If I have to use only one word to describe Cuban food, it’s “dry”. My theory why that’s the case: Cuba is extremely hot in summer. And not everywhere has AC. Sometimes, food before they are cooked are left in the room temperature for a while. For the food safety, most dishes tend to be overcooked to kill all the bacteria. This makes them really dry.
There is one restaurant that does a good job at cooking meat. And it is the only place where I had chicken that is not dry. The restaurant is called “La Pergola”. It is located on Obispo close to Villegas.
The owner is a nice guy who bought me two beers. He is a quarter Cuban, a quarter American, a quarter Italian and a quarter I forget. He lives in Tampa and came to Havana a couple years ago and opened this restaurant. He still flies back and forth between US and Cuba. Some people see Havana as an old and poor city to avoid, some see it as a touristy haven, some, however, see business opportunities here.
A popular dish in Cuba is called “Ropa Vieja”. The direct translation means old clothes. But it’s shredded meat. Usually, restaurants use beef meat. There are places where they use other meat, like lamb. Since the meat is shredded and soaked in sauce, this dish is usually good.
La Mina is a restaurant you won’t miss in Havana. It’s at Plaza de Armas. When you walk along Obispo towards Plaza de Armas, the restaurant is on your right hand side. They have a lot outside seating that overlooks the Plaza. It’s the best place for people watching. They of course have Ropa Vieja, which is not bad.
The restaurant also has inside seating but usually empty. The band is always playing, day and night, at outside area.
The best Ropa Vieja I had at Havana is from this restaurant called “Dona Eutimia”. They use lamb to make Ropa Vieja. The dish is a bit more expensive than other restaurants, but the portion is bigger and it comes with a lot sides. This is definitely a great deal with great taste. No wonder it’s one of the starred restaurants in Lonely Planet. The restaurant is at Plaza de la Catedral. It’s hidden in a side street at the south west corner of the plaza.
Besides the ropa vieja, their frozen mojito is also famous. I personally prefer normal mojito. But the Americans sitting at the other tables all loved it. Americans are louder than Europeans. So when they liked something, the whole restaurant heard it. After all, it is refreshing to have a frozen drink at the 90 degree hot summer Havana.
Two groups of Americans were sitting at the tables next to me. One big table has a party of eight and one small table has a party of five. Both groups hired local guides and drivers who are English native speakers. I guess those are the Cuban Americans who also see business opportunities here. It was interesting they both talked loud at first. But when one table started to talk about politics and complain about the current government, the other table went silent. It was awkward. Maybe better not to talk politics during vacation.
This restaurant is extremely popular. I actually went there three times before I could get a table. At the third time, I got there 5 mins before it opens at 12pm. So if you have a big group, definitely make a reservation. The restaurant is pretty small and gets packed very quickly.
Another of my favorite restaurants is NAO Bar. It is at the end of Obispo close to the harbor. It has a second floor but no deck. So I chose the outside seating. In lonely planet, this is marked as a seafood restaurant, but they don’t really have a lot of seafood dishes. Maybe my lonely planet is an older version and the restaurant has changed. A fish dish and a lobster dish, that’s all it has for seafood now.
I ordered lobster dish so I can compare it to Boston lobster. It is delicious. The meat is very tight. I am not sure if this is the texture of Caribbean lobster or it was a bit over cooked. They made the lobster a lobster steak. So you don’t need to use your hands and can still eat a whole lobster meat. I am very happy with the dish.
The outside seating is in a very narrow lane. It gets popular at night. Waiters had to keep moving tables and chairs from inside to the outside area. When a band plays at night, they stand very close to you. Enjoy a drink and the music, this is how I would like to spend a Havana night.
As a Chinese, I had to visit Chinatown.
The Chinatown in Havana doesn’t really have Chinese people. I only came across one Chinese guy sitting outside a restaurant. He waved me into the restaurant and said about ten words in Chinese to me. Havana Chinatown feels like a fake Chinatown. The restaurant is called “Tien Tan”.
Food was OK. I don’t think I would really recommend Chinese food in Cuba. Cuban food doesn’t have a lot vegetables. So if you crave vegetables, Chinese restaurant might be a place to go.
