Now that Cuba and the U.S. seem to be on the brink of patching things up diplomatically — at long last — you might have thought about taking a trip down to the revolutionary island. You’ve probably heard how great Cuba is. I spent three and a half weeks there in February, and as long as you’re not married to the idea of things always going as you’ve planned, Cuba is a fantastic place to visit. The natural beauty is stunning, and there is a lot to see. You’ve also probably also heard that the food is not so great. Unfortunately, that’s also true. I don’t need to tell you how to have a good time in Cuba, but I do need to tell you how to eat well. Here are some tips:
1. The first thing you need to know is that there will be times when it’s confoundingly hard, nearly impossible, to find a good meal.
Sometimes you set out to find lunch, or dinner, only to find that it’s too late in the day and all the restaurants have closed. Other times, when you locate a place that is open, you might find that the kitchen has run out of the dishes you’re interested in ordering — all six of them — and the place actually has only three things available. The restaurant that you’ve carefully selected from a guidebook, or from a friend’s recommendation, might turn out to be randomly closed the night you pick it. Or it might be full if too many people have booked ahead because it was also recommended to them. Sometimes you just won’t be able to stomach the same tourist-friendly choices of beef, fish, chicken or pork with rice and beans, and you’ll tear your hair out trying to find a vegetable — any vegetable. And canned green beans don’t count. You’ll wonder why you can only ever seem to order big chunks of meat as your meal in a country where many people only get it a few times a month. Sometimes you’ll simply give up trying and buy yet another street pizza, or a few paper cones of peanuts from a street vendor (more or those two things later), wash it down with some rum and head to sleep slightly hungry.
2. Visiting Cuba is not really about restaurant recommendations, but here are a few anyway.
Sure, you can run around with your Lonely Planet or Rough Guide or any of the other tomes, but they’re often going to steer you to the kind of places that offer more or less the same menu. There’ll be ropa vieja, the traditional Cuban dish of shredded beef, cooked onions and tomatoes. Sure, it’s a must-try. But after you’ve had it a few times, it starts to seem, well, old. There might be grilled chunks of meat, and there will probably also be some seafood. The preparations might be a bit upscale, and so will the prices. You’ll leave the place feeling a bit stuffy and overcharged. I managed to find a few places in Havana by happenstance or travelers’ word of mouth that were terrific, and I just kept going back to them. There’s Gin Bar, an impeccable, hip, newish spot in central Havana that feels like it could be in Barcelona. You can get tacos or empanadas or main courses served on skillets or other international options. The food is great and mostly rings up at eight convertible pesos (CUCs) or less (around $8). Even better: The joint serves real cocktails — a rarity in Cuba, unless you count the ubiquitous mojitos or froufrou daiquiris at Floridita. Plus, the kitchen stays open until 11 or 12 at night.
I also kept going back to the Japanese crepe stand at the corner of Obrapia and Aguacate in Havana Vieja. No, that’s not a typo. A woman from Japan opened this spot, Crepe Sayu, not long ago, and her tonkatsu (fried pork) crepe is one of the best meals you can find in Havana, for all of 1.50 CUCs. It even contains something green — watercress! Don’t miss her sweet potato fritters, either. I also liked the Jardin del Oriente in Havana Vieja enough to go there twice, even if the pork sandwich I ordered was utterly delicious one day and stale another. The outdoor café has a bohemian garden setting and some of the lowest prices in the touristy zone for its traditional offerings and cocktails.
3. Learn to eat on the street, like the Cubans do.
You may have heard about the pizzas. I ate so many during the times that I didn’t have an hour for a sit-down meal or couldn’t find anything else. It got to the point that I really don’t even want to talk about them. But here goes: You’ll find these beasts for sale in pretty much every town, often served from little metal grates on the street and even the windows of people’s houses. You generally pay for them in moneda nacional, the local currency Cubans are paid in, which exchanges for CUCs at the unfavorable rate of 25 to one. Pizzas typically cost between five and 20 pesos Cubanos (that’s another way of saying moneda nacional), depending on toppings, and they always feature the same combination of an inch-thick frisbee-size crust, ketchup-y tomato sauce and the same white processed cheese.
These taste great the first few times you eat them. After about the sixth or seventh time, they start to seem gross. By the end of your trip, you’ll never want to see one again. Some things I never even wanted to see the first time are the gross-looking sandwiches that basically amount to superprocessed meat on a roll. They’re often the only option if you’re on a long bus trip, so stock up on snacks.
