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Tuesday 29 March 2011

The London Foodie Goes to Cuba - Havana (Part I)

Having spent the first half of my life in South America, I reckoned I was prepared for whatever Cuba had to throw at me. During our two-week trip there, Cuba surprised me on many levels. It was not an easy holiday to plan (virtually no internet access meant it is hard to communicate electronically with locals) or a land to navigate, but despite our initial doubts, we are pleased to have found our way there.

I would be lying if I said I didn't go to Cuba partially for its tropical sun, abundant mojitos and fine Havana cigars. But having met many Cubans living in London, and heard some of their stories, the main purpose of our trip was to learn how Cubans live their lives in one of the last unreformed Communist countries in the world. We hired a car and planned to visit as many places as possible starting from Havana. We also decided to do home-stays (at Casas Particulares as they are known in Cuba) wherever possible, and eat in as many "Paladares" (thought to be the origin of supper clubs) as we could.


Of the many districts of the Cuban capital, we decided to stay at La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) because of its convenient central location and history. It is a district of contrasts - parts have been beautifully restored since the 1990s, but most streets are still dilapidated with grand colonial buildings long since fallen into disrepair, and hectic cobblestone streets lending a sense of wild disorder.

Arriving in Havana, we headed to our first Casa Particular run by Yamir Miró and his wife.  This was the simplest Casa during our stay in Cuba (CUC 30 or £20 per night, not including breakfast), but was also very well located off one of the most popular streets in the district (Obispo). The room was simply furnished but immaculately clean, and Yamir and his family were friendly and gave us many tips for the bars and restaurants in the area. I would recommend this Casa Particular to anyone visiting Havana and wanting to stay in a central location.

(Yamir Juantorena Miró, Obrapía, no. 401, apto. 2, Entre Aguacate y Compostela, Habana Vieja, Tel: 05 281-6962).

I had been warned that Cuba was not a gourmet destination, but no one prepared me for what I was to encounter. My first experiences of Cuban cuisine in Miami were very positive: the food I ate there, despite being simple, was wholesome and tasty. In Cuba however there is an almost total absence of good restaurants or appetising street food. Even the more upmarket eateries served pedestrian food which was poorly seasoned, often with defrosted meat or fish, and accompanied by tinned vegetables.

Templete was one such establishment. Opened by a Spanish immigrant, it is highly recommended by all guides, but the food was underwhelming at best and expensive (around £60 for two).

Dr G and I shared a platter of grilled fish and seafood @ £20, the saving grace of our meal being a lovely bottle of 2009 Spanish Verdejo by Protos. It was a young and refreshing wine with delicate honeyed citrus and apple fruit.

By far the best food we had in Havana was at the "Paladar La Cocina de Lilliam" (Calle 48, No 1311, entre 13 y 15, Playa Ciudad de la Habana). Located in an elegant house with lush gardens in a suburban district of the city, this supper club was one of the culinary highlights of our trip.

All the dishes we tried were excellent. The aubergines in Parmesan cheese dish was similar in concept to the Italian "Melanzane alla Parmigiana", but this version had the aubergines very thinly sliced, deep fried and covered in tomato sauce and cheese before being oven baked. 

Another delicious dish was the fried "Malanga" croquettes - Malanga is a native American yam or taro which is pounded and seasoned with garlic and other condiments, shaped into croquettes and deep fried. A perfect snack to go with some very cold beers.

The "Tamales en Cazuela", a deliciously thick cream of corn with thin slices of cured ham, was also excellent as was the "Ceviche". After all that food and four cocktails, our bill came to CUC 44 or £29, which I felt was reasonable for food of this quality.

Another supper club we visited was the "Paladar La Guarida" (Concordia #418 e/ Gervasio e Escobar, Centro Habana). One of the most popular paladares in Havana, it is located in the building where the 1990 film "Strawberry and Chocolate" was set.

The setting was elegant in a quirky way, while the food was good but unremarkable. Dr G went for "Grilled Snapper and Vegetables", while I opted for "Roast Chicken with Honey and Lemon Sauce".

I love cassava or "Yuca" as it is called in Cuba, so ordered a portion of "Yuca Frita" (cassava chips) and another of "Yuca con Mojo" (steamed cassava with oil and garlic).

We also ordered a side dish called "Moros y Cristianos" (mixed rice and black beans). These and "Malanga" are the most popular accompaniments to any meal in Cuban restaurants.

Despite the funky interiors and Cuban menu, I felt that this supper club was in fact a standard restaurant aimed primarily at foreign tourists, with an overpriced menu - Dr G and I spent about £45 for a very ordinary meal there.

A much better choice in my opinion and only a stone's throw from our Casa Particular in La Habana Vieja was a lively Cafe-Bar called "La Dichosa", (corner of Compostela y Obispo). As in most cafes in the area, La Dichosa had live bands performing Son Salsa (same style as Buena Vista Social Club) every evening, and the food also did not disappoint.