Be careful with the fish. The fish fillet has bones in it, just like the fish fillet in China!
Another interesting restaurant I want to mention because they put flags on your dishes! The restaurant is called “La Vitrola”. It’s at the south west corner of Plaza Vieja.
I made a friend on Day 3. I was sitting at Café Habana drinking my first Cuba Libre. This guy came in and ordered a lemonade in Spanish. Then he said something to me in English. As I responded, he started to talk to me. It turned out he’s from Virginia and was travelling alone too. We shared our experience in the last two days. Being able to speak Spanish, his life in Havana was much easier than mine. It was a pleasant talk, maybe because of the Cuba Libre, which the bartender told me is stronger than Mojito.
After the drink, he offered to help me get an internet card and would like to cancel his ride at 6pm so we can have dinner together. That is why I got an American flag on my fish steak. When the waiter asked us where we came from. I told China. This guy, his name is Joe, said a bunch Spanish to the waiter. Then, when the food arrived, we both had an American flag on our food. I guess they just don’t have Chinese flag? Or Joe somehow exposed to the waiter that I live in US now.
This restaurant is good with good prices. Joe ordered a burger (American misses burgers already on Day 3) which is only 4.5CUC. My fish steak (three fillet) is 7.5CUC. Their frozen lemonade was amazing. The restaurant was actually recommended by an American family that Joe and I came across on the street. Those people came from Texas and their son is a rising senior (in high school, not big four).
This is the only dinner Joe and I had together. We went to beach together the next day, but as I found out he’s allergic to cats, I didn’t really feel like travelling with him, who constantly reminded me of someone else…
I mentioned Café Habana. It is at the corner of Mercaderes and Amargura. It is an interesting corner that I visited often.
I tried my first Cuba Libre at Café Habana. The bartender is an old round guy. He’s very cute. He keeps drinking when he’s serving. His English is not good. But he tried his best to explain things to me.
He puts a lot Havana Club into drinks. He makes great Cuba Libre, strong though. He also let me tried a unique ingredient he puts in Mojito. It looks like vanilla extract but tastes a little bitter. Oh, they have a cool espresso machine.
I said this corner was interesting. There’s a bank around the corner. (By the way, the ATM at that bank can withdraw on Union Pay cards. That’s why I went there often.) A street artist who played to be a statue always stood outside the bank. He painted himself all black like metal. But you can still see he is quite handsome. He was leaning against the wall and smoking fake cigar with a fake radio on the floor next to him. He looked like a really cool statue. He drew a lot attention. People always stopped to take picture with him. He reminded me of Time Square in NYC. At the other side of the corner, there’s a Churros stand. This is the best Churros I ever had. They are just amazing.
If you are a fan of beer, you have to go to this restaurant at Plaza Vieja. It’s called Factoria Plaza Vieja.
They have those huge tubes that can hold 3000ml beers (six glasses). It has a tap at the bottom of the tube where you get your beer out of the tube. If you have a party of four or five or six, you should definitely order that. I came alone, so I only ordered one dark beer. I had the chicken skewer. They are dry like I said at the beginning. Not surprising.
This is another nice spot to spend the night. Sitting outside, you get a good view of Plaza Vieja. The music the band plays is good for salsa dance.
- Breakfast at Casa Particular
By now, you probably realized I haven’t mentioned any breakfast places. My host cooks breakfast for me. Most casa particular hosts do. They charge 4-5CUC a day. You get fruits, eggs, juice, coffee, bread and butter and jam. It is a pretty good deal.
I did go out for breakfast one day. This place claimed to have the best breakfast in town. It’s called Café Suiza located on Obispo. They have a 5.5CUC breakfast option, which includes bread, butter, jam, two eggs omelet and a juice or fruit. I ordered a three egg omelet with ham and a fruit smoothie. It’s 6.5CUC.
There are a lot street food in Havana. Some of them are extremely cheap. With the hot and humid weather, dirty environment and being there by myself, I didn’t adventure much street food. Maybe next time.
When I was at NAO, the family sitting at the table next to me who came from Louisiana told me they took a cruise here. The cruise departured from Tampa and it’s five days. They were staying in Havana for one night and spending two full days exploring Havana. If I will ever come back to Havana, I think cruise is a better option.