate of full-on criollo fare in exchange for very little of your hard-earned cash. We had lunch at Sofi’s, a local lunch spot in Centro Habana. A HUGE plate of roast pork, rice with black beans and avocado cost me 30CUP (US$1.20). I couldn’t eat it all. Believe me, I tried. I cast a longing glance at the mound of pork remaining on my plate and bid it adios.
Ready for some swank? Splash out for an authentic experience at Paladar Doña Eutimia in Havana Vieja. At Doña Eutimia seating is tight but the food more than makes up for the squeeze. Try the picadillo (with beef, green olives and raisins) and chickpeas with sausage. And because you’re dining in Cuba, don’t forget the mojito! This intimate yet wildly popular restaurant was recommended by our host at Palacio de Pascua, Yissel. Palacio de Pascua is a fantastic small hotel in an old colonial building filled with art and staff who act as if nothing would please them more than to see you happy. Chef Miguel creates special meals for guests, served by the literature-loving, multi-lingual Orelvis on the rooftop terrace. Watch the sun go down over the gorgeous crumbling wreck that is Havana Vieja.
Dancing with the Estrellas
Combine dinner with dancing. At the Lluvia de Oro bar on the corner of Empedrado and Obispo in Havana Vieja, you’ll eat typical Cuban food: beef, pork or fish, white rice and salad for 7,50CUC, including a Cubata (cola and dark rum). Forgettable meal, but the terrific 6-person band, Son Tradición, had the joint jumping.
Meson de la Flota, offers Flamenco and tapas in a Spanish tavern setting. The talented and spirited flamenco dancers and singers help compensate for the waitstaff, who are sullen and no fun at all.
Get Outta Town
Bigger doesn’t mean better. Leave the city behind; head for the tiny village of Playa Giron. Some of the best food we ate dining in Cuba (and by far the best mojito) was here in the place most familiar to Americans as the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Aside from the historical draw (the museum is tiny but an informative view from the perspective of the invaded), Playa Giron has a surprising number of restaurants and a growing reputation for excellent food. At Paladar Especial Giron, we over-indulged on smoked pork loin (lomo ahumado) sweet potato, salad, rice and black beans, plantain chips and green beans, and washed it down with Cuba Libres while the owner’s grandkids buzzed the table.
But here’s where we lost our over-indulging minds: at our guesthouse, Hostal Luis. Colossal breakfast with omelets, local ham and cheese, bananas freshly picked off Luis’ trees, coconut bread, homemade guava jam, café Cubano, and mango juice sent from heaven. Dinner was even better: tender roast pork, grilled fish, a pot of tasty black beans and a massive platter of avocado, taro, tomato and beets, with bread and rice. Luis and his employee Judí vied to create “the best mojitos in all of Cuba.” They pulled it off. Then they eclipsed that by serving flan for dessert. I’d fly back to Cuba tomorrow, if only to sit once again at Luis’ table.
Yes and No
Yes, you’ll find tourists at Sloppy Joe’s bar but you’ll also discover air conditioning so cold it will dry your sweat-soaked shirt (and your underpants if you stay long enough) giving you a reprieve from Havana’s hot streets. Sloppy Joe’s serves Cubatas made with Havana Club dark rum alongside tapas like tacos con Ropa Vieja de cerdo, tamales wrapped in bacon and sweet potato fritters. Sometimes dining in Cuba means bar snacks and rum in the middle of the afternoon.
Tempted to eat a “Peso Pizza”? Just say no. They are everywhere, they’re cheap and they’re pretty bad. Boring dough, boring smear of tomato paste. If you can’t pass up the offer of a peso pizza, you won’t die. Just get yourself to the nearest bar, order a mojito and clear your palette.
Walking the Malecon, the seawall which runs five miles along Havana’s stretch of coastline, a jinitero drumming up trade for Nazdarovie restaurant handed me a business card. To entice the hungry people out for paseo to come inside, the tagline reads, “The spirit of Soviet cuisine in the heart of Havana”. Despite this irresistible promise, we did not dine at Nazdarovie. Let me know if you give it a try.
Mind your Manners
Always say “¡Si, por favor!” if offered red or black beans or soup. They are universally delicious in Cuba. I greedily downed a pot of black beans all by myself at Casa Mery in Cienfuegos, becoming the cook’s new best friend by virtue of my undisguised ardor for her beans.
Be gracious. Compliment the cook. She’s doing what is possible with what she has access to.
Don’t Judge, Judy
Before you get too judgmental about Cuban food, think back to the days of Hamburger Helper, boxed mac and cheese and frozen pizza. Remember those times your mother may not have been overly enthusiastic about putting dinner on the table. Try this: take away most of the spices you toss into your cart at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, trade your pork tenderloin for a tough, indeterminate cut of cerdo and replace all the vegetables in your crisper with a head of cabbage. Show me what you can do with that.
Also, remember rule number 7 of Barbara’s Rules for Travel: Don’t bitch. Find something to admire.
The point is, if you expect awful, you’ll find it. Yes, I know I advised you to manage your expectations when dining in Cuba. “Manage” means control those expectations, don’t be a defeatist. If the food isn’t spectacular, maybe the view will be. Certainly, the music will move you and the Cuban people will charm the pants off you. So ditch the pessimism; expect to be surprised, delighted even.
As a result of my quest and willingness to throw down on the downers who talked smack about dining in Cuba, I have more faith in Cuba and its food than ever. I’ll return someday to exercise my lack of control knowing that as Cuban cooks gain better access to more ingredients and incorporate that special brand of creativity that all Cubans are born with, the food will improve. They’ve already got the beverage thing down to an art. Salud!
*There are currently two currencies in Cuba, the CUC for use by foreigners, and the CUP—usually referred to as pesos or moneda nacional—for Cubans. It’s confusing, but the government announced plans to change to a one currency system, so there’s that.
Dona Eutimia: on Callejon de Chorro, off Plaza de Catedral. FB Page here +53 7 8611332
Palacio de Pascua: Calle Habana #506, Habana Vieja
Sloppy Joe’s: at the corner of Agramonte and Animas, Habana Vieja
Casa Mery: Ave 6 No 3509 Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos Cuba
Hostal Luis, Playa Giron: email: firstname.lastname@example.org phone: +53 45 984 258