I found the same reaction each time I told someone I was going to Cuba. The initial questions all seemed the same and then the topic of food usually comes up in conversation. Much like everything about Cuba, the food scene is complicated. Here is why I think there is a difference about Cuban food and food in Cuba.
“How excited are you for the food? You’ll probably find the best Cuban Sandwich.”
Since I don’t know many Americans that have spent time in Cuba, I could only go with what I’ve read online and much like Yelp reviews, the critics varied in opinion.
Bland, boring and basic were some words that continued to catch my eye in the internet search while planning for my trip leaving me ready for some pretty mediocre meals. I’ll be honest that the food scene did not excite in any of us for most of our time there. So, here’s the skinny on Cuban cuisine where you won’t burn through your precious CUC.
The saying is that the Cubano was developed on the island but educated in the US. Like a lot of Cuban history, the story of the sandwich is mixed. No one denies that this classic lunch dish has Cuban roots but the origin is where it gets hazy. Miami & Tampa Florida both have strong ties to the sandwich, where many Cuban Americans lived. It’s said they took its meager beginnings and it flourished stateside. So, much like Fortune Cookies, Fettuccine Alfredo, or General Tso’s Chicken, the Cuban Sandwich is one of the many American made dishes selling itself as an international imposter.
Want to try and not stand out like a yuma? Skip ordering a Cuban sandwich and get a Medianoche. It’s practically identical, more authentic and made placed between a sweet egg bread.
I’ve spent some time in Central & South America and I had expected to see a lot of food carts & food trucks around the public parks to pick up a decent, inexpensive, quick lunch. While there is a ‘street food’ scene, it isn’t around every corner. There were a few carts selling ready made sandwiches, sweets or fruit, but what you’re looking for is a vendor slicing roast pork, placing the thick cuts of meat on chewy rolls, dousing it with vinegar, truly made to order. There are lots of “Rapido” shops that are either little corner stores or house fronts where you can get a couple of quick items on a limited menu. My normal street food rule always applies, lots of locals and a line than that means you should be golden for a quick, yummy meal.
I know, why is PIZZA a category on a Cuba food review??? I never thought I’d eat more pizza outside of Italy, but in CUBA?! Little pizza shops seem to always be around on some small street in every little town. They are normally mini pan pizzas (I affectionately call the Cuban Pizza Huts) and you usually have to pay in Pesos (CUP), the local currency. It’s a screaming deal for a quick lunch (1-2 CUC, the traveler’s currency). Sadly, this ended up being a last minute choice most days when I waited too long to eat and was too hungry to search for a better option.
In the spirit of tasty Italian dishes in Cuba, one of our Casa Particulares was above an Osteria, Italian owner and restaurant, so we had some pretty epic dinners there in Havana that had a heavy Italian influence with local ingredients.
Breakfast of Champions
We stayed throughout the country in Casa Particulares, so having an option for a nice, home cooked breakfast was amazing and necessary. Each place is going to make something slightly different from the next, but the going theme is always eggs of some kind (if they offer tortilla, choose it!), fresh fruit, bread w/ butter (most likely margarine), coffee, fresh juices and some meat. Take advantage of a nice, home cooked meal which is usually reasonably priced and hopefully helps your host stay in business. It’s a huge spread and once you realize how little available food is here you really come to appreciate their pride in serving you a full breakfast.
There are loads of great local meat dishes, sorry vegetarians. A local dish which translates to ‘beef in a red sauce’, it usually comes with rice and or beans. Arroz con Pollo, or rice & chicken, is just as the name suggestions, chicken alongside rice and beans. Either of these can be a safe, tasty bet for a filling meal. Plates like this are a staple for Cubans. You’ll be sure to find a protein, beans and rice along with a root vegetable. It’s not a coincidence that these are the most available ingredients.
Fresh and delicious, seafood was the only thing I’d order off the menu in the coastal cities. We had some wonderfully prepared lobster and the prices are a steal. My tip for any fish dish here is: Simple is better.
