Is the food in Cuba good or not? This spawns more of a debate than UNC vs. Duke [or Dook; because as a Tar Heel alum, I’m obligated to spell it that way].
My take on the food in Cuba: restaurants are hit or miss, street food doesn’t disappoint.
Here’s where we ate and for CHEAP. Because these also seems to be a notion that Cuba is expensive. Well yeah, but only if you eat in touristy restaurants and lodge in the overpriced hotels (which is all of them at the moment). If you skip the traps and opt to stay in casa particulares (via Homestay, Airbnb or Innclusive), Cuba is not pricey.
Oh, also all of these spots are in Old Havana because that’s primarily where we stayed. So that said…
- La Familia – 65 San Juan de Dios, near the big bank in Old Havana
DO NOT LET YOURSELF BE TAKEN HERE. And when I say “be taken”, I mean there are locals who stand around on the street, ask if you’re looking for dinner and then chat you up all friendly. They say they know a great spot and walk with you the block or two to La Familia. It wasn’t until we were in and seated that we noticed everyone there eating was foreign and that all subsequent diners were also brought in by a local, just like we were. This is a trap. An overpriced tourist trap. Menu items in Old Havana should not be 14 and 15 CUC and higher even. If you see that, leave. The locals undoubtedly receive some sort of kickback for bringing unsuspecting tourists in. AND THE FOOD IS BAD. Bland, blah, boring. The next night when another local tried the same hustle, I told him in Spanish about La Familia and that we’d already fallen for it. He insisted it was a different place and the food was good and not anything like La Familia. Well, fail, because the place he escorted us to was exactly the same deal. We walked out almost as soon as we walked in. Foreigners and overpriced food. No thanks.
Bottom line on restaurants: If a local on the street wants you to follow him to a restaurant, don’t. He’s not just being friendly.
2. D’Lirios – on the Prado, between Dragones and Teniente Rey, almost directly facing the Capitol building
Newer spot so there was always a line outside and a wait (about 40 mins for lunch). They seemed to be just trying to create a buzz though because once we got inside, there was plenty of open seating. Huge menu, reasonable prices (especially for restaurant food, my lamb was 7 CUC) and the food was actually decent. Except the “steak”. Don’t order steak in Cuba and expect a filet. It’s more like Salisbury steak or hamburger, ground beef rolled out into a big thin patty. Tough, too. So if you want beef, ropa vieja is the island’s specialty. Otherwise, stick to all the other livestock options.
3. Street Food on San Raphael between Amistad and Avenida de Italia (Galiano)
This little section of the city is a pedestrian-only street and there are several walk-up food shops here. Only locals hang out there and all the prices are in CUP, a good indicator that the food is local food, though you can pay in CUC at some places. One spot on the corner of Amistad and San Rafael is (or was?) actually a jewelry shop called Joyeria Francesca but on the Amistad side, there’s a window where you can walk up and order some delicious freshly fried chicken and plantain chips, some sort of croquettes and a variety of other street food. The chicken and chips box cost 50 CUP (which is about $2). Further down on San Rafael is a pizza shop (whole, toppings-heavy pizzas for 60 CUP, just over $2), sandwich shops (10-20 CUP each), and other food. The walkway ends at San Rafael and Avenida de Italia (Galiano) where there is a small park always crowed with folks using wifi. There is also a shop there where you can buy rum cheap.
4. Nurmi’s Cafe – corner of Neptuno and Consulado
Tasty authentic Cuban food. Again, cheaply priced in CUP. The fried rice dish below (arroz frito) was 50 CUP on the menu but they accepted 2.10 CUC since that’s the currency I had. The fresh peach juice (melocoton) was a treat and only 5 CUP (about 20 cents).
5. Cangrejitas on the Prado, near San Jose street
The name of this shop is not cangrejitas but that’s what they served. At 1 CUP a pop, they’re the best fried guava dumpling you’ll ever eat. I also frequented this spot last time I visited Cuba. The shop is a small store front in the block-large building that faces the Capitol. It opens to the sidewalk and is only big enough for the two people in there frying and serving. Look for the line.
6. Castillo de Farnes – corner of San Jose and Avenida de Belgica (Monserrate), about one block south of the Floridita
After a frustrating evening of trying to find some seafood and place without a dumb long wait, the food here was surprisingly good. They had run out of all the paella advertised on the sign out front so I was not happy about that but my fish and my travel companion’s ropa vieja made up for it. Bar Monserrate across the street also had a good crowd and nice looking menu but they were out of lobster so we opted for Castillo de Farnes.
7. Helad’ oro – Aguiar street between Empedrado and Tejadillo
Cubans love their ice cream. The ice cream here was good and not expensive. I like ice cream but I’m not a connoisseur so unless it’s just terrible, it’s fine to me. This place was another spot I visited last time and liked it enough to seek out again for this go ’round.
8. Obispo street food
I know I just said I’m not into ice cream like that but I am when it comes to coco glase. Corner of Obispo and Villegas at the Soda Obispo shop, this coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell and drizzled with chocolate will change your life for 20 CUP. On that same corner was a churros cart, 10 CUP for a fistful of hot sugary churros drizzled w/ condensed milk (or not, if you so choose). I’m chemically addicted to refined sugar (gonna work on that in 2017, new year new me and whatnot) so I visited this corner a few times during the trip.
9. Late nights at Oviedo – corner of the Prado and Virtudes, ground floor
Open late, super cheap, Cuban versions of burgers and sandwiches. Simple enough. We loaded up here a couple times on food to have for breakfast the next morning since grabbing something before our early morning tours wasn’t gonna be feasible. The pork burger is especially juicy here.
10. Breakfast in the casa
Last but certainly not least, and since I mentioned breakfast, I must highlight the fabulous breakfast that my casa host Yusi provided one Sunday morning. 5 CUC person plus another 1 CUC for the fresh juice. Matter fact, everything was made fresh and hand chopped. Even the coffee beans were ground just before serving. It tasted even better than it smelled. All well worth it. I tried to make the serious face like Yusi but I suck at it. I’m a smiler.
So that’s it for my second look at Cuba’s cuisine. For more on logistics, art and more food (of course), check out my first trip to Cuba: