My perception of Cuban food while eating at restaurants in the US was limited to Cuban sandwiches, pulled pork, rice, beans, and a few meat staples. It was only when I visited Havana a couple of years ago that I realized that my entire perception of Cuban cuisine was actually false. It turned out that all the Cuban dishes I had been served were outdated. Yes, the ham and cheese Cuban sandwich became very popular with Americans in the 1950s, but was hardly a staple anymore.
The myth that Cuban cuisine largely consists of pork and beef dishes was also busted. In fact, as the number of animals raised for meat dwindled on the island, seafood became the go-to choice of protein. In the past few years, locals have turned to organic farming, growing lots of fresh vegetables and tropical fruits that have now made their way into modern Cuban menus. I learned that there were lots of options for vegetarians too!
The next discovery I made in Cuba was the broad range of restaurant categories. The price and quality of food differed, though there was also free live music, singing, and dancing everywhere.
PALADARES are intimate homes converted into family-run restaurants that were established in the 1990s. These businesses generally serve fixed price dinners ($15-30 for 3 courses and 1 drink) and reservations are required. The food is upscale Cuban, using high-quality ingredients and impressive presentation. Note: you won’t find many locals eating at paladares, as they are the most expensive category of restaurants in Cuba.
PALADARES are intimate homes converted into family-run restaurants that were established in the 1990s.
I like to go off the tourist guide grid and look for places that have a unique story behind their architecture, chef, or recipes, so here are some of my favorite paladares in Havana:
Restaurante La Casa in Nuevo Vedado – Run by three generations of women who cleared out their living room and moved all their furniture to the back of the house, La Casa was one of the first successful paladares in Havana. The men in the family also help out. They personally attend to diners and will welcome you to their home. The Cuban haute menu includes unique dishes such as Octopus Salad, Lobster au Gingembre, and Rabbit au Moutarde.
San Cristobal Paladar on Calle San Rafael – Set in a traditional neighborhood, this restaurant can be difficult to find. But once you go there, it is as much an art gallery as a restaurant. The two-story mansion is packed with old black and white photographs, grandfather clocks, and religious artifacts and shrines, while the owners reside downstairs. The menu is Cuban-Creole and some of the best dishes are Les Mercedes (appetizer plate with garlic octopus, fried fish, malanga fritters, ceviche) and Pudín San Cristóbal (pudding made with eggs, fruit, milk, and almonds). Even President Obama dined here during his recent visit.
Dona Eutimia in Old Havana – Take a walking tour across the four squares of Old Havana and make a reservation at Dona Eutimia for the evening. First, spend a few minutes visiting the Experimental Graphics Workshop upstairs, where you can watch young artists at work. Then, grab a table on the patio, sip on a mojito, and watch some moving live music. Dona Eutimia is an artist-/chef-run restaurant serving old Creole classics such as Ropa Vieja (with lamb instead of beef), Black Bean Potaje, and Arroz a la Cubana (Cuban-style rice served with fried egg and plantains).
STATE RUN restaurants are traditional stand-alone establishments that are owned by the government, tourist organization, or cooperatives. The service and quality of food can vary significantly.
STATE RUN restaurants are traditional stand-alone establishments that are owned by the government, tourist organization, or cooperatives.
El Aljibe in Miramar – Home of the famous fall-off-the-bones Roast Chicken, served with delicious sides of white rice, black beans, and plantains, this is perhaps the best state-run restaurant in Cuba. The 62-year-old chicken recipe still served today was created by owners Sergio and Pepe. El Aljibe is frequented by politicians, celebrities, and foodies, including Jack Nicholson and former President Jimmy Carter. The all you can eat lunch buffet costs 12 CUCs.
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El Ajiaco in Cojimar – I stopped here for lunch after a visit to the Hemingway home and museum. This authentic Cuban restaurant serves delicious malanga soup with fried garlic, Rancho Luna-style roasted chicken, and Hot Oxtail. Don’t miss the coffee demonstration and order a Café Bombon, a Spanish-style espresso with condensed milk.
