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Dining a la Cuba

Dining a la Cuba When in Havana, Eat What the Cubans Eat—But Keep it Simple. Here are Some of the City's Best Eateries
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

Havana is certainly not a place to go for a gourmet getaway, but you can eat surprisingly well if you know where to go and what to order. Despite major obstacles in obtaining fresh ingredients and in finding competent staff, a few restaurants in the city are able to create simple and satisfying cuisine, from sweet grilled lobster to succulent roasted chicken and pork. And nowadays, some of the small, family-run eateries known as paladares cook up as good or better food than most formal restaurants on the island.

The rule for gastronomic survival in Havana is always to order the least sophisticated dishes on the menu. Chicken and lobster are usually sure bets, although during my last trip to Cuba I was served a sautéed chicken breast that resembled my dining companion's tennis shoe and a grilled lobster that was as dry as Parmesan cheese. However, such experiences are usually the exception if you visit the best establishments, such as those recommended in this article.

You can eat just about any type of cuisine you like in Havana, from Cuban, or criollo, food, such as roasted pork with black beans and rice, to Chinese, complete with freshly made wontons and shark fin soup. Generally speaking, criollo is the best choice, since it's what the Cubans eat and the ingredients are readily available. Every Cuban working in a restaurant knows how to roast pork and chicken or prepare black beans and rice.

The biggest minefield in dining in Havana are restaurants that serve "international cuisine." Most have neither the ingredients nor the know-how to properly prepare such food. Eating in one of these restaurants is like traveling back to the 1950s. It's all there, from canned vegetables to Jell-O. I have even seen Spam served in one restaurant. A typical dish in these places would be something like Norwegian salmon in a canned mushroom cream sauce with frozen carrots. Who really needs this in Havana?

Strangely, the arm of Cuba's government even extends to the recipes in Havana's restaurants. Chefs are given written instructions on how to prepare each dish on a menu; in many places, it seems as though they haven't had any new recipes since the revolution.

"I can't lighten or change any of the dishes in my restaurant because the government prescribes exactly how they should be prepared," says a chef in one Havana restaurant. On the wall of his kitchen hang a few dozen photographs showing exactly how the dishes on his menu should appear when they arrived at the table. "Besides, the ministry wants us to maintain specific dishes from the 1950s which were always served here," he adds. "They don't want anything changed."

Two types of restaurants exist in Cuba. One is the government-run establishments that cater primarily to foreigners who pay in U.S. dollars [European and other visitors pay in U.S. dollars?--bg] or with non-U.S. credit cards. (Due to the embargo, credit cards drawn on U.S. banks cannot be used in Cuba.) These restaurants are the places listed in most guide books and found in hotels. Hotel staffs are instructed not to recommend anything other than the government's restaurants. Most are overpriced with poor service and mediocre food.

The other type of restaurants are the paladares, the family-operated places that feed locals and visitors alike who pay in cash, either in dollars [again, what about Europeans, etc.?--bg] or in Cuban pesos. Usually about one-third or one-half the price of government places, these private restaurants began springing up about four years ago. Their name comes from a Brazilian soap opera, "Vale Todo," which featured a poor woman who soon gained her fortune after starting a small roadside restaurant--El Paladar de Raquel. The government limits the number of seats in paladores (up to 12) and prohibits lobster and steak from their menus. In spite of the restrictions, the best paladores offer a welcome change from the predictable fare of the government-run restaurants.

"There's a longtime tradition of small, family-run restaurants in Cuba," says Fernando Fernandez, a wine salesman in Havana. "Before the revolution, my father had a small restaurant in Old Havana. This is the reestablishment of a tradition. The most interesting food in Havana is now in paladares."

Unfortunately, because so many paladares have opened recently, it's become difficult to monitor their sanitary standards. I have been to some where you are literally eating in someone's living room with granny and mother cooking and serving. A quick look in the kitchen normally gives you an idea about the quality of the food. I have seen some kitchens so filthy that they turned my stomach. Stories abound of tourists spending their holiday in their room after eating at a paladar recommended by a taxi driver.

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