When you think of Cuban food, what comes to mind? Possibly Cubano sandwiches, intriguing spices, slow roasted meats, and salted plantains and yucca. All the senses heightened right now derive from Cuban American food. Cuban food differs greatly from the popular Cuban cuisine in the United States.
Overall, Cuban food lacks spice and flavor. At most, the food may be salted, peppered, or garlicky. My theory is that importing spices is either very costly or prohibited. The meals tend to feel uninspired, but you do have some options to explore namely government owned restaurants, privately owned paladares, AirBnb hosts, and non-Cuban cuisines.
The government owned restaurants usually offer the cheapest food options for tourists. The food at the government owned restaurants served the blandest food that we had during our time in Cuba, but also offered the interesting experience of dining in a restaurant owned by a socialist state government.
Mayo salad with noodles and ham appetizer
Ice cream from the government owned ice cream shop Coppelia
Privately owned paladares serve food with a little more flare and also offer a variety of cuisines. The food tends to be more expensive. Paladares can appear like as a restaurant or be located inside someone’s home. They offer unique dining experiences and fresher variety.
Buttered, garlic shrimp with yucca and a plantain
Seafood fried rice
Mesón de la Chorrera located inside an old fortress on the Río Almendares
Quaint paladar in Trinidad
Delicious churros outside of our AirBnB
Food Prepared by AirBnB Hosts
Our AirBnB hosts made the best food that we had on our trip. For dinner one night, our host made us salted, slow roasted beef, salted mashed yucca, plantain chips, and a fresh salad consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. Another host made grilled, whole fish with roasted vegetables, rice, and beans. Each dinner cost 10 USD, which was cheaper than most paladares and more expensive than the government owned restaurants.
We also ate breakfast every morning at our AirBnBs. The breakfasts were 5 USD and consisted of eggs, bread, tropical fruits, ham, and coffee. I don’t think we could have found a better deal for the amount of food we were served and nothing beats the convenience of rolling out of bed to a fresh cooked meal.
Finishing up a large breakfast on the rooftop of our AirBnB in Cienfuegos
We wanted to try non-Cuban food for two main reasons. One, the Cuban food felt like a letdown, so we wanted alternatives. Two, given the lack of available ingredients to cook Cuban food, we were intrigued by how Cubans would cook other cuisines. We tried pizza, burgers, and Chinese food.
Lackluster is the word that comes to mind when I think of that Cuban pizza. We went to a small pizzeria off the main area in Cienfuegos. They used a different type of cheese rather than the traditional mozzarella, and the crust seemed more like a bread dough than a pizza crust. You may have more success with pizza in Havana.
After the pizza experience, we thought we would go to a more western style restaurant to try a burger. After visiting the Museo de la Revolucion, we stopped by Sloppy Joe’s Bar for a burger and some much needed AC. According to my boyfriend, the burger here was the best food he had on the trip. That being said, if you’re needing a taste of the United States while traveling in Havana, I would highly recommend this place.
Lastly, we explored Chinatown in Havana and stumbled across a Chinese restaurant—surprise. But what was actually surprising was that the Chinese food tasted pretty good. It didn’t differ drastically from American Chinese and the restaurant felt like you could be in a Chinatown in any major US city.
Chinese restaurant window decor