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Apr 21, 2009 10:10 AM

Report on Food in Cuba (non-resort)

Hi All,

I just returned from 2 weeks in Cuba, and I thought I'd offer my take on the food situation, as it's generally considered pretty dire and there's not too much info around the boards.

We traveled throughout the Western half of the country, staying in 5 different casa particulars (sort of like Bed & Breakfasts). If you are considering a non-resort based trip to Cuba, I would highly recommend this route. Not only do you get a chance to stay with Cubans and catch a glimpse of their lives, but you'll have the chance to eat consistently very good to excellent food. We ate breakfast every morning at our casas ($3cuc/person). Breakfast always included a heaping plate of fresh tropical fruits (mangos, bananas, watermelon, guava, oranges, papaya), fresh rolls, butter, honey, steamed milk, coffee, batido (fruit shake) or fresh-squeezed juice, eggs (fried or omlette), and sliced veggies (cucumbers, tomatoes, grated carrots). Occasionally we had some cheese and ham, too.

Our best dinners were also at the casas. Typically, we were served a soup to start (black bean, garbanzo, sausage and noodle), then a main (roasted chicken, pork, or fish) with rice, beans, vegetable "salad" (tomatoes, shredded cabbage, cukes, squash), fried potatoes or plantains, boiled potatoes, fresh bread, and batido, and finished with a plate of fruit. Dinners were between $6-$9/person, and always far more food than we could eat. At one casa, we requested only one full dinner and one with just vegetables, since it was so much food. All of the food was of very high quality and very well prepared.

Outside the casa, we found restaurants to be somewhat hit or miss. For example, at El Patio, a somewhat famous place on the idyllic Plaza de la Catedral in Habana Vieja, we found the ropa vieja (shredded beef) and ensalada la reina (with chickpeas, roasted red pepper, and prosciutto) to be excellent - really delicious, actually. But the shrimp in garlic was downright inedible. At a highly recommended paladar, the pork loin and side dishes were all great, but the chicken had an off taste. In addition to being inconsistent, these places were a lot pricier than the casa meals, so towards the end of our trip, we tried to eat our dinners in the casas.

For lunch and snacks, we found El Rapido (the fast food "chain") to be surprisingly decent! The hamburgers are made with more ham than beef, but come on a fresh, substantial bun, served with cheese, ketchup and mustard. Their bocaditos (ham, cheese, or ham and cheese, of course) were also good, heated up after you order them.

The real adventure was eating at peso (cup's, or national money) places. They're really cheap and have pretty decent, or at least interesting, food. We got 2 pizzas (single-serve 6" with a sweetish tomato sauce and monterey-jack-like cheese, folded and eaten like a taco) for less than $.50cuc. At another peso restaurant, we ate an entire meal of pollo ahumado (roasted chicken with ham), arroz congri (rice and black beans), tostones, the cabbage salad and 3 beers for $4cuc after a healthy tip. The $1cup (national money pesos) ice cream cones are also great, coming in mango, guava, or banana flavors. Yum! My advice is to just look for a line of Cubans and jump in it - certainly there will be some tasty treat in nm pesos when you finally get to order.

Overall, the food was better than I was expecting. It's not haute cuisine, but it was all fresh and well-prepared (well, aside from those restaurant items I mentioned) and suitable to the country. Oh, and in my 2 weeks, I only ate 3 ham and cheese sandwiches, which ain't that bad!

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  1. Great report - thanks for taking the time :)

    1. That was exactly our experience in Cuba. We also did mostly the western end of the island and stayed in casas throughout. The food was almost always fantastic and generous. And we had our best mojitos at casas as well - actually too good, really. The only really horrid meal we had during our two weeks was at a "proper" tourist hotel at Cayo Las Brujas where the food was inedible, skimpy (under the circumstances, it was a good thing) and, if you can believe it, they didn't have any mint for mojitos.

      We also had heard just awful things about Cuban food and found it to be the exact opposite. No, it's not haute cuisine but you can eat well for very little money. We had some great pork sandwiches on the street in Havana, and absolutely fantastic fruit everywhere we went.

      1. Thanks for this post! We have a trip to Cuba planned for December, and one major travel board (which shall remain unnamed) has only negative posts- but it appears that almost everyone posting there stays at resorts. I just *know* that the food can't be as bad as they say! You've reassured me that I can have my trip to Cuba and a chowhounding good time, too.

        7 Replies
        1. re: happybellynh

          Remember to bring your own ground pepper -these's none on the island!

          1. re: happybellynh

            You have to keep an open mind and enjoy the spirit of the food along with the food itself. I've never stayed at a resort myself, but I do have friends who have stayed at one of the more expensive ones and enjoyed the food there, so it may have something to do with the quality of the resort. But in private homes and on the street, it's a vibrant, outgoing, warm culture - we would go back and do the same kind of trip again in a hearbeat.

            1. re: Nyleve

              I am definitely looking forward to the "spirit of the food"- humble suits me just as well as fancy tiny towers of food at $30/ea (well, okay- it suits me much better). We're hoping to stay at local b&b's and to experience the peso street food- I'm looking forward to reporting back!

