I Loved Cuban Food…Until I Went to Cuba

Havana Cuba

 

Trip Report Index
Who Can Fly To Cuba & When?
How to Book Award Flights To Havana, Cuba (fr United States NYC/EWR – HAV)
Our First Casa Particular Stay in Havana - Meh
Cuba: How To Get a Cuban Tourist Visa, Entry Requirements, Medical Insurance
How To Book a Casa Particular in Cuba Without the Hassle!
Cuba's Two Currencies (CUC vs CUP), Exchanging Money, Credit Cards, ATMs
Havana, Cuba Transportation, Taxis, Airport Transfers + Getting Around
Quick Havana Neighborhood Guide & Where to Stay
Havana, Cuba – Digital Detox Retreat From Internet & Phone (+ Where To Get It If You Really Need It)
I Loved Cuban Food...Until I Went To Cuba

 

“I love Cuban food”.

At least that’s what I said before I visited Cuba. The food was so different than what the New York City and Miami areas call Cuban food. Visiting Cuba was a very interesting experience, but the food left a lot to be desired.

Foodies…prepare to be underwhelmed. Be sure to bring a guide book + map before you arrive. It would also be a good idea to make a list of where you would like to eat before you arrive as you should expect no internet during your entire visit. No internet. No google maps. No tripadvisor reviews. No people walking staring at their phones. You’ll actually have to talk to people to find places just like before the iPhone. This is one of those cities where you really need to know where to go – wandering around won’t help you find the good spots.

MAP: Information and maps are hard to find. I put together a Google Map of the places in case you want to visit (or avoid) them.

Government Owned vs Privately Owned Paladar

Most restaurants, like most things in Cuba, are government owned. A privately owned restaurant is called a “Paladar” – many of which will be hustling with menus in hand on touristy streets. Being privately owned or government doesn’t necessarily tell you the quality or price of the food. In fact, many popular restaurants are government owned and very reasonably priced.

We ate at a variety of places including our Airbnb, Paladars, cheap government owned restaurants. Although Mrs Rewardboss opposed it, I wanted to try a dirt cheap cafeteria which was obviously not a place for tourists. Service and food were terrible, but the entire meal cost $2.

Locals may not be too helpful because they don’t eat out much. That’s not surprising because the avg salary is about $20 usd/month.

Avoid: Tourist restaurants might tempt you with their pricey menu. I can’t remember many touristy restaurants that were worth it and you might confuse currencies and pay dearly (in usd) – no doubt part of their plan: for $100/person, the food must be good right?  That’s 5 months salary for the average Cuban! – it better be more than just good food.

Breakfast

Breakfast was the least disappointing meal of each day. We had ‘american’ breakfast served right in our Airbnb on two days. The cost was 5 CUC per person which included everything – food, juice, tea. They were willing to accommodate any requests, except no bacon was available in the country. I asked.  Later, I realized that breakfast in a restaurant can cost even less, depending on how hungry you are.

Overall the breakfast was basic but good, though Mrs Rewardboss thought the eggs tasted a bit strange.  The bowl of fresh fruit was nice and included several familiar fruits including banana, guava, tangerine, pineapple. One was new to us both – the caimito fruita, or star apple.  It was the purple one in the center. Imagine a mushy plum with the taste removed.

Breakfast - Food - Eating Out in Havana CubaBreakfast - Food - Eating Out in Havana CubaThe second breakfast was served early in the morning in our apartment before a full day tour. This time the Mrs’s omelet was completely raw inside but mine was cooked perfectly. It took a bit of conversation the previous night as I had forgotten that tortilla translates to omelet! I also had no idea how to say ‘the omelet is raw inside’ so I resorted to playing charades and acted it out at 6:45am. The fruit salad and juice weren’t freshly made (from a package) while the vegetables were bland – a trend that you will notice as you continue reading.

Breakfast - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

On the last day, decided to try Paladar Don Quijote (Calle 23 between Calle J & I, Vedada), a restaurant we walked past several times a day thinking it was a tourist trap. I was wrong.

Restaurante Don Quijote - Breakfast - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

The tiny outdoor area was occupied by locals and perfect for watching the old cars drive by. The food was very inexpensive and came with more bread than I knew what to do with. We ordered veggie omelets and 2 bottles of water from the limited menu. Very basic and simple.

