Unlike many of it’s Caribbean neighbours, Cuba doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation for having amazing food that is easy to find. That’s likely due to the fact that most tourists and travellers tend to eat in big hotels and resorts, or in “backpacker” style pubs and cafes that serve the ubiquitous spaghetti, pizza, or hamburger. Cubans also have to deal with strict governmental controls on certain items like beef, shellfish, and eggs. Combine all of that with the fact that the average Cuban tends to cook and eat at home instead of eating in restaurants, and there you have the traveler’s dilemma. There’s excellent food to be had in Cuba, so where is it?
Worry not, hungry travellers. You can find an abundance of delicious home-cooked meals at Casa Particulars, fresh seafood at beachside fish shacks, and amazing Cuban food at privately run restaurants.
With all the freshly prepared local ingredients you can find throughout the country – even as a traveller – you’ll discover that the most wonderful thing about the delicious Cuban food you will find is how simple it is. If you follow some of the advice below, you’ll definitely find some excellent, authentically Cuban treats.
This list is in some particular order. It was hard to decide which of these delectable dishes was the absolute best, so indulge us as we guide you through our Top Ten Cuban Eats during our most recent trip to this island paradise.
1. Fried Spare Ribs at La Vitrola – Plaza Vieja, Havana
A standard of most North American pubs, the fried spare ribs served in this Havana bistro were some of the best we’ve ever experienced, and were a great surprise. Juicy, meaty, and not too greasy at all, the simple dish cost about $4 CUC, largely due to the atmosphere of the busy plaza the cafe corners. We fed ourselves very well from just the “Bar Snacks” menu at La Vitrola, and our wallets were as happy as our stomachs. Highly recommended!
2. BBQ Chicken and Congri, Hostal D’Cordero, Santa Clara
One benefit to staying at a Casa Particular instead of a big chain hotel while in Cuba is that the hosts will often cook breakfast and dinner for their guests. It’s a great opportunity to try some home cooking, because the owners of the establishment usually host guests right in their home, and serve meals at just one or two tables. This Top 10 worthy dish, served in a delightful Casa Particular called Hostal D’ Cordero in Santa Clara, makes our list due in most part to perfectly balanced combination of black beans, rice, garlic, and spices – congri (arroz congris). It’s hardly a new amalgamation for Cuban cuisine, which can at times be dominated by starches and fried meats, but this particular meal was created in the hands of a skillful cook who had made this dish many times, and likely had it made for them when they were growing up. The balance of flavours was perfect, and tasted like it had been carefully watched as it slow cooked all afternoon. Home cooking at it’s finest. It’s not hard to find beans, rice, and chicken in this part of the world, but this dish was simply one of the best we ever had.
3. Seafood Platter at Hostal D’Cordero, Santa Clara
A delightful surprise that only a stay at Orlando’s can deliver. Cooked by his wife, in the kitchen of their outstanding Casa Particular, this simple seafood platter with lobster, shrimp, and fish bathed in a tomato and pepper based sauce was fragrant and delicious. There is a seafood platter on the menu of seemingly every restaurant in Cuba, but the quality varies depending on who’s cooking and what the local abundant crop is. Many platters like this come smothered in cheese & mayo, or the seafood itself gets drowned under layers of garlic sauce. This platter was simple, fresh, and let the seafood shine. The platter easily feeds two, and tied for first on our best eats list (full dish) in Santa Clara, neck and neck with the chicken and congris in our previous entry.
4. Roast Leg of Lamb at Los Nardos, Havana
Los Nardos is affordable, delicious, and serves such huge portions you will most definitely be leaving with a doggy bag, especially if you order and entree with sides. Not realizing what “big portions” really means, we ordered a full entree each – and out came more food than we could possibly finish. The roast leg of lamb with wine and rosemary was tender, flavourful, and piled so high on each of our plates that we ended up having roast lamb sandwiches for lunch the next day… and we still had some leftover. We returned to Los Nardos on our way back through Havana 2 weeks later, each tried something different from the menu, and were once again stuffed beyond expectation. If you’re on a budget and looking for delicious food after a great walk through town, visit Los Nardos – just uh, ask to be seated away from the very enthusiastic piano player if you want to have a conversation at your table. Look for the lineup outside – this upstairs establishment does not take reservations!
