“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 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
And the bill… just 6 CUC (around $7 USD)
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.
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.
“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.
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.
The fish was a bit disappointing and bland. I also wish “steamed root vegetables” meant more than half a potato.
Then I got a lesson on how a government owned company works. Security 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!
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!
Once inside, the cross breeze from all the windows brought some relief from the beating sun.
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.
“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.
The Tamal Iberico was a nice mix of flavors. It's only 4 thin slices of sausage but it makes for a good appetizer.
Is it a gift? Yep. The bill. Again nice presentation.
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 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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
Yes, we finally got some good fish!! And it only cost around 7 CUC for this entree.
What did you think of the food in Cuba?
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!