Growing up in Miami in a huge, very loud, Cuban family, I’ve been surrounded by Cuban cuisine my entire life. I became conditioned to think that it was abnormal for people to not be able to look at a menu in a Cuban restaurant and understand everything. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I realized how foreign it all was to most of my non-Miami, non-spanish speaking friends. I found myself translating every little thing on the menu for them, so I figured it was time to make this all a little bit easier for everyone.
For all the Gringos (if you don’t know what one is, you are one), here’s a listed guide to understanding that gibberish you’re reading on the menu. You may sit there and think…
But, when it comes to food, nothing should stop you from getting what you deserve. Language is but a barrier for the weak, and that’s not you – you’re better than that.
Feast your eyes on some of the staples of Cuban cuisine. You’ll thank me later.
1. “Arroz y frijoles”
Black beans and rice is like peanut butter and jelly. Can the two be separated? Sure. Should they? No. Why mess with perfection? It’s the ultimate side dish. If you’re looking for some of the best rice and beans, check out Havana 1957, or make your own. It’s quick, easy, and satisfying.
2. “Bistec de palomilla”
Meat lovers, feast your eyes. Not only is Cuban steak, bistec, delicious but no matter where you go, you’ll get a piece of steak that’s larger than your torso. I swear Havana Harry’s bistec is half my body length.
This. Right here. Is my. Jam. All. The Cubans. They want it. Jam. OKAY, but seriously… picadillo is a Cuban’s version of what you’d like to call “ground beef.” No, you don’t put this in a taco, you pair it up with the staple side dish of rice and beans. My Abuela’s is hands down the best picadillo, but if you’re looking to compete with her, try this picadillo recipe.
4. “Pollo/Bistec Empanizado”
This has got to be one of my personal favorites. Make it yourself — pick your meat, steak or chicken, give it an egg wash, dip it in breading, coat the entire piece, and fry. What you’re left with is a piece of meat nicely enveloped by breading. Just like the palomilla, restaurants serve these generously, so prepare yourself.
Ever been turned on by mashed up meat that’s breaded and flash fried? If your answer’s no, you’re doing it wrong. Try one of Versailles’ croquetas and your taste buds will thank you, I promise.
6. “Ropa Vieja”
Ropa vieja is a Cuban staple. For all you Gringo’s out there you’re probably google translating this, questioning why it directly translates to “old clothes.” How does this name correlate to it’s savory taste? It doesn’t. Do we care? No. This shredded beef is one for the books. Try this recipe for Cuban Ropa Vieja and pair it with some rice and beans for optimal feasting.
7. “Tostones” or “Tostones Rellenos”
You know the green bananas you shy away from in the grocery? Well, those green bananas, aka plantains, are great when they are smashed down, fried, and salted, giving you tostones. Here’s a recipe — they’re great for snacking and pair amazingly with a mojo sauce, but if you’re looking for more of an appetizer feel, go for tostones rellenos. They’re typically topped with shrimp or the meat of your liking.
Us Cubans have some of the biggest cravings for sugar. Pastelitos are beyond sweet. They’re flaky pastries filled with guava that will tickle your fancy. If you’re looking to try one of these amazing desserts, go to Gilbert’s Bakery.
9. “Arroz con leche”
It directly translates to “rice with milk,” which may be extremely misleading, but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t extremely sexually attracted to this. I mean, look at it. If you’re hispanic, you know this is one of the absolute best things to see in your fridge. The consistency of the rice with the milky, creamy goodness topped with loads of cinnamon is just a recipe for perfection. If you want to try your hand at it, you can cook up some of your own.