Other street food is not quite as ubiquitous as the pizzas, but it’s usually cheap and tasty. Of course, it helps to know a little Spanish, since these places don’t get many gringo customers. I mentioned the peanuts above. You’ll find guys in every city wandering around with little cones made of newspaper, calling “Maní, maní.” This means peanuts in Spanish, and the ones they sell are generally fresh and good. I liked to keep a few of these on hand in case I ran into a snack crisis.
Unfortunately, it took me until the end of the trip to figure out that the fried-fish sandwiches are actually quite good. Sort of like fish and chips, but on a bun and without the fries. They even serve them with spicy vinegar. One of the best meals I ate in Cuba came from a stand outside the Santa Clara bus station (worth the extra cost of bribing the guard to let me slip outside the gates during my stopover), and it cost me all of five pesos Cubanos. The guy had battered and fried whole small fish, and I gobbled every morsel except the little tail. I also had a pretty good sandwich in the same style from a stand in Havana.
And the street is a great place to eat first thing in the morning, too. By the second week, I’d stopped paying three to five CUCs for a big morning spread in my casa particular (the bed-and-breakfasts most tourists stay in) and instead would grab my breakfast on the fly from various stands: one or two tiny cups of strong, sweet coffee for one peso Cubano each over here, an omelette (“tortilla”) on a roll for five pesos over there. And fruit from a produce cart to round that out. Which brings me to the next point.
4. Take charge of your own fruit and vegetable consumption.
Okay, you will get enough produce in Cuba to at least avoid scurvy — a mojito a day keeps the doctor away, after all. Breakfasts in casas particulares tend to be big on fruit and fresh juice, so that part is fine. This being a tropical island, fruit is also a great thing to buy from street vendors and have on hand as a snack, in case you hit the restaurants at the wrong time and can’t find anything else to eat. As for vegetables, good luck. Plates in restaurants often claim to include green stuff, but it’s usually a sorry salad and, yes, canned green beans. If you’re staying a while, it’s worth seeking out a casa particular where you’re allowed to cook, so you can make a salad or other simple, vegetable-laden grub every now and then.
5. Certain towns are better for food than others.
It might seem obvious, but it’s worth discussing the differences, especially if you are going to seek out a casa with a kitchen in some places. Havana, of course, offers the greatest variety and the longest opening hours (finding everything closed at certain times of day is really only a problem I had in other cities). Trinidad has some very good restaurants — paladares, actually, meaning non-government-run joints that are sometimes operated out of people’s homes. And Baracoa features its own exciting cuisine revolving around seafood in coconut sauce with spices — another rarity in Cuba.
Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, has the worst food situation that I encountered anywhere and would be a great place to do your own cooking. I recall a certain grim Sunday evening when I ran around at about 8 p.m. with a traveler pal trying to find someplace — any place — that would serve us something to eat. The restaurant where we’d liked the soup but nothing else the night before was out of soup. The 24-hour cafeteria was having a staff changeover and told us we couldn’t order for 10 minutes (that’s Cuban-speak for at least half an hour). Even the fried-chicken stands that line Heredia had shut down.
Finally, we happened on Esperanza, so dimly lit from the outside that we initially thought it couldn’t possibly be open. Despite the name, hope seemed to have left this place long ago. It featured a windowless decor scheme that only a Communist zealot could love, with orange walls, charmless linoleum floors and dirty yellow tablecloths. Our only dining companions were a couple of pesky flies, though half a dozen unengaged employees seemed to be having way more fun than we were at the bar up front. After finding that almost every dish on the menu had “No” written next to it — maybe permanently —we finally ordered from the few options that were left. That’s one greasy fish filet for me, and one rice with vegetables for my vegetarian friend. After choking down half our food, we left money on the table and fled into the night.
6. You can always eat well in your casa particular.
Of course, the light at the end of the rainbow, or the tunnel, or however it goes, is your casa particular. There, assuming you’re in the traditional style of casa run by a family — or, more commonly, an older señora who makes a mean breakfast — you will find a kind, motherly lady who would be more than happy to cook for you if you ask nicely and give her a little notice. It will likely cost between five and ten CUCs, and it will be a giant meal. Better yet, it will also be good.
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