Restaurante Don Quijote - Breakfast - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

And the bill… just 6 CUC (around $7 USD)

Restaurante Don Quijote - Breakfast - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

 

Lunch

LA RAMPA (24 hour cafeteria)

For our first lunch, we walked down 23rd – the main strip in Vedado. Not a single place looks appetizing. Finally we just find La Rampa, a 24 hr cafeteria connected to Habana Libre Hotel, one of the landmark Hotels in the area. The restaurant gets mediocre reviews much like the hotel does, though I had no idea because my cell phone/internet didn’t work. I recall the Airbnb host mentioned the name though I doubt he’s eaten here before. If you’re not sure where to go, you’ll find a decent filling meal here.

La Rampa - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

So, what does a vegetarian eat in Havana? A roast beef sandwich with the roast beef thrown on the side. If you don’t eat meat, you’ll have to modify…or cheat…or starve. The bread + few veggies was decent.

Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

“I think the egg is missing”. Fortunately, the waiters spoke English here, but still had to show the waiter the menu where it said an egg was included. That was after I ordered exactly what the customer sitting next to us had (and his had a egg). The turkey club sandwich was good enough but the fries were disappointing. Service, as expected, was slow.
Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

JARDINE DEL ORIENTE

This popular restaurant was recommended by our Airbnb host and is a bit hidden in the touristy area of Havana – down the street from Plaza de Armas (on Obrapia between Mercaderes + Obispo Oficios). See the Tripadvisor reviews. Don’t let the name trick you – this is NOT Asian cuisine. I would also recommend this restaurant. The food is reasonably priced, filling, good enough, but perhaps the best part is the pleasant outdoor garden/seating area.

For 5 CUC, you get a 1/2 chicken with rice and a piece of potato (which they call steamed root vegetables). This was a heafty lunch and since I had to eat half of the Mrs’s plate, I was really stuffed. The cuban sauces was salty but tasted good. It was obvious that all the chicken is cooked a head of time and kept under a heat lamp – it arrived only slightly warm. With a salty sauce and some crispy skin, I was satisfied.
Jardine Del Oriente - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

The fish was a bit disappointing and bland. I also wish “steamed root vegetables” meant more than half a potato.

Jardine Del Oriente - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Jardine Del Oriente - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Jardine Del Oriente – Prices are in CUC

Then I got a lesson on how a government owned company works. Security or police walked in and moments later, marched out with large white bags (filled with money?).

Total cost: 13 CUC for 2 lunch entrees + 2 sparkling waters + 1 mojito. Definitely worth it!

Jardine Del Oriente - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

 

WAOO SNACK BAR

We were starving and didn’t know where to go so we stopped at Waoo Snack Bar which we knew would be more expensive because it was across the street from Habana Libre Hotel. And wow! When you pay more, they provide soap in the bathroom!

Waoo Snack Bar - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

 

Once inside, the cross breeze from all the windows brought some relief from the beating sun.

Waoo Snack Bar - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

The name is misleading – is it a snack bar? Just fried bar food? Nope. The food here was better than I expected but also had smaller portions and more expensive than I expected. The chick pea dish didn’t seem Cuban but was still good nonetheless.

Waoo Snack Bar - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

“Potatoes for the Poor” – its just a fried egg on some french fries.  I was expecting actual potatoes, not french fries. Based on the name, I suppose I should not expect much. Overpriced and too small.

Waoo Snack Bar - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

The Tamal Iberico was a nice mix of flavors. It’s only 4 thin slices of sausage but it makes for a good appetizer.

Waoo Snack Bar - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Is it a gift? Yep. The bill. Again nice presentation.

Waoo Snack Bar - Lunch - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Total cost: 19 CUC. That’s about 1 month salary for a Cuban so you’ll only find tourists here (or empty like in the photo above). And this tourist paid ~$20 but left hungry looking for more food. To have a filling lunch I’d have to order at least double and ~$40+ for lunch is expensive for New York City. The service here is better than average and the white table clothes were a nice change…but I prefer spending ~half as much and getting my fill.

LA ROCA

La Roca is another place we walked past many times and based on the big dark stained glass windows, we thought it was a night club at first. Check out the map. The food here is average but they serve HUGE portions! This massive seafood paella for two could easily feed four people and only cost around 12 CUC total.

La Roca - Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Dinner

LOS PRIMOS (24 Hour Cafeteria)

First the bad: We had walked past Los Primos (Calle H between Calle 21 + 23) many times and I was really curious about the low prices. Much to Mrs Rewardboss’ disappointment, I insisted we go here for dinner just to experience it.  We sat down among only locals and noticed most people ordered pizza. There was some discussion/dispute over the pizza at the next table but we weren’t sure why.

Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

About 25 minutes later, the waitress finally took our order. I wanted to see what pizza was like in Cuba so I ordered one plus tostones, plantain chips, and two bottles of water.  What seemed like an eternity later (45min?) we finally get our food. The verdict: the pizza was BAD. I guess the dispute with the waitress was over crap quality of the pizza. It reminded me of the ShopRite frozen pizza I used to eat as a kid. The tostones and chips were actually good! I can’t believe it took so long for soggy toaster oven pizza.

The bill came to about 2 CUC (around $2!). Yes, the food wasn’t very good, but it was very cheap and they are open 24 hours. I don’t recommend eating here unless you are in a pinch or out of money (remember your US ATM card doesn’t work in Cuba).

Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

One good thing happened – I discovered this tasty bakery inside the restaurant. It’s a separate business that keeps its own separate hours. I DO recommend loading up on food BEFORE going to the airport!

Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Cafe (Hollywood Cafe?)

This cafe is on the main strip 23rd and Calle F or H.  It’s a decent place to get pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. From the outside, I thought it would be more expensive but I was wrong.

Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Ever have a Cuban sandwich? Are you thinking Cuban bread, ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, sometimes salami? Here a Cuban is just pork and lettuce on bread. Does that mean the US version of the Cuban is fake like American Chinese food is not really Chinese (Gereral Tso’s anyone)? The pork was decent but chewing on hunks of dry pork needs some help going down.

Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

 

RAZONES

This was our favorite restaurant – also recommended by our Airbnb host. It was the only meal and restaurant that we actually fully enjoyed! The location it tucked away in a residential area (see map: on F between 5 + 3). There was always a wait to get in and with good reason. The food is good and the prices very reasonable! The first time the wait was 45 minutes but the host which was waiting downstairs offered us a seat in the second restaurant with no wait. We tried to go back on 2 separate occasions but the wait was too long (1 hour). The menu was the same but it was not in the balcony area. Be sure to ask about the other room and take it if its available.

Razones - Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

Tostones with ham, tuna, and chorizo

Yes, we finally got some good fish!! And it only cost around 7 CUC for this entree.

Razones - Dinner - Food - Eating Out in Havana Cuba - Cuban Food

What did you think of the food in Cuba?

 

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My Cameras: These photos were taken using either my Canon S110 (newer model is S120) or my Sony a6000 (with this wide angle lens).  The Canon is fits in my pocket and takes amazing pictures. The Sony packs the power of a full size DSLR while being small enough that I’m still willing to bring it!

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Comments

  1. the title reminded me that i feel the same way about chinese food … love it in singapore, japan, even india — but not in china (apart from HK)!

  2. I like your post because it’s objective, clear and as a Cuban I agree 100% with all you have mentioned. Cuban food is not spicy, there is no Sandwich Cubano unless you go to Miami or somewhere else. There is many good and bad restaurant but not too many reviews or info.some people will recommend you where to go based on their experiences or they get a percentage or a tip if they send tourist. It maybe the case of your Airbnb host. I would recommend seafood in Cuba: it’s cheap, fresh and tasty. For real Cuban experience more than a touristic one go to Chinatown in Havana City. There is plenty of restaurants that local’s frequent.

  3. I think I would need to bring along a week’s worth of protein bars, Pop-Tarts, and beef jerky to survive a trip to Cuba. Thanks for sharing… I’ll definitely be waiting a little while before I visit.

    • I’m sure there are better places — I found at least one very good Paladar. You would definitely need to buy them before you came… The was a hidden supermarket which we couldn’t find but other than that there were no convenience stores around.

  4. I totally agree with the post!

    When we visited last year, we were also very disappointed by the restaurants quality of food and services. And they consistently messed up the bill as skim to charge more.

    Eventually we gave up eating out at restaurants and only ate at Casa Particulars. And fortunately, all the dinners prepared by the host of Casas were amazing. Some of the highlights were lobsters, whole grilled fish which the host prepared on the grill, and crab dish with Caribbean spice.

  5. Lucky you’re not Cuban. Most Cubans would love to be able to eat like you did! It’s a tourists paradise but hell on Earth for most Cubans.

    • If I were to return, I think I would prefer to eat with a Cuban family and avoid restaurants when possible. Our Airbnb hosts were very friendly and hospitable. We are all very spoiled when it comes to food in the nyc area.