On our visit, Dr G and I went for "Grilled Lobster" served with rice and black beans, and salad which were reasonably priced. Mojitos and other cocktails were priced at £2 and national beers at £1 (Cristal - lighter and Bucanero - stronger).

Apart from searching for good food (unsuccessfully in the main), we did a few other things during our stay in Havana.  We visited the Museo del Ron Havana Club (Havana Club Rum Museum - tickets at £5). Tours are run in several languages including English and go through various rooms showing the process of rum-making starting from the sugar cane plantation right through to Cuba's national drink. The tour finishes in a gorgeous replica of a 1930s bar, where we were given a small glass of rum. Bar Havana Club is in the same building, and has live music and excellent Mojitos and other cocktails.

The Hotel Nacional is an interesting place to visit - supposedly one of the smartest hotels in the City, the hotel evokes the faded glamour of the 1930s, when it was built. It is the perfect place to relax whilst enjoying a Mojito or two in the gardens overlooking magnificent views of the sea.  It has a very good cigar shop, with extremely helpful and knowledgeable staff.

Not too far from the Hotel Nacional (between Calles 21 and 23 in Vedado District), Coppelia's flagship branch serves its famous ice creams to more than a thousand visitors a day, some queuing for more than an hour for the privilege.

Housed in a 1960s futuristic building, the park and ice cream parlour were part of the set for the 1990 Strawberry and Chocolate film. Foreigners have a separate area outside this intriguing building where they will pay the equivalent of about £3 for a couple of scoops of mass produced ice cream (roughly 20 times more than the locals!).

The Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas is one of Cuba's oldest and largest cigar factories, founded in 1845 and employing some 800 workers. Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Monte Cristo are some of the 12 fine "habanos" made at this factory. The rich, sweet smell of tobacco hits you as you walk through its entrance door. A guided tour costs £8, lasts 30 minutes, and was in my opinion one of the highlights of our trip to Havana. Unfortunately no photography is allowed.

Havana was an endearing but madly chaotic city, and not a particularly relaxing place to be.  Despite being very safe, the city is overcrowded, the streets are dusty and covered in potholes, and most buildings are crumbling away. Long queues are common at many of the shops selling basic products. While the Mojitos are cheap and abundant, and the cigars are the best in the world, the food was disappointing. After two and a half days there, Dr G and I were excited to make our way to our next stop, Viñales.

Part II of our Cuban adventure will follow soon. 


  1. Rushed over when I saw the title. Was at Cuba Libre along Upper Street (not sure whether you've been there as it's in your area) and was somewhat disappointed about the the Cuban tapas. Thought that it might have been done a little differently in Cuba itself.

    Did you have any other there?

  2. Ahhh, Cuban food. We spent 10 days there Christmas a year ago and about 90% of our culinary experiences were - as you very nicely put it - pedestrian.
    We had mojitos at Hotel Nacional too, together with the old cars you really feel like 60 years back in time. What an interesting country, but so run down. Can you imagine how I struggled when they lost my luggage and I had to buy clothes in Havana? This gave me a very hand on lesson in communism...

  3. GORGEOUS photos. Love the cars!!

  4. Your photos are gorgeous and take me instantly back to Cuba - sorry the paladare I recommended was not as good as I remember but good to see it still looks just as cool.

  5. This post took me back to when I visited Havana back in 2000 - like you we found the food...forgettable...but the drinks were great! Looking forward to Part II.

  6. There is only one thing better than shopping in Hong Kong, and that's eating. From small noodle joints to upscale French restaurant, you will locate all sorts of restaurant, eating hall and snack stall on earth in Hong Kong. Here I found small amount of Hong-Kong-styled snacks online (http://yummiexpress.freetzi.com/). This is definitely a good choice before I have $ for another trip.

  7. @ London Chow - if my experience of Cuban food in Cuba is anything to go by, I am not surprised you were disappointed with the tapas at Cuba Libre. Loved the Cuban food in Miami though.

    @ Ute - OMG, it sounds like a nightmare. On my first day I got a blister on my foot. Dr G and I spent the whole day trying to buy "plasters", as no pharmacy seemed to have them and then we discovered we had to go to special pharmacies for foreigners!

    @ Krista - thanks Krista, the cars were beautiful as was the grand but rather dilapidated architecture.

    @ Gourmet Chick - I thought the food at that particular paladar was actually ok, but it was the prices and service that I found slightly objectionable. Thank you for your wonderful advice for this trip, as you know I would not have made it without your help!

    @ LondonRob - Hey Rob I didn't know you had been to Cuba. It was a wonderful holiday but I would not return for the food. Great cigars and rum though!

    @ Bette - pls feel free to comment on my blog Bette, but please do not advertise here, I don't advertise on my blog. Thanks.

  8. Gosh, the food in Cuba looks really heavy-going and not that appetising... I find holidays really hard-going when the food isn't that great. But at least the surroundings look fascinating!

  9. I had the best adventure in Cuba and this post brought back some lovely memories. Although it looks like you were much luckier on the food front than I was! :)


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