5. Full Breakfast at Hotel Velasco, Matanzas
Only the first course is pictured here – we were in breakfast heaven so quickly that by the time our eggs and bacon arrived we had dropped our cameras and started stuffing our faces.
Breakfast for most Cubans consists of 2-3 things: Fruit, bread, and maybe a coffee. If you’ve been travelling for a while and you want some bacon and eggs to follow up your usual breakfast fruit plate, accompanied by one of the best coffees you can find in Matanzas, get yourself the full breakfast at the Hotel Velasco. You’ll start with the standard fruit plate (pictured), then get a plate of toast, bacon, eggs, ham, and cheese next. A frothy coffee arrives to your table after you’ve finished your fresh juice. If you’re lucky, you might even get a bowl of yogurt to accompany all this amazingness. The breakfast at Hotel Velasco will keep you fed until dinnertime, and it’s only about 7 CUC.
6. Black Beans at Los Nardos, Havana
Cuban black beans are often made with green bell pepper, onion, a bit of vinegar, cumin, and a pinch of oregano. Many variations can be found, depending on whose Mama made it – tomatoes add acidity to help break down the beans into that sought-after creamy texture, garlic adds a nice flavour, and the peppers aren’t usually the hot kind, but they can be if that’s what you like. Several Cubans told us that they call the dish “Lazy Beans”, because you can put on a pot at low heat and continue to cook and eat from the same pot for 3 days and they just keep getting better. Some of the best black beans we had while in Cuba were served as a simple side dish at the legendary Los Nardos restaurant across from the Capital building in Havana. Not that you’d ever have room for side dishes when ordering from the Los Nardos menu, but if you do get a side there, we recommend the black beans.
7. Shrimp by the Sea (Playa Platter), Everywhere
You can find seafood platters at many places in Cuba, but we definitely recommend keeping your eyes open for beachside refreshment shacks frequented by locals looking for food & beer after a long day in the sun. You can enjoy some simply cooked seafood, straight out of the water you’re sitting by, doused with a bit of lemon and chased with a Bucanero beer. Our particular favourite platter also came with one of our favourite travel stories from this trip to Cuba, and that’s definitely something worth listing in our Top 10 Cuban Eats.
8. Hamburgers at the Hotel cafeteria, Santa Clara
To this day, we are not sure that it was beef or pork that made up our delicious Cuban-style hamburgers at this busy little cafeteria just off the main square in Santa Clara. Having just come off the morning bus from Trinidad and while our rooms were being prepared at our Casa Particular, we felt our stomach s rumbling for some lunch. Some locals recommended the little unnamed cafeteria just beside the main square, where we discovered every table was packed with people looking for some ice cream or a hot sandwich. This cafeteria was clearly popular, and when we finally jumped into the first available table, we placed our orders quickly for the Hamburguesa platter – chef’s specialty. We received a very slightly panini-pressed hamburger, juicy and inviting as it dripped with melted cheese, pickles, a slice of ham, and mustard. It was a classic Cuban sandwich, but with a salted pork(?) patty that finished off this amazing burger in such a unique way. Three cheers for this humble little 6 table cafeteria beside the big green hotel in Santa Clara!
9. Fresh Bread, Everywhere
“Paaaaaaan Calienteeeee!” is shouted from down the street. A happy-looking gentleman wheels a cart with a covered cardboard box on top. Inside, fresh, sweet, Cuban-style bread (pan) for just a few cents per loaf. When you hear “Paaaaaan calienteeeeeeeeee!” from down the street in Cuba, grab a few coins and run outside to get the best snack ever. You won’t even need butter.
10. Pork Skewers (“bruscetta”), La Factoria – Plaza Vieja, Havana
In oh so many parts of this big beautiful world, you really can’t go wrong with grilled meat on a stick, and you can bet that grilled meat on a stick makes it somewhere in to our Top 10 Cuban Eats. Cuba might not have the most vibrant street food culture, but if you’re willing to wile away the hot afternoon hours in some shady beer hall, surrounded by the sound of salsa music and people happily clinking glasses of Cristal (the local National beer in Havana), you can enjoy your grilled meats on sticks just like we did. This lovely little plate originally came with 4 skewers – we didn’t quite get to the picture fast enough! It was a perfect light snack for 4 of us while we drained a 3L “tower” of bubbly beer in the shade at La Factoria in popular Plaza Vieja. There was a sleepy puppy napping next to my feet. It was a great afternoon.