Mangos when we were there were INSANELY fresh! I think we ate several for every breakfast. Aside from sweet fruits, I’ve never been to a country where I’ve seen so many people eating PINTS of ice cream. I first noticed it at the airport when I was waiting for my friends flight to come in. There were hundreds of other people, sitting around also all waiting for loved ones. A majority of people were sitting, patiently waiting while scooping spoonfuls of ice cream with those makeshift wooden utensils in hand. If you want to fit in like a local, grab a Nestles.
Thanks but No Thanks
I ended up avoiding certain foods that we had continuous bad luck ordering to avoid buyers remorse. We got burned by too many places where we thought we could get a decent burger. Some of the Rapidos offered them on their menu but they ended up being overcooked, chewy mystery meats. The only time I had a decent burger was in a nicer restaurant and on the menu it listed molido (ground beef) which I found to make a difference when ordering – a magic word that takes you to cheeseburger paradise.
Ham sandwiches were another double edged sword. They all too frequently saved us from a ‘hangry’ situation gone awry, a lot of the time I was finding my Jamon y Queso to be something I couldn’t trade for anything at the elementary school lunch table. First rule, use your eyes and take a peak around at other tables to see if you can spot if you are in ham sandwich heaven or hell. If I saw a gooey panini (a la plance) on a plate, I knew I was in the right spot. Most ALL of the pre-made sandwiches we ordered turned out to taste awful, big surprise.
Unwanted Food Tour
A stranger in the street will probably want to lead you to “the best mojito in town” which coincidentally is the restaurant that his cousin owns. In the more touristy areas you will get a lot of locals wanting to “help” you out with something . Cigars, taxis, salsa music, you name it. A lot of people genuinely want to help you but a lot also want to take you to a specific location where they have a friend that owns the place and they most likely get something for bringing you there. Everyone is really friendly so if you aren’t interested, a polite no thanks is all you need to be on your way.
One person you should ask is your host family. They will give you some unbiased advice on some of their favorite spots in the city of places where other travelers have liked going. Casa hosts are always happy to help offer suggestions so don’t’ be afraid to ask. It’ll be a way to practice your Spanish!
We had thoughts to pick up our own food when we had a kitchen at one of our Casas but had some pretty bizarre looks at the store which was more like a government food pantry. In the long run we figured it would be easier to have our host family cook for us or buy something, giving money back to the community and not taking limited groceries from locals. We did pick up snacks and waters from larger grocery stories in the bigger cities. Shopping there is an experience and is NOT like your weekend run to Whole Foods. Seeing the limited resources that the Cuban people have because of the US trade embargo really brings to life the everyday struggles of the Cuban people we so easily take for granted living in the first world.
Unless you are renting a house you will most likely not have access to cook food yourself. Take a vacation from the kitchen, taste some local foods and keep the local establishments in business.
Things to remember:
Just like in your own country, the bigger cities have more culinary options and seem to be more advanced in the food arena. While we had some pretty good food in the smaller towns, some of my highlights were in Havana (the capital & biggest city) and Trinidad (touristy town). I would argue that if you search hard enough and long enough you may have the fortune to find a small cafe that serves some out of this world eats even if you aren’t in the more touristic areas. It’s a task, but doable!
Cubans don’t seem to like spicy food or seasoned food. It’s some of the blander food I’ve come across but I think it’s more because of the lack of accessibility of ingredients and cost prohibiting issues than anything else. It is just another thing during your travels that shows you the effects of the embargo. Things come on the blander side so if you are addicted to the hot stuff pull a Beyonce and bring some hot sauce in your carry on.
Cuban Cuisine Confusion
Cuban food can be confusing. The meals and ingredients are simple, but the politics and history is what makes it complex. There is food shortages and rationing, 30% of the population spends 70% of their income on food. The restaurants in Cuba have long been run by the government and can really vary widely in quality. Aside from Chinatown in Havana (yes, I said Chinatown), there is not much international influence on food, mainly yet again due to import issues. Fluctuating food supply is a real issue here still, people we spoke with eagerly await the embargo to be lifted so those living in extreme poverty will have a better life with the simplest luxury; choice.
Having trouble navigating through all the culinary craziness? ViaHero helped us with some of our travel plans, making it easier to enjoy our time and come to Cuba prepared. Check out their site to learn all about it and see how they can create a more personalized itinerary for your Cuban holiday!