Cuba is a destination that ruffles feathers. It’s no exaggeration to say that its political, economic, and social structures are one of a kind. Cuba is the ultimate forbidden fruit for American travelers — travel from America to Cuba has been restricted for more than six decades, and the restrictions were only partially lifted in 2014. Yet for Canadian and European travelers, Cuba couldn’t be more accessible. Beautiful beaches and bargain-basement resort prices attract throngs of tourists every winter — tourists who are eager to “see” Cuba without actually seeing it. As a result, Cuba has developed a reputation for being an unremarkable foodie destination.
That reputation couldn’t be less deserved. Cuba is home to a remarkable food scene that’s all its own — a food scene born of stark necessity and international influence that turns out some mighty fine treats. Try as they might, Cuban commercial resorts operating in a restricted country simply can’t compete with their counterparts elsewhere when it comes to creating the luxurious, Western-style menus that North American tourists crave. And nor should they. The country has more than a few great street eats to offer to tourists who are eager to move beyond the veil of the resort for a more community-focused travel experience. These items in particular are perfect for sharing with travel companions and new friends alike.
Sharing a cup of coffee with an old friend or a new acquaintance isn’t exactly a novel experience. But in Cuba, where new acquaintances very quickly become old friends, coffee is so much more than a simple beverage. It is a part of daily life. There’s seemingly no one who doesn’t drink it, and in Cuba, the preparation is just as important as the drinking.
For starters, the milk added to a classic café con leche is always heated and never cold. In a café Cubano, the sweetness comes from a special paste of espresso and sugar — never just plain sugar added after the fact. And if you’re really dedicated to the ritual of coffee, you’ll cement your new friendship by dipping thickly buttered toast into your coffee before munching away at your breakfast.
Need a pick-me-up while you’re out exploring? Keep an eye out for bicycle vendors or tiny shops — they will be happy to sell you some 50/50, a super sweet mix of sugary coffee that is guaranteed to help you wake up.
Where To Get It
Café El Escorial gets rave reviews. But who can stop at just one cup? If you have some free time in Havana, this list of the city’s best coffeehouses will be your best friend.
When most people think of churros, European churros come to mind, especially the thick, rich dipping chocolate that accompanies churros in Barcelona and Madrid. But when a Canadian catches a whiff of a Cuban churro, they’re going to be thinking of Ottawa or Montreal! That’s because the Cuban churro — always served with heaps of sugar and cinnamon, and rarely with chocolate — is similar to the Canadian BeaverTail. A BeaverTail is a large, flat, deep-fried pastry coated in cinnamon and sugar (if you’re particularly imaginative, you’ll see that it resembles the shape of a beaver’s tail). The combination of crispy, chewy dough and warm, flavorful cinnamon makes the streets of Havana smell heavenly — and not unlike the skating canals of Ottawa. American travelers will love the sweet, cinnamony combination just as much. Don’t hesitate to order a double serving.
Where To Get It
Anywhere you smell cinnamon and fried dough! Many cart vendors operate on the side streets around Plaza Vieja.
The churro isn’t the only Cuban snack that features that wonderful combination of crunchy and chewy. Delicious maduros (fried plantains) might seem healthy — after all, they’ve been fried only once, not twice like the less ripe tostones. But don’t let that deceive you. Maduros are equally at home with sweet and savory fare. You’ll find them topping ice cream with a hearty dose of butter sauce (just as good as you’d imagine!) or on brunch platters with ham and eggs. And they’re the ideal side dish for sharing, whether they’re simply tossed with salt and pepper, or caramelized with sugar. You won’t be able to get enough!
Where To Get It
Maduros make an appearance on the menu at Hecho en Casa, but you’ll see them all around town, both at restaurants and in street carts.
Hawaiian Pizza And Coconut Pie
If you prefer savory food with just a hint of sweetness, you’ll want to snap up a few pizza Hawaiana, individual Hawaiian pizzas made thin and sturdy so that they can be folded in half and eaten like tacos. Some might debate the merits of pineapple on pizza, but the good souls of Cuba know that it absolutely belongs! Larger savory pizzas designed for sharing are harder to come by — you’ll usually only see those pizzas in personal sizes. However, there’s a different kind of pie that is good for sharing — but it isn’t a pizza pie! Rather, it’s the sweet dessert known as pie de coco, a pie-crust pastry laden with shredded coconut. The servings are small, but this dessert is so sweet that a little bit will go a long way.
Where To Get It
You can get Hawaiian pizza (or other varieties of pizza, if pineapple isn’t your thing) at the hugely popular Hector’s Pizza (now called Celina’s Pizza). Pie de coco is available at any bicycle cart or coffee kiosk.
The thin cardboard box that characterizes a classic Havana cajita (a word that refers to both the takeout box and its contents) isn’t going to win any points for sturdiness or neatness, but it can certainly fill a person up with tasty food! The traditional formula is a scoop of rice and beans topped with fried or breaded meat, but each vendor puts their own unique twist on it. A small portion of cucumber or tomato salad is common, along with yuca, onions, or herbs. The meat is often marinated for extra flavor, and there’s sometimes a tangy dressing on top. And you can get all that for just a dollar or two!
Where To Get It
Everywhere! But if you’d like a place to start, head to the elegantly ramshackle La Guarida — but don’t go inside. Instead, swing by the Cafetería El Juany, just adjacent, to grab your cajita.
Honorable Mention: Rum
Can you count Cuba’s national drink as street food? Why not? A list of Havana’s best spots for rum would be an exhaustive one, but if you want to combine tasty eats with a proper drink, head to 304 O’Reilly. Yes, that is both its name and its address. The building is a private apartment and a bar, and the vibe swings between community hangout and relaxed speakeasy — the fun sometimes spills out onto the street! The drinks are creative and modern, the snacks and meals are great, and the bar is a fun place to see and be seen. Note that if you’re planning on dropping in a bit later on a Saturday night, reservations are a good idea.
Photo Credit: Javier Gonzalez Leyva / Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Stephan Schlachter / Shutterstock