Cuban cuisine: the good, the bad and the (very) ugly
Tasting some authentic Cuban food was at the top of my list during my trip there last May. My mission: 1) compare Cuban cuisine to Haitian cuisine and find similarities; 2) find out whether the rumours were true about food not being so great on the island.
While in Cuba, I’ve used both currencies. Foreign currencies are converted to Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Most attractions, stores, taxis and restaurants catering to tourists only accept this currency. The Cuban peso (CUP, or moneda nacional [national currency]) is the currency Cubans use on a daily basis. Some establishments post prices in both currencies. Rates at the time of my visit were 1.04 CAD = 1 CUC = 23 or 24 CUP. Cuba is probably the only place on Earth where the Canadian dollar has more value than the US dollar. (Go Canada!)
The real deal
The cheapest, and yet one of the best, meals I had in Cuba was in La Familiar, a local restaurant located in Plaza Del Cristo (across the street from the church). It's a hole in the wall, but it's clean and the people are nice. It’s close to major tourist attraction and yet my travel posse and I were the only tourists there both times we went. They accept both currencies. They also do takeout.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve probably read me raving about mamey—my new favorite beverage. That’s where I had it. (If you’ve missed this post, here it is!) Junior, our server on these 2 occasions, spoke English and was very helpful. Patrons helped us select from the menu. The overall atmosphere was friendly.
My $2-breakfast (that’s in Canadian dollars) was comprised of an egg sandwich, or tortilla, mamey and cafe con leche with cinnamon. Cinnamon in my coffee, how did I live without it all these years! To be noted, the leche in both the mamey and the coffee was powdered milk.
Dinner cost about 5 CUC. I had ropa vieja con arroz Morro (shredded pork with rice and black beans) with a salad, mamey and flan.
Catering to tourists
Paladares offer authentic food as well. But their clientele is made of tourists. The quality of the food is higher than that of local restaurants, and so are the prices. While it is too expensive for the average Cuban to afford certain meats and seafood, paladares propose a more elaborate menu, anything from chicken to lobster. I haven’t written down the name of the paladar we went to. (Bad habits die hard.)
Major hotels cater to tourists as well. The shrimp salad at the Hotel Inglaterra was OK. And OK is not a good rating considering the price we paid. Nothing too extravagant, but compared to the prices at La Familiar I was expecting more. I'd definitely go back there. It’s a great spot for people watching. The live band creates a very good ambiance, but they only play 3 to 4 songs at a time.
If touristy restaurants are more your thing, I’d recommend Kilometro Zero (on Ave Belgica, a couple blocks from La Floridita). The food was good. Try their mojito and/or their caipirinha. The service was fast; the wait staff was nice. At night, there’s a live band.
Land of the daiquiri
La Floridita is featured in the tourist guides for two reasons: Ernest Hemingway and daiquiris. It’s one of Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping grounds. The daiquiris are to die for. They are worth every penny of the 6 CUC you'll pay for them. At the risk of sounding like an annoying teenager…best daiquiris EVER!
I’m still kicking myself for not going to the Bodeguita del Medio for mojitos. Don’t be like me, go there.
All-inclusive…except decent food
The worst meals I had was in an all-inclusive resort in Varadero*—which also made them the most expensive ones. Saying that the food was bland is an understatement: it was simply horrible.
The dishes didn’t resemble anything that I had seen earlier on the island. While their buffet had more variety than what I had seen so far—there was chicken for lunch and dinner, at least 5 to 6 different fruits to choose from at all times, and I’m certain there was some sort of steak at some point—the food, including the fruits, was tasteless. I really don’t understand how one can manage to screw up chicken that badly.
Diluted alcoholic beverages were available all day and all night. The daiquiris they served were not worthy of the land where the drink was invented.
*I’ve opted not to name it. (But I’ll gladly share more information offline.)
The skinny on Cuban food
Overall the food was good—except on the resort (can’t say it enough!). It’s not as spicy as I would have thought, being in the Caribbean and all. I don’t particularly like hot peppers, but I found myself yearning for their “zing”. But you can certainly have a decent meal in Habana. My meals at the paladar and at La Familiar were the best. The dishes were simple and affordable. Note to future travelers: the more expensive meals are not necessarily the best.
I can’t help but wonder what impact the embargo has on their cuisine. Are spices scarce?
Their arroz Morro is basically our diri kole ak pwa nwa (rice with black beans) without all the flavours typical to Haitian cuisine. It’s a win for Haiti!