If you’ve ever had “Cuban food” somewhere in the states, you might think you know what dining in Cuba would be like. You know, Cuban sandwiches, fried plantains, heaping portions of meat all seasoned to spicy and smoky perfection? Having just returned from Cuba myself, I’m here to tell you the ugly truth about real Cuban food.
Like many other foodies, when I travel I’m just as excited to try out the local cuisine as I am to hit up the tourist hot spots. While a few sites had cautioned me about the quality of food and service in Cuba while I was researching restaurants, I brushed it off. I was certain that the majority of Cuban food would be an enjoyable part of my trip, blissfully unaware of what was ahead.
I learned a shocking amount in the short period of time I was in Cuba, not just about the food, but about an entirely different way of life. I’ve wondered where I could possibly begin to explain my experience, and decided the best way to express this adventure is to go through a few interesting meals I had in Cuba and the lessons I learned from each.
With that, here is my survival guide to dining in Cuba, as told by personal experience this past December:
Dinner Night 1: Gran Dragon
I had read that a lot of times non-Cuban food was actually better than the traditional Cuban food in Cuba, so we were willing to try out this Chinese-Italian fusion restaurant our first night in Havana. It was called “Gran Dragon”—no, not “Grand Dragon” with a “d”, but “Gran Dragon.” The name pretty must set the tone for the rest of our restaurant experience. The menu contained items titled “entirely fish,” “boiled meat,” and “fish is pizza."
While we were getting a kick out of the food names, when it came time to order our server acted pretty strange. My friend tried to order rice about five times, pointing to where it was offered on the menu, while our server simply said “no” and pointed to another, more expensive menu item until my friend went along with it.
When the food actually came, it was a pretty disappointing first meal. The fried bananas basically tasted like cardboard unless you loaded on a pound of salt like we did, and the rest of the food seemed to just be bland heaps of meat and rice.
Upon paying for our meal, we really questioned whether or not the quality of our food was worth the $10 price tag. We quickly paid and left, only realizing after that Gran Dragon added in about ten more dollars onto the bill for no reason. Knowing we got ripped off, I went to sleep feeling like the naive tourist I was...
Lesson #1: Watch out for ripoffs.
As we would come to find out, regardless of their profession, every Cuban citizen makes around $20 a month, so a lot of the locals look at rich tourists and don’t feel bad ripping them off. A tour guide or a hostel host can make more off a tourist in two days than they’d make through their salary in a year, so while the locals welcome tourists and are kind to them, most people are also looking to make a buck off you.
Lunch Day 3: Restaurante La Campana
By some stroke of luck, our taxi driver from the airport to our Airbnb essentially became our tour guide and was the most valuable resource we had in Cuba. Without any access to the internet or cell service, we largely relied on him to tell us what’s what in Cuba.
After telling him about our Gran Dragon experience, he vowed he wouldn’t let us get ripped off, and would show us all the restaurants with good deals. That’s how we found ourselves at Restaurante La Campana, somewhere between Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
When we first sat down and got the menus, to our dismay, the prices were still ten to fifteen dollars for what looked like a slab of meat and rice. Our guide looked through the menu, confused. He had just been here recently, and the prices were a lot higher than he remembered. After a heated conversation with the waiter in Spanish, the server brought out a new menu, with prices less than half of that of first menu.
While a step up from Gran Dragon, the food itself was still extremely bland by American standards. “Traditional” Cuban food seems to just be large amounts of meat with some kind of rice, and occasionally beans as well, none of which is seasoned in any way. As a vegetarian, this pretty much restricted me to a rice-only diet whilst in Cuba. However, fried bananas and roasted bananas tasted like potato chips and french fries respectively if we loaded on enough salt, so I fueled up on those.
Lesson #2: Get the real menu.
Going along with the first lesson we learned, many restaurant owners will try to scam tourists by giving them a more expensive menu, while the locals enjoy the real menu with incredibly low prices.
Dinner Night 3: Granola Bars
Here’s the thing: my group didn’t necessarily plan extensively for this trip. Since we didn't have access to banks, we couldn’t withdraw any money while in Cuba, and most American credit cards don't work there. That meant we had to bring all cash. We figured $400 would be more than enough, not really factoring in all the activities we would want to do and transportation costs.
We quickly realized we would barely have enough money to fit in all our activities. Especially after getting ripped off the first night at dinner, we started to panic about having enough money to eat. While we could get the “real menu” while with our guide, none of us knew enough Spanish to negotiate something like that on our own.
And, yes, that is how we ended up eating one granola bar each (that we had brought from home and rationed out) for dinner to conserve funds. How Cuban, I know.
Lesson #3: Bring way more money than you think you need.
The exchange rate is pretty terrible, and if you want to do a lot of day trips out into the country or the beach, there will be considerable transportation costs. On top of that, locals will be overcharging you at every turn, so bring a LOT more money than you might think you need.
Lunch Day 4: Valle De Vinales Paladar
After a long morning of riding horses through Valle de Vinales, we were starving come lunch time. We decided to go to one of the many paladares around the valley, or restaurants run out of people’s homes. Our guide went in before us to ask about the prices before the owners could see we were a bunch of tourists, so by the time we came in we were getting a pretty good bang for our buck.
At this point, we had low expectations for the food. Once again, we were served some sort of meat or fish with rice, and once again it all was fairly flavorless. A surprising highlight was the pineapple rice, which tasted strangely similar to Kraft mac n' cheese. We didn’t figure out until the meal was done that our guide had been offered commission.
We had heard our guide talk about “commission” a lot throughout the trip. Basically, people had networks to help bring in business from tourists. If one person refers their tourists to their buddy’s business, then the person who referred them gets a cut of the profit. For example, our Airbnb hosts referred us to the man we paid to lead us around on horses through the valley, so our hosts got a cut of the profits.
This will often happen with guides in restaurants too. If a guide doesn’t reject the more expensive menu for their tourists in a restaurant, the waiters will often slip the guide a cut of what the waiter made ripping off the tourists. Luckily, our guide rejected this and understood we were on a tight budget needing cheap food. However, it’d be easy to miss if you weren’t aware of secret menus and commissions.
Lesson #4: Beware of commission.
Make sure the people who act like they are helping you aren’t actually ripping you off and getting a cut of the money. You may think you have found a hidden gem, but be cautious that you aren't being played.
While all this may sound negative, it just comes with the territory of being a vulnerable outsider in a foreign country. Cuba wasn’t all getting ripped off, in fact a lot of people were shockingly kind and helpful. Despite the lackluster food, the mojitos and pina coladas were top notch, and we all know that is really what counts at the end of the day.
Cuba is a beautiful country with a fascinating history and lively citizens, so don’t let any of this discourage future travel plans. When all was said and done, our best meal was actually at an Italian place in Chinatown, so you can definitely find some hidden gems if you're open-minded.
My final piece of advice: be sure to keep these lessons in mind as you begin to explore this fantastic country. Good luck, and be sure to order a drink with any of that meat and rice.