  6. If you want delicious, authentic Cuban food, befriend a Cuban family and get asked to dinner. Doesn’t matter where you live or where you go.

  7. You should have seen Cuba 15 years ago! Most Cubans were lacking food and Paladares were far more rare. Street staples are black beans and rice or tiny dry ham sandwiches. Chinatown was good for cheap filling fried food, and there were a few government restaurants. One Italian place next to my hotel was well stocked with authentic Italian ingredients. I remember a restaurant in Old Havana serving a small plate of fried chicken and fries. The fries were amazing because they weren’t made with the crappy russets we serve in the US. When I ordered another little plate, the manager got pissed because he knew I did not need to eat that much! Generally, people in Cuba eat half what Americans eat (and it shows).

    Outside Havana food can be much better near the farms. Chicken is far leaner (and smaller) but tastes so much better than in the US. Cuba has been rationing food ever since Russia ended their subsidies. There have been shortages of everything, especially dairy. Just look how thin (and healthy) most Cubans are.

    • I’d love to see some pics to compare now vs then. The touristy areas are being rapidly rebuilt and look brand new. A tour guide mentioned that the government has been giving away farm land to anyone willing to grow crops (and sell a min of ~10% to the govt) so they can stop relying on imports. The guide also mentioned the gov’t has been allowing more private Casa’s and restaurants because they do not have enough capacity for all the tourists coming.

  8. I was so sorry to read this article. I went to Cuba last year and had the opposite experience. We packed lots of protein bars and snacks expecting the worst. We ended up giving the snacks to locals because we didnt eat them. To be fair, I went with National Geographic and they had all the restaurant reservations made for us. We did try a public restaurant twice and that was pretty bad, but every other meal was terrific. We had so much fresh seafood, roasted meats and tasty rice and beans. The meals were included with our trip cost so I’m not sure if they were expensive.

    • Makes sense. I would think for the price they charge, they make sure everything is amazing. Having a guide is extremely helpful especially in Cuba…if you know where to find one. How were the hotels?

      • We stayed at Parque Central in Havana which had great lobby and public areas, but just okay rooms by American standards. Outside Havana, in Cienfuegos our hotel was very basic but had amazing views.

        • Parque Central is listed as the #1 hotel per tripadvisor and has excellent reviews, unlike most other hotels. The prices they charge for mostly poorly rated hotels and the difficulty booking anything was frustrating. We did what many people recommended online which was stay at a Casa. At some point, we’ll be able to use our hotel points when Starwood opens up.

  9. visited Cuba via explorica with my school. we went to some amaIng places farms and restaurant. The food was beautiful no issues except the fact I thought it would be spicy. the food was clean and maybe thats why it tasted weird to you.
    we stayed at the Panorma hotel that had an amazing breakfast each morning and two other hotels but I am bad at names and dnt have the information in front of me. The beach was beautil, I love Cuba and cant wait to visit again. The paella my first ever was delicious!

  10. Question is why does anyone wants to visit Cuba in the first place? Just the novelty of visiting a rundown country?

    • To experience the culture, new foods, and beautiful beaches just to name a few things. Nothing worse than those people who think they’ve experienced a country but are just locked up in their fancy hotel or resort the entire time.

  11. Please understand that authentic cuban cuisine can only be found in Miami. I am Cuban (born and raised) but living in Miami. When I returned to Cuba I hated the food. Communists have destroyed everything. Cubans in the island have adapted the recipes to make up for items that can not be found or bought anymore due to the almost 60 yr old crisis.

  12. When one visit Cuba, one needs to remember they still under the embargo. Their infrastructure one of 50 years ago. The lack of resources makes their effort to succeed more valuable. We as Americans are spoiled with plentiful food and luxuries to choose from. I would not dare to eat pork in Cuba though, a country with not much meat regulations that could expose one, to Trichina Trichinosis a common worm in pork. Enjoy Cuba as the virginal island it is today before the modern world ruin it and its people with the introduction of capitalism. The real charm of this island is its people and it’s timeless beauty.

  13. The food scene in Cuba can definitely seem disheartening, but there’s plenty of good food to be found, it just takes a lot more advance research than normal. This map is a great resource for good food (http://www.stephandben.com/2016/10/havana-city-map.html). TripAdvisor isn’t that helpful in discerning the excellent from the average, but it can be useful sometimes. And the travel sites written by people in Havana tend to stay on top of changes in the food scene.

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