The best local food is found elsewhere in the country, so it’s time to debunk the common misconceptions surrounding Cuba’s food scene.
These days, there are some excellent locally-owned and operated restaurants (paladares) serving Cuban and international fare. Cuban people have only been allowed to legally own and run their own restaurants since 2011, but they’re already popping up everywhere.
Do your part to help put your tourist dollars in the pockets of the local people and eat at “paladares” as often as you can, rather than state-run establishments. Eating at your casa particular will also help the local people.
Fresh fish and seafood are the stars of most menus in Cuba, and given that it’s is a Caribbean island, this is no surprise.
A few stand-out Cuban dishes are the ropa vieja (stewed and shredded beef with tomato sauce and spices), paella (the Cuban version of the Spanish dish - can be found in a clay pot), lechon asado (spit roasted pig) and enchilado (a fish dish cooked in wine and spicy tomato sauce).
Havana has some affordable hot-spots, with Paladar Dona Eutimia being a standout. It’s located at Callejon del Chorro # 60-C, Plaza de la Catedral in Habana Vieja.
This is the best spot to try enchilado and ropa vieja. At this restaurant, not only do you get a delicious meal, but there’s typically live music as well. The ropa vieja here costs $8 and includes fried plantain, rice, beans and salad.
Feeling like some Italian food? The city of Camagüey has a great little restaurant (La Isabella) that dishes out lasagne, spaghetti and pizzas, for around US $2.50 a pop.
In Viñales, don’t miss the spaghetti bolognese at El Olivo Restaurant, for $4.
Trinidad’s Taberna La Botija offers excellent tapas and drinks. The setting is unique with wooden benches and tables, and interesting decor on the walls.
They’re open 24 hours, with happy hour running from 4:00pm - 6:00pm. During those two hours, cocktails and tapas are 25% off. There’s also a live band here. Expect to pay $1.20 - $3.50 / tapas.
Generally, if you’re in a busy plaza or square in Cuba, menu prices will be quite high, while the quality might be lacking.
Head away from the touristy spots to see what local gems you can find. Also, make sure to check with your casa particular about the best local restaurants in the city you’re visiting.
Quite often though, the best food is right under your nose...
For a glimpse into authentic, homemade Cuban dishes, make sure to eat at a casa particular (a Cuban homestay). This is where you’ll see Cuba’s flavors really shine!
Many Cubans are excellent cooks, but haven’t had the chance to open up a restaurant due to past restrictions from the Government and/or money constraints.
For a mere $5 - $10, you can have an incredible spread of food.
Typically, breakfast is included in the cost of a night’s stay at a casa. Expect fresh fruit juice (guava, mango, etc.), eggs of your choice, soft bread, homemade jam and slices of tropical fruit. Plus, strong Cuban coffee!
For dinner, you’ll need to notify your casa in advance so they have time to purchase all of the fresh ingredients.
Each casa is different, but in general, dinners consist of a protein - seafood (even lobster!), while stewed chicken and grilled pork tend to make an appearance as well.
As side dishes, you’ll find well-seasoned black beans with cilantro, white rice, delicious baked yuca with butter and garlic, fried or grilled plantains, and a green salad.
The portions are huge, the ingredients are fresh, and the food is made with love.
First of all, you’re probably wondering: “What is peso food in Cuba?”.
We explain the unique monetary system in depth here, but basically there are two kinds of currency - the CUC and the CUP.
When talking about peso food, it’s referring to meals that are available from little shops around the country, which accept CUP (the National currency). 1 CUP = $0.04 USD.
These foods are unbelievably affordable and if you’re a traveler on an extremely tight budget, you could easily get by on a $3 a day food budget, while still treating yourself to three round meals a day.
That’s right… peso food is often a buck a plate (sometimes less).
Some foods that you can purchase with CUP include: fresh fruit juice ($0.04 - $0.08US), egg & cheese sandwich ($0.36US), sugarcane juice ($0.04US), pork & rice meal ($1.50US), pizzas ($0.24 - $1.20US), ice cream cone ($0.04US), coffee ($0.04US), beer ($0.50US) and fruit & vegetables from the market.
It’s fair to say that food costs vary greatly in Cuba.
If you eat strictly peso food, you can get by on about $0.50 to $1.50 per meal. If you go to nicer, sit down restaurants; you’ll end up paying around $8 - $15 per meal.
At casa particulars, you’ll usually pay $8 - $10 per meal and in my experience; this is the freshest and best home cooking in Cuba.
When planning a trip to Cuba, your friends and family will most likely tell you all about Cuba’s “horrible” food. And while it’s true that Cuba’s cuisine isn’t as internationally known or recognized as, say, Mexico, India or Italy, it’s actually quite tasty, cheap, and much more diverse than people think.
I was both surprised and delighted by the cuisine in Cuba, and if you eat at your casa particular, and check out the restaurants I listed above, you will be too.
These Cuban Spanish phrases will help you make your way around, and get what you asked for – with no hidden surprises.
From spontaneous street parties to unique Cuban nightlife entertainment, and whether you’re a cocktail, mojito or rum drinker, get ready to party it up in Cuba.