If there’s one thing you are bound to hear before going to Cuba it is something derogatory about the food. Beans, chicken and beans, rice and beans, rice, pulled pork and beans…
Like many travellers I enjoy indulging in local delicacies when travelling, from street food to gourmet. I relish variety and exotic cuisine so the prospect of beans and rice for two weeks was less than thrilling to me. I was convinced Cuba must have some decent food somewhere, so I set out on a mission to find it.
What I discovered is that outside Havana the food is very similar, not all of it terrible, not all of it memorable. But Havana itself is a hotbed of interesting restaurants if you’re happy to spend time looking for them, and many are literally tucked away. Cuba is not a particularly cheap place, on a par with travelling the USA, but we managed to find some delicious and atmospheric spots to suit varying budgets around the city’s glamorously crumbling capital. Be warned that service is a new concept, so things may not happen as quickly as they do back home.
Popular in Havana is the concept of the paladar, a privately owned restaurant or mansion that has been converted into a restaurant, giving the space oodles of character. More often than not these are owner-operated, so the local charm is ever present. Raoul Castro’s reforms in the area of private enterprise have seen paladares popping up all over the capital, so this form of dining is still a fairly new concept.
We tested out two paladares in Havana and I can hands down say the meal at La Guarida is one of the best meals I have tasted. It’s essential to book here and initially I thought this must be due to its rise to fame after appearing in the film Strawberry & Chocolate. We soon found it was the food that played the leading role.
Atmosphere is abundant at La Guarida and its dilapidated yet grand entrance makes way for a quirky setting in a restaurant that is small but perfectly formed. There are a few dishes you never forget and one here for me was the starter of seafood and papaya lasagne. We couldn’t resist a cheeky cocktail or two and the Cubanita (a Cuban twist on a Bloody Mary) hit the spot.
The second paladar we hit was a fabulous converted 19th century villa with a gorgeous roof terrace in the suburb of Vedado. Atelier has a funky interior with old sewing machines and handwritten menus that change daily. Here we indulged on very reasonably priced fresh lobster, washed down with a few daiquiris, in the balmy Havana air as we planned our sightseeing time in Havana.
At the other end of the scale was a place I had been hankering to see after it was featured on a BBC documentary simply called ‘Cuba” and presented by travel journalist Simon Reeve. Coincidentally our G Adventures CEO had shown this film crew around Cuba which was pretty cool!
La Pachanga, a neighbourhood burger joint, epitomises the changes communist Cuba is facing. The restaurant is capitalist and commercial by nature, and being likened to the Cuban McDonalds with its cartoon characters and general appeal. La Pachanga is privately run and the burgers are delicious. Generous portion sizes perfectly washed down with a local Buccanero beer. The staff was surprised to see four Kiwi/English girls rock up before a night out at the more touristy Tropicana show, but if the food, price and service are anything to go by they ought to get used to attracting tourists. Advertising is banned, so the restaurant relies on word of mouth. The cute little hats served on top of the burger are pivotal to the owner’s marketing strategy of keeping customers talking about the restaurant after they depart.
Having enjoyed the variety of dining given birth by the new wave of entrepreneurialism, we longed to find authentic Cuban food that stood out. We struck gold in the form of Los Nardos. Bang in the centre of Old Havana, opposite the Capitol Building, Los Nardos is worth the wait once you arrive. We were surprised at the lack of tourists, this was mostly locals enjoying their lunch. We were even more surprised by the prices and portion sizes, Los Nardos is a bargain! One of our group ordered a flaming prawn dish which was a lovely surprise! The plates were so big we couldn’t eat everything, so we took doggy bags and gave them to a homeless man outside the building. Watching him enjoy the meal in the park made our lunch there even more meaningful.
If you love seafood and cocktails you won’t be disappointed in Cuban food. While a lot places serve typical Cuban fare, there is no reason not to step out and find what else is out there, you’ll be surprised what you find and could even pick up a few stories and some additional local insight along the way!