              1. re: happybellynh

                I am assuming you've already done your research, but just so you know - in Cuba, a private home accommodation is called a casa particular. The can provide all meals or not - your choice. We always chose to have breakfast and dinner at our casa, with lunch out somewhere. Our casa meals ranged from just good to pretty fantastic - this depends to a great part on local availability of ingredients. In one town, Vinales, our host was unable to get us lobster, so he had to get chicken which cost him more to buy. In another town near Playa Giron we were offered lobster or "cocodrillo" (crocodile!). The area has a large crocodile farm so we chose to have both! Your host will always offer you a choice of main dish for dinner first thing in the morning, which gives him/her time to go out and buy what is required. They don't keep a stockpile of anything in the house except, I would imagine, rice and black beans.

                Street peso pizza is a staple - and a decent lunch. And anything you buy at a roadside stand or from a street vendor will also be charged in Cuban pesos, not convertibles, so always a great deal.

                Have a fantastic trip.

                1. re: Nyleve

                  I'd like some info about the casa setup if you don't mind. It sounds interesting.
                  I've been to cuba once but to a resort and the food was so-so, sometimes they mix in some traditional with western/european style foods but I try to take advantage and sample the more ethnic foods.

                  Are the casa arrangements setup like a resort, so it's all inclusive or you buy your air tickets, pay for stay and food, and how about the beaches and swimming, is that something included?

                  Is this sort of an adventure trip or an actual package setup by the tourist industry?

                  I'm loving the whole concept and would go with it in a heartbreat, but I know if it's not kind of all inclusive and "arranged" SO would find it too stressful. Also I'm sure it would be easier if one spoke the language, which we don't :P

                  1. re: BamiaWruz

                    A casa particular is basically like a B+B, but with more options. You pay X amount for your room, then you can opt for breakfast, lunch, dinner or any combination of the above. We always took breakfast and dinner with our accommodation - breakfasts were wonderful and full of fresh fruit, eggs, juice, coffee (bad), bread (cottony). This generally cost about 3 Cuban dollars (the convertible kind which tourists are supposed to use - equivalent to about the same in Canadian dollars). For dinner we would be given a choice of main dish - fish, chicken, pork, lobster, shrimp, alligator (depending on where we were in Cuba). Each home prepared the dishes a little differently. One time we had lobster prepared two different ways - in "salsa" and "a la plancha". Both dishes were delicious and a ridiculous bargain for the price. The side dishes were always pretty similar - a salad of tomatoes, avocadoes, etc., white rice and black beans, fried plantains or yucca, occasionally something else also. And for dessert there was always good fruit. The meals were more than plentiful. Dinner usually cost between 8 and 10 convertibles. We loved the meals - they were not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but filling and quite typical of the way a Cuban family might eat if money and supply were no object. I suspect, however, that most families eat far more frugally - chicken is especially expensive there because, we were told, they lost the technology for chicken and dairy production when the Soviets moved out.

                    Is it an adventure? Absolutely. Every casa we stayed in was different - some had better accommodation, some had better food. But it is an opportunity to meet Cubans in their own homes and get some sense of the cuisine and way of life. The occasional casa owner was willing to talk about things beyond how they prepare the chicken, which was also quite interesting. We remember every single place we stayed - the food, the people leaves you a real impression. I could never go back and stay at an all-inclusive.

                    For a fairly thorough explanation of the way the casa system works and lists of recommended ones, you can pick up a copy of any good guidebook for independent travellers - Lonely Planet or Rough Guide are both good.

                    1. re: Nyleve

                      Nyleve, thank you!! This sounds so wonderful. I'd definitely like to do something like this but not too sure about my SO. Maybe we'll compromise someday :P

                      Your tips are all great, thanks for the holguin suggestions too.

          2. I cannot wait to get there one day. Loved this report.

            1 Reply
            1. re: mrwynter

              What an awesome posting! We are off for three weeks in November and while we are booked in to two hotels our primary time is in a CP in Havana. Postings on Casa de Ana indicate the qualit of food is excellent.
              Dean in Canada

            2. Wow! I guess we must have missed something.
              We just got back and Cuba has the BLANDEST food I have ever eaten!! Let me preface this by saying, I in NO WAY expected gourmet meals. I was expecting, and looking forward to, rice and beans, a media noche, platanos, yuca, maybe some lechon....and I did get all of those things.
              The problem was, they were not very good.
              None of it.
              We went upscale and downscale (way down). We tried the paladars (casa dining) and the cafeterias.
              I had some "okay" food, but nothing that I thought was really good. One of the best meals we had was in the airport.
              That is just sad.
              On the upside, there is a great history there and there are beautiful beaches, buildings and areas of Cuba that are just stunning. I also did not have one bad cocktail while there.
              We wanted to go before it opened up and the U.S. influences the culture there. We wanted to experience Cuba before there is a Starbucks or McDonalds on every corner. I have never said this about any country we have ever visited - I embrace every country and it's unique culture- but Cuba is in serious need of some golden arches!!!!

              2 Replies
              1. re: ccmurieta

                the reason the food is bland is becouse spices are at a premium...they do the best with what they have.. US GOVERNMENT POLICY doesn't help this situation.......PLEASE NO GOLDEN ARCHES ALLOWED

                1. re: o.lynne

                  I'm going to Cuba in April and staying at casas. I have a car rented. Can anyone specifically recommend the casas they stayed at? I have no fixed itinerary, except arrival and departure dates in Havana and a wedding in Veradero. I have booked casas in Havana and Matanzas, but am looking for recommendations elsewhere. Good food in the casas is a plus.