ArteChef in Vedado – The restaurant is a member of the Culinary Academy of France and a project of the Federation of Culinary Associations of Cuba, so you know the chefs are serious about their cooking.
CAFETERIAS are pizzeria-style restaurants that serve fast food and drinks all day long.
STREET FOOD in Cuba can be found everywhere, be it front yards, porches, driveways, or street carts.
CAFETERIAS are pizzeria-style restaurants that serve fast food and drinks all day long. These can be seen at practically every corner in busy areas. Prices are reasonable (charging in CUP) but don’t expect a fancy ambiance (just fans and patio chairs). During lunch time, locals grab a quick sandwich, pizza, rum, etc.
Coppelia Ice Cream – This quintessential Cuban ice cream parlor dates back to 1964 and has several locations around the island serving 35,000 customers each day. The Havana location is one of the largest ice cream parlors in the world. Flavors are typically limited to one or two, but it’s more about being a part of Cuban history than the ice cream. If you want the authentic experience, stand in line with the locals and expect to pay in CUP (4 cents a scoop). Tourists paying with CUCs are generally escorted inside and charged more.
STREET FOOD in Cuba can be found everywhere, be it front yards, porches, driveways, or street carts. There are several good choices of food and drinks made by locals and sold at dirt cheap prices. A few items I couldn’t resist were coconut water, corn fritters, pan con pasta, tamales, churros, and frozen ice.
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OTHER YUMMY PLACES
UBPC Vivero Organopónico in Alamar – Located 15 km (9.3 miles) east of Havana, this is a great place to see Cuba’s farming community. UBPC is one of the first organic farms on the island, run by a cooperative of 100 families. You can tour the farm, buy fresh produce, jams, juices, salsa, etc. at the shop outside, or taste the ingredients in nearby restaurants that they supply to. Occasionally, they can arrange a farm to table a vegetarian lunch for small groups.
Cuatro Caminos Market – Visiting a local farmers’ market in Havana can also be a lot of fun. Crowds gather all morning to buy and sell fruits, vegetables, beans, and livestock. The prices are listed in Cuban Pesos. There are also ration shops at the market, where locals receive allotments of sugar, flour, and rice. Tourists cannot shop here, so better find a Spanish-speaking guide to show you around.
Museo Del Chocolate in Old Havana – This café /chocolate shop is a great place to taste Cuban cacao products such as chocolate bars, molded chocolate figures, and hot and cold drinks. The chocolates are made at the back of the store, and there are interesting artifacts to see hanging on the green walls.
Cigar Factory – Cuban cigars need no introduction. They can be found at every bar, restaurant, and shop around the island. It is still worth taking a tour around a cigar rolling factory that’s more than 150 years old and watching the production process, before appreciating the final product. Romeo y Julieta Factory, La Corona, and Partagás welcome tourists for a small price. They also have factory stores where you can purchase original quality cigars in all price ranges.
Rum, the national beverage of Cuba, is the most inexpensive drink on the island. It is mixed with cocktails (white rum), or taken neat (dark rum). The most popular local brands are Havana Club, Santiago de Cuba, Caribbean Club, and Siboney. One of my favorite pastimes in Cuba is to watch Cuban cantineros (bartenders) create classic cocktails, as I sip on a cold Cuba Libre (rum and Coke).
Havana Club – Watch the origin of the rum-making process at this museum and shop in Old Havana. Rum tasting or “Cata Vertical” is not only fun but also educational for those who want to know how to distinguish the age, color, and flavors of rum.
La Bodeguita del Medio – Literally translates to “the center of the Earth”, and was central to Ernest Hemingway’s lifestyle when he resided in Cuba. He came here for the mojitos. This popular Cuban cocktail is made with five key ingredients: rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water, and mint. The bar still retains its casual, colorful character and has seen its fair share of celebrities from all over the world. Make sure to check out the autographs on the walls.
La Floridita – “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita”, said Hemingway. The bar/hotel in Old Havana was a hangout for the famous writer and is a quintessential stop for a frozen daiquiri with maraschino liqueur when walking around the busy streets.
Have you tried any authentic Cuban food or drinks, or tried to prepare them at home? If so, do share your stories with us in the comments section below.