Do not come to Cuba for fine dining. While it's possible to minimize the pain, finding good food, service, and value is a challenge in Cuba. About 90% of restaurants that cater to tourists are run by large state-owned corporations, and as a whole, they are often overpriced and mediocre. Even the popular and highly touted restaurants here often suffer from inconsistency and indifferent service. Note: Be especially on the lookout for overcharging, either in the form of phantom charges or inflated prices.
In addition to hotel restaurants and official state-run tourist restaurants, the principal dining option in Cuba is the paladar. Like casas particulares, paladares are private homes that have been granted permission to serve foreign tourists. Paladares are small, with a seating limit of just 12, and subject to various limitations (although you will find in Havana that a few of the popular choices clearly do not adhere to the rules and are still operational). They cannot serve shrimp or lobster for instance, and cannot accept credit cards. They are also heavily taxed by the state. Note: In September 2010, the government announced plans that would permit paladares to accommodate up to 20 seats and to serve beef and shellfish; at press time, however, these proposals had yet to become a reality. However, Cubans are a creative lot and you will find paladares that have figured ways around many of these limitations. Paladares tend to open and close, move, or change their name or menu with great frequency. They also often run out of menu items, or simply can't find the raw materials to begin the day with. However, there are some dependable and long-standing paladares. In general, you should tip between 10% and 15%, keeping in mind that this represents a huge amount of hard currency for most Cubans. Some state restaurants add a 10% service charge to bills; this will not go to the waitstaff. Also, if you show up at a paladar on the recommendation of a taxi driver or jinetero, you can expect to pay a commission of between CUC$3 and CUC$5, which is often added to your bill after being paid to the driver or jinetero by the paladar.
Given the unique economic and social conditions of Cuba, there is little street food to speak of, aside from a few odd pizza and ice-cream vendors. Cuban street pizza has heavy dough, with a molten mess of sauce and gooey cheese topping, served as small individual discs on wax paper. Peanuts (mani) sold in newspaper cones and a peanut-and-toffee bar are also popular.
With a recent influx of foreign capital and a move toward modernization, fast-food chains have begun popping up around Cuba. The most prominent of these is El Rápido, which has numerous outlets serving fried chicken, burgers, hot dogs, microwave pizzas, and other fast-food staples. Another chain worth mentioning is Pizza Nova, which has several outlets in Havana and in various provincial cities. This chain specializes in thin-crust pizza and good pastas.
Cuban, or criolla, cuisine is a mix of European (predominantly Spanish) and Afro-Caribbean influences. The staples of the cuisine include roasted and fried pork, beef, and chicken, usually accompanied by rice, beans, plantains, and yucca. Oddly, Cubans do not eat large amounts of seafood, although fish and lobster dishes are on the menu at most tourist restaurants. In general, Cubans do not use aggressive amounts of spice or hot peppers, although onions, garlic, and, to a much lesser extent, cumin are used fairly liberally.
With the exception of breakfast, most meals are accompanied by some combination of white rice and beans. Arroz moro, or moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), is the common name for black beans mixed with white rice. Congrí is a similar dish of red beans and white rice already mixed. Sometimes the rice and beans are served separately.
The national dish -- which, unfortunately, you won't often find on restaurant menus, but it's worth sampling if you do -- is ajiaco, a chunky meat and vegetable stew. Ajiaco comes from the Taíno word aji for chile pepper, although the dish is seldom prepared very spicy. You're much more likely to find ropa vieja (literally, "old clothes"), a sauté of shredded beef, onions, and peppers; or picadillo, a similar concoction made with ground beef and sometimes featuring olives and raisins in the mix.
If you're looking for a light snack, try a bocadito, literally a "little bite," which is what they call a simple sandwich, usually made of ham and/or cheese.
Aside from the excellent Coppelia ice creams, you'll generally find rather slim pickings for dessert. Flan is popular, but seldom outstanding. I feel similarly about natilla, a simple sweet pudding that usually comes in either chocolate or coconut flavors. Many dessert menus will feature some sort of sweet marmalade, usually guayaba, papaya, or coconut, accompanied by cheese. Unfortunately, the cheeses are generally bland and nondescript.
La Bomba -- If you want to order papaya, remember to call it fruta bomba. In Cuba, the word papaya is almost always used as pejorative slang referring to a woman's most private part.
Wetting Your Whistle
Most Cubans simply drink water or any number of popular soft drinks, including Sprite and Coca-Cola, whose locally produced equivalents are called Cachito and Tu Cola, respectively. While many hotels and restaurants serve freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast, you'll have a harder time finding other fresh fruit juices than you'd expect in the Caribbean tropics unless you are staying in a casa particular. One of the more interesting nonalcoholic drinks is guarapo, the sweet juice of freshly pressed sugar cane.
Cubans also drink plenty of coffee, and they like to brew it strong. Order café espresso for a straight shot, or café con leche if you'd like it mixed with warm milk. Ask for café americano if you want a milder brew.
Cuba produces a small handful of pretty good lager beers. Cristal, Bucanero, and Mayabe are the most popular. If you want something slightly darker and stronger, try a Bucanero dark. Cuba does produce excellent rums. Most visitors soon have their fill of mojitos (light rum with lime juice, fresh mint, sugar, and club soda) and daiquiris. Another popular cocktail is the cuba libre ("Free Cuba"), which is simply a rum and Coke with lime.
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