Traditional Cuban food is simple local ingredients that are cooked fresh with a (usually) light spicing. It is safe to say that Cuban cuisine has not made it as one of the world’s favourites, but that doesn’t mean that it is not delicious. Despite this, there is a new food revolution starting in the capital city that is raising traditional dishes to gastronomic levels as Cuban chefs are being trained internationally and returning home to create something special.
In the morning wake up and find the nearest coffee kiosk; instant coffee plied with sugar becomes the tastiest and best way to start the day. If you are staying In Habana Vieja look out for a coffee kiosk at Bar el Angel del Tejadillo – the ladies there are particularly lovely. Due to the lack of properly stocked supermarkets in Havana, keep an eye out for fruit and and bread sold on the street to make for a simple breakfast if this is not included in your lodging.
During the day emparedado (sandwich) and pizza kiosks provide an easy meal on the go, with the added advantage that it will cost next to nothing if you are paying in CUP’s. You will get ripped off if paying in CUC’s as most places will not have any change and will just increase the price for what you have.
Aside from the street food, look for paladars (small restaurants) with the usual combination of salad, moros y cristianos (rice and black beans) and either a quarter chicken (pollo), fried fish (pescado), pork (cerdo asado) or pulled beef in a bbq type sauce (ropa vieja). Some of the best meals I had in Cuba were in these little paladars. Expect to pay about 5 CUC for a meal like this.
For an evening meal it is always worth asking in your casa whether they will cook for you. My experience is that this is some of the most delicious and cheap food you will get.
If you are going out to eat, check out these suggestions from the main three areas of Havana;
Paladar Los Mercaderes – admittedly this is not a cheap place to eat (20 CUC for a main), and you need to book earlier in the day to get a place at either their 7 pm or 9 pm sittings. The food is authentically Cuban, but made with the finest ingredients, and is one of the few places that offers silver service, a good choice of wine, and good quality service. I recommend the lobster croquettes to start, and the very spicy creole fish stew for the main.
El Rum Rum de la Habana – this is an example of a paladar that is trying to play to the tourist trade, with modern facilities and branding. The food here is good but lacks a little of the Cuban soul you become accustomed to. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the madness of Havana and need something more familiar, this is the place to go.
Tres Monedas – a quirky bar and restaurant owned and run by a local artist. The walls up to the door are papered with an old handwritten diary, and the young man at the entrance notifies your arrival by the flick of a secret switch. The staff are incredibly attentive and the food is divine, however the venezuelan chef has definitely been trained in Europe and this is reflected in the food. Sat at a table made out of an old Coca Cola billboard I ordered the 13 course taster menu (25 CUC) to share between two of us, and this was a great idea as the portions are Cuban sized. Ceviche, sashimi, steak with blue cheese and chocolate sauces, deep fried cheese, a selection of croquettes, and even a tomato cheesecake.
La Casa del Queso le Marriage – possibly the first cheesemakers in Cuba that are diversifying from the standard bland cheddar style cheese that is found everywhere. For 7.50 CUC you can get a glass of wine and a cheeseboard which features 5 large portions of cheese from their range, including; pecorino, a stilton style blue cheese, gouda, and cheddar, served with olives and chunks of fresh bread. This is clearly a favourite with locals as there is a stream of people looking to buy cheese wholesale.
Top Tip: Avoid most of the government run places like those surrounding Plaza de la Catedral and Cafe Bohemia – yes this may be where many of the film stars have dined when filming in Havana but the food is overpriced (5 CUC for a couple of sticks of carrot and cucumber and a small pot of humous) and you can get better drinks elsewhere.
Casa Miglis – Swedish decorations set this paladar apart from its neighbourhood, as well as a world menu featuring such far away foods as the incredible tasting Mexican chilli and Greek souvlaki.
La Guarida – a beautiful high class restaurant perched at the top of a crumbling old colonial building in the middle of suburban Havana. The marble staircase, with accompanying headless statue draws you past a hand painted quote by Fidel Castro up to the first floor. A tight metal spiral staircase winds you up to the roof terrace where the restaurant is perched, looking over the rooftops and over to the Malecon. You will need to book in advance.
Coppelia – this ice cream hut has expanded to take over an entire square. The locals queue a hundred long just to sit and savour the atmosphere as well as the sweet treats. Many a book has been written here, as well as plots devised in the revolution. Unless you have got your hands on local CUP’s you will need to go upstairs to the UFO looking building. There is a limited selection of flavours for tourists, and since they decided to water down the milk used in making the ice cream, the quality is not as high as it once was.
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