May 2015- Cuba’s natural beauty, music, history, people, art and cool vibes blew my socks off, but its dining scene didn’t. I tried out well-reviewed restaurants, which were passable to good, and holes in the wall for middle to lower income Cubans which served bland offerings with miniscule piece portions, if it even had any, of stringy meat. In Thailand or Malaysia, everyone heads to street stalls for the best local cuisine.
Expecting too much from a struggling, socialist economy on food rations, I mistook Havana for a foodie destination. In defense, I was misled by memorable dinner at Victor’s Cafe in NYC- ooo I still dream about that incredibly rich vaca frita, ropa vieja and velvety frijoles negros…. stewed dark as coffee, each bite fragrant with cumin and umami with slow cooking.
Nothing came close to that dish in the motherland.
The coffee and fresh tropical juices peddled out of holes in the walls at many a street corner were good. All varieties of dried beans were organic and orgasmic (stewed with onions and peppers). The luscious fondants from the Chocolate Museum were as decadent as any from Europe. There’s a vibrant tourist restaurant scene but for locals cook their own meals rather than eating out. “The best Cuban cooking is home cooking!” Alex, the manager of the casa particular I was staying at said.
But why does Cuba lack great street food? It seems most people here suffer from a failed food production system that’s resulted in limited choices of ingredients, overpriced and poor quality meat.
Jorgito, a former teacher who owns a small casa particular, says he gets to dig into beef or lobster only when treated to a meal by his foreign clients. Chef Acela wondered aloud while chopping up grayed pre-frozen pork, “Where have all the seafood and chicken breasts gone?”
At a meat stall in Old Havana, steak is listed on the chalkboard but not stocked, the young, sad-eyed butcher confided. This phantom beef is priced at $2 a pound, pork ribs $1.15, pig liver $1 – theoretically a day’s salary for someone earning the median monthly wage of $24 (published by the National Statistics Office in 2014).Like everything else in Cuba, food distribution and allocation – via ration books – is a cat’s cradle of complexity. But one thing’s for sure – booming tourism and emerging wealth amongst Cubans has set fire to Havana’s gastronomic scene.
The Cuban pulled-beef dish ropa vieja, literally “old clothes,” is supposed to be the gold standard of local cuisine. So I was determined to hunt down a blow-your-socks-off version. The search became obsessive as it bothered me to eat stuff locals couldn’t afford, like lobster.
This was on the menu of a cafe in the backstreets of old Havana. There the ropa vieja, costing 40 CUPs, or US$1.80 was a sixth the price at restaurants. But it was a sad, soupy mess with large slabs of potato and taro, and a few shreds of “beef” lurking at the bottom. (The guava juice was addictively delicious, though.)
The local dive beside busy Linea street, near the junction of Paseo, which I visited with my salsa coach Areal was better. My pork chop and Areal’s chicken fricassee were as thin as the soles of a ballet slipper and flavored with only salt and pepper, but were passably tender. It was the simple sides that was absolutely divine – arroz con gris , rice and beans.
Next up in my search were things I’d read about and dreamt of trying before boarding the plane to Havana: Sandwiches made from roast pork (dripping with juices) and battered and fried fish, and meat-filled potato croquettes. All I found were hole-in-the-wall Cuban panederías, offering edible but bland rolls filled with ham or egg, or hot dog, for 5 CUP, or 20 cents each.
Admitting defeat – ropa vieja from street stalls really was as tasteless and fibrous as its namesake – I began to try out private paladares and touristy restaurants in Old Havana and Vedado.
El Patio, perfectly located at the gorgeous Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana, was spacious and yes, has a scenic, high-ceilinged patio complete with a jaded jazz quartet. Sadly, the huge government-run restaurant doesn’t live up to the decor and the stunning view. My companion’s ropa vieja tasted like cardboard and my Cuban pork was dry and underseasoned.
I could see where part of the problem lies. These government-run restaurants are staffed with disgruntled people working for low salaries. A bored waitress shrugged when I asked about the chef. “What chefs? They’re just cooks.”
Address – Calle San Ignacio No. 54, Plaza de la Catedral, Old Havana. (+53)(7) 861-8504
The privately-run paladar Decameron’s $12.50 ropa vieja was also disappointing, despite the eatery’s high ratings and the much better quality of beef. This privately run restaurant in Vedado is really pricey.
Annoyingly, noramlly free accompaniments have to be ordered separately here. Plain rice was $1.50, black beans $2.50 and local beer cost double at $2.25. Plus there’s a 10% service charge so that my final bill for two courses with drinks came to $25.
No wonder there were only two other people there that night. The menu is quite limited but the place itself is pretty charming, cluttered with decorative clocks, and servers are attentive.
Tour guide Yuneisi brought me to trendy Café Laurent for lunch. Perched atop a four-storey building in Vedado, the breezy restaurant is part bar and part covered patio with a pretty view down the street to the Malecon, its big windows dressed in billowing white muslin curtains and crisp white tablecloths.
My pan-fried cod fillet was excellent, cooked perfectly while the tangy, light white wine sauce was subtly delicious. This was one of the four best meals I had in Cuba, and reflects the chef’s international experience.
I’d definitely recommend Café Laurent for its breezy, open ambience with a view, rare in Havana. and one of the best seafood menus. Check out its Facebook page for the menu and prices.
Address – Penthouse, 257 Calle M, La Habana 10400. Phone: (+53)(7) 831 2090 / 832 6890
Of all the paladares I visited, La California in Old Havana was the most crowded with tourists, especially in large groups, and the only one where I didn’t see a single Cuban diner. It’s billed as an Italian restaurant complete with an authentic, massive brick pizza oven and a packed menu of pasta and pizza.
The food here is pretty good I must say, compared to other restaurants. The heat had drained my appetite so I went for the seafood bouillabaisse starter, and got a generous canoe-sized serving. Loaded with enough shrimp, white fish, squid and scallops for a main course. This soup was made impeccably, with a rich, silky fumet base and just cooked, tender chunks of seafood. I definitely recommend this restaurant for that dish alone.
As an aside, I was glad I didn’t order the ropa vieja, based on the bite I swiped off my friend Jorgito’s platter. He raved over it, but I found unmemorable.
Address – Concordia 418 e/ Gervasio y Escobar, Centro Habana. Phone: (+53)(7) 866-9047
My Habanero friends add to this list what they each consider the best paladares in Havana.
Acela recommends Divino, near Castillo de Aberouf, ville Mantilla and Restaurante Waooh!, outside hotel Habana Libre.
Lcoal resident Jorge suggested three more restaurants I didnt have time to try: Doña Ferminia, El Palenque and Fresa y Chocolate.
Want to cook Cuban cuisine